This is an interesting moment, and the stakes are high. Most of the main-stream media have taken it upon themselves to condemn the Public Theatre’s Julius Caesar for presenting Julius Caesar as Donald Trump. (He’s assassinated.) Two very large corporations have stopped supporting the Public Theatre because of it, and Donald Trump, Jr., the President’s son, has tweeted, “I wonder how much of this ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?” Fox News and the rest of the right wing weighed in.
As a consequence, the Times tells us, Delta Air Lines, a corporate backer of the Public, pulled its support for the theatre. It issued a statement reading, “No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ . . . does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values.”
The New York City’s commissioner of cultural affairs, Tom Finkelpearl, said afterward, “Threatening funding for a group based on an artistic decision amounts to censorship…We don’t interfere with the content created by nonprofits that receive public support — period.”
The New York Times, which has sponsored Shakespeare in the Park for 20 years, also continues to back the program. “As an institution that believes in free speech for the arts as well as the media,” The Times said in its statement, “we support the right of the Public Theater to stage the production as they choose.”
Aside from the conservative/liberal conflict floating around under this staging, I’d like to make a few comments. Donald Trump, Jr., seems to think there is “art” and there is politics and that if art is political then it is not art. This is not so. All art is in some way political. Even such an abstract art as Joseph Albers’ squares argues against the art that had preceded him and is therefore political. Politics has to do with settling conflict among humans. Everything we do or make is political. And the reason there is no end to the art we create is that we never get to the point where the conflict among humans is resolved. Art and politics are resolved out of each other.
Finkelpearl’s belief that control of public funding amounts to censorship is also correct. There would be no end of the public censorship of production of plays produced by the Public Theatre in the Delacorte, which is situated on public property, if such a standard were adhered to. Finally the publication of great books—Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, Tom Jones, various books by Faulkner, Howl—has been fought over and over during the last century, and for most of us has now been settled. The government must stay away from censoring books. It doesn’t do it well, it has no expertise in the field, it has no business telling the citizens how to think and feel, according to the First Amendment, and the result is Soviet or Fascist art. Not. Good. Art.
Delta Air Lines thinks that the graphic staging of this production of Julius Caesar doesn’t reflect the values of Delta Airlines. Delta, here, gives more importance to its values—thinks they are more important—than I do. The principal value of any corporation in a capitalist economy is greed. What art does very well is show us what greed is, what it does to people, how it corrupts us, what we can put in its place. What government does very well is control corporations. The only thing a corporation can do is greedily accumulate money.
I needn’t defend the Public Company’s production of Julius Caesar. The New York Times has done that and has shown that there have been others. Vanity Fair, CNN, The New Yorker, and Nicholas Grossman on the Apple website. It is a fascinating collection of short essays on politics, art, and a civilized and humane society. What I came away with was how inadequate is any argument against a work of art which says that work is too political or is political in the wrong way, or is simply political. The very fact that the same play—Julius Caesar—which so offended Fox News and Donald Trump, Jr., was also produced, without controversy, in 2012 with an African-American actor playing the title character indicates the absurdity of this whole issue. Obviously we can learn from both productions. Or different audiences can learn much from either production.
Piss Christ, a sculpture by Andres Serano in 1987, was a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass container of Serano’s piss. This led to a huge civic conflagration because the photograph was said to insult the museumgoer’s religion. And, on July 30, 1990, the Institute for Contemporary Art hosted a show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs entitled, The Perfect Moment. I had moved to Boston when this occurred and was surprised by the crowds on Boylston Street around the ICA. The show wasn’t shut down, and the city protected its right to open and show the photographs, which indicated to me that I had chosen the right place to live, but it was a messy time with the lines and the crowds. People who had never been to the Institute come to see what all the fuss was about. There is much to be said about that time, but I remember particularly my astonishment that many people felt they had a right to close a gallery show because they didn’t like what was being shown. People who didn’t like a show felt they had a right to prevent me from seeing it.
I began to understand the impulse behind the drive to shut down showings of Piss Christ, and prevent publications of Ulysses and Howl, and now, this latest version of Julius Caesar. We don’t want to see it, and we don’t want anyone else to see it either. That’s not right. We are a free people. Resist.