Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Good Job, Bank of America

I've no doubt that many of you became aware over the weekend of a pretty bizarre form of "art" taking place in New York, not that the location shouldn't have explained everything.

A group that has done "Shakespeare in the Park", for quite a long time, produced some kind of version of Julius Caesar -- admittedly, I knew it was a Caesary setting but I didn't know the plot they actually used.  Regardless, the Caesar character was supposed to be President Trump, and there was not a lot of doubt about that, clear through to the gory assassination scene.

This became a rather prominent deal when it was publicized beyond New York, and we in the hinterlands discovered that this was being sponsored not only by the National Endowment for the Arts (whose taxpayer funding is in serious jeopardy) but by several fairly prominent businesses, among them the New York Times, Delta Airlines and Bank of America.

I do not know for sure (or "for unsure") what kind of outcry went out to the aforementioned companies as soon as this theatrical sponsorship was made public (thank you, Fox News), but it must have been pretty extensive.  Obviously I don't get the New York Times, and I certainly don't subscribe to its online services, although I do use the type font named after them.  So I didn't have to appeal to them.  Well, it's mutual; they don't appeal to me either.

I no longer fly, so Delta was not a concern.  But I do business with several banks, as most people do between mortgages, auto and other loans, etc. and, since there are only a few large banks left after all the mergers, it should not be a surprise that one of those is Bank of America.

So over the weekend, I sent them a tweet to the effect that they could pull their support for Shakespeare in the Park -- prominently -- or I could pull my (albeit meager) business from them.  Now, that wasn't going to scare anyone at Bank of America, for sure.  But I thought that perhaps my tweet would add to enough other communications that it might finally give them a strong message.

I'm glad to say that at least something, whether the communications, the tweets, whatever people sent, whatever Bank of America saw in watching the TV reports, maybe even their own ethical compass, that pushed them over the edge to pull their support.  Because they did.

I did give this some thought.  As a former "artist", I do recognize the rights of performers to create, produce and perform what they want, under the concept of artistic freedom.  Censorship is a slippery slope, and I recognize that as well.  It's pretty tough to practice censorship without that slope coming into play.

But I also have a lot of problem with people who think that sponsors, especially taxpayers, should just sit back and let certain theatrical offenses take place on their nickel.  The argument isn't that sponsorship shouldn't tell an artist what he "can and cannot do" -- but it is, at least, about what they cannot do.

It's a fine difference, but it is real.  If I'm donating to a theater company, it is not to say "I'm giving you money, you must produce just this and this."  But I have my limits, and depicting the murder of a sitting, living president happens to cross that limit.  Do that, and I'm not donating.  I don't tell MIT whom to hire as professors, but if they keep contemptible fools like Jonathan Gruber on their faculty, I also don't have to donate to my alma mater.

Every sponsor has the right to have limits, whether an individual, a corporation or the unwitting taxpayer.  Maybe especially the unwitting taxpayer, because that money is seized -- it is not a constitutionally-mandated role of the Federal government, and to take money from citizens to give to an arts entity puts logical constraints on its use.  That's one reason the National Endowment for the Arts is in some serious funding trouble now.

The thing is, there is a history over 300-400 years or so of sponsorship of the arts and patronage of them.  This is not new.  What is new is actually the separation of the views of the patron from those of the artist.  When Mozart's patrons gave him money, it was to "write a symphony."  They didn't tell him what key to do it in (we hope), but they did expect a symphony and not a theatrical depiction of a sword fight using oboes as weapons.  There was a constraint, you see.

Somewhere over time, the arts community has started coming across as if it is the obligation of the sponsors to give them money, and they can do whatever they want.  That part I disagree with vociferously.  You see, what is different now is that the "sponsors" of today don't even know they're giving money.

I didn't know that Bank of America was taking some of what they earned on my deposits and putting it into an arts company, although I wasn't surprised.  But if I don't like that, I can put my money in, or get my mortgage from, another bank (just like people could fly a different airline from Delta).  I told them that I would, if they didn't pull their funding, and apparently lots of people did and they did pull the funding.  That's not censorship.  That's stewardship.

Obviously that applies triple to the Federal government, precisely because they're dealing with involuntary (seized) contributions.  Whatever the Obama people thought, and all the administrations prior, it is not censorship to decide that money seized from citizens should not be used on arts expressions that are offensive to many of the citizens forced to contribute to it -- and the Trump Administration clearly shares my view.

Good for Bank of America for taking the right step and doing so promptly.

Copyright 2017 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There's a new post from Bob at www.uberthoughtsUSA.com at 10am Eastern time, every weekday, giving new meaning to "prolific essayist."  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at bsutton@alum.mit.edu or on Twitter at @rmosutton.

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