Art on the (Supply) Side: Neoliberalism and Public Funding for the Arts

Posted in 2010 Journal


The paper analyzes recent constructions of American public policy regarding funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Arthur MacEwan’s study of neoliberalism functions as a framework for understanding broad historical shifts in the perceived role of the State in funding the Arts on a national scale, while the primary investigation presents the suppression of Body Count’s song, Cop Killer, as a case through which to assess the viability of the neoliberal rationale for federal arts funding. The paper contends that the neoliberal approach to public arts has lead to funding rationales that construct art as a commodity subordinate to the principles of supply and demand, while limiting, if not denying, the constitutive role of art as political speech in the life of a democracy. Further, the case study suggests that Keynesian and post-Keynesian economic models apply more cohesively than the neoliberal model as a bona fide rationale for federal arts funding, where active federal arts policy is vital both in the creation and maintenance of a stable climate for the production of capital and in the proper functioning of a representative mode of government.

Standing on the floor of the Senate on May 31st, 1989, Senator Slade Gorton articulated a plan for federal divestment from the arts, urging, “The State must confine itself to its own interests, and art must be free. Neither subsidy nor censure are appropriate, for the state, with its unrivalled power, must not take sides in purely symbolic disputes” (Bolton 35). The context of these remarks—the 1989-90 congressional reauthorization hearings for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)—reflect a crucial turning point in the history of the arts, during which the State adopted a fiscally conservative, neoliberal funding rationale for public arts expenditures.

As this paper will discuss, this new approach to public funding for the arts promotes a view of art as a commodity subject solely to operations of supply and demand in the marketplace, while limiting, if not denying, the constitutive role of the arts as political speech in the life of a democracy. Further, the ensuing case study demonstrates that the Keynesian and post-Keynesian economic models apply more cohesively than the neoliberal model as a bona fide rationale for federal arts funding, where arts policy is vital both in the creation and maintenance of a stable climate for the production of capital and to the proper functioning of a representative government.

In “Neoliberalism and Democracy”, Arthur MacEwan describes neoliberalism both as an ideology that tends to transform economic life toward conditions characterized by market domination, and, as an agenda for “running society as an adjunct to the market” (172). At its core, this ideology advocates a minimal role for the State and a maximal role for markets in organizing economic life. It is this philosophical bias against State involvement that appears throughout the 1989-90 Senate debates over the reauthorization of funds for NEA. Even as Senator Gorton argues for the separation of art and State, Senators Helms and D’Amato work to re-frame America’s view of public arts as a commodity. While they briefly acknowledge an artist’s right to speak, Helms and D’Amato echo Gorton, arguing that the government should have no fiscal role in fostering or promoting such speech, especially where it reflects the viewpoints of a social minority. 1 In response to Andres Serrano’s artwork, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato said, “How dare you spend taxpayers’ money on this trash?” (Bolton 28). Across the aisle Jesse Helms sounds the same note: “Anybody who would do such a despicable thing—and get $15,000 in tax money for it—well it tells you something about the state of this Government and the way it spends the money taken from the taxpayer” (31).

The notion that artistic speech could be treated wholly as a commodity and that a petulant federal government might vacate its perceived position as facilitator represents a drastic shift from all prior expressions of federal arts policy in America. The Arts and Humanities Act, which established the NEA in 1965, states, “it is necessary and appropriate for the federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging to freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent” (20 USC 951 [5]). In the charter, the position of the State is clearly not that of buyer, but facilitator. Notions of ownership and commodity are far removed where public-minded art is equated with intellectual expression and thought. In 1965—the same year that the Watts Riots brought two vastly divergent standards of American life and culture into stark relief—the Johnson Administration perceived the State’s interests a National Endowment as tantamount to the State’s interest in promoting conditions material to a flourishing culture. Twenty years later, President Reagan underscored this notion, stating, “No one realize[s] the importance of freedom more than the artist . . . [Artists] express ideas that are sometimes unpopular. In an atmosphere of liberty, artists and patrons are free to think the unthinkable and create the audacious” (Weyergraf-Serra and Buskirk 155).

Faced with language in the charter of the NEA and in Republican party rhetoric that acknowledges a fundamental relationship between art and speech, that construes art as a common property and a public good, and that in turn places responsibility for the well-being of the arts pro-actively in the hands of the State neoliberal proponents of art-as-commodity find it necessary to argue that their shift in point of view could not and would not constitute an avenue of censorship or in any way deter citizens from their right of free speech. In an article published in USA Today, Jesse Helms asserts, “Artists who seek to shock or offend the public can still do so— but at their own expense. I reiterate for the purpose of emphasis that censorship is not involved” (Bolton 101). Likewise Senator Gorton, when confronted with the possibility that his platform of non-action might unintentionally be used to promote censorship, flatly demurs, stating, “The ill-considered reasoning is that if the government does not nurture people like Mr. Serrano it is therefore oppressing them [sic]. This view, I submit, is a self-serving belief in a political principle that does not exist; namely that the State owes all things to all people” (36). Helms and Gorton rather try to make a semantic distinction between censorship, which they disavow, and the perceived ‘fair and free’ regulatory function of the neoliberal market model. Indeed, allowing art-as-expression to exist according to its utility and commercial viability in Senator Helm’s words, “on its own dime, is completely consistent with neoliberal faith in supply and demand, Chicago School monetarism, and self-regulating power of national economies wherein labor and capital earn only what they are worth. Indeed, the neoliberal stance purports to liberate expression from the partisan feuds and Congressional politics and free public arts from the control of aristocratic niches, while returning power to the people as consumer/buyers.

Nonetheless, major questions remain. Recently writers such as Thomas Palley and Arthur MacEwan suggest neoliberalism as triumph of rhetoric over reality, in which mythic or ‘magical’ free-market thinking undermines the democratic checks on federalist representative government installed to safeguard the populace from the viral and factious interests capital. This assertion is of particular import for federal arts policy, where the NEA charter holds the state responsible for ‘facilitating material conditions’ over and above the natural regulatory function of supply/demand in the marketplace. These concerns notwithstanding, however, neoliberal ideology has largely become the dominant model of public arts policy in America. Since the early ’90s, subsequent to the aforementioned Senate debates, the NEA has seen the loss of individual artist grants and decades of low-level federal arts spending. As Karen Beach reports in the Georgetown Public Policy Review Online, “of the annual funding the federal government directs toward the arts—currently only two percent of total funding of the arts in America—the contribution of the NEA makes up only one percent”. Meanwhile Scott Martelle of the Los Angeles Times puts the total figure at around $130 million dollars per year with more than 40% reserved for block grants to states, which in turn stipulates that grantees must receive matching corporate funding. Further proponents of state supported arts projects have largely misapprehended the consequences of the changing terms of the debate. In two recent studies, Gregory B. Lewis concludes that Republican efforts to re-frame public spending on the arts as moral policy failed; and yet he does not explore the possibility that the Republican party effectively achieved its ends by re-framing art as a commodity and delegating to the arena of the marketplace social responsibilities that formerly belonged to the State.

Cop-Killer: A Test Case for Speech in the Free Market

Coincidentally, virtually the same moment Congress was debating the consequences of its move to “supply side culture”, a tailor-made test case was unfolding. In 1991, Tracy Marrow, an African-American recording artist with the stage name “Ice-T” wrote and began to perform a song called “Cop Killer”. At the time of the song’s release Marrow enjoyed an international reputation principally because of his construction of rap as political speech. 2

In their article, “Taking It to the Streets”, Michael Leonard and Paul Rogers of the London newspaper The Independent cite Marrow among a select list of African-American musical artists who “for a long time have been putting out records pointing up police brutality, urban deprivation and the simmering anger of the underclass”. In the same article, the authors also quoted James Bernard, senior editor of The Source who attested that rappers such as Marrow, whether or not they claimed to be, were “perceived as community leaders”— a view that Leonard and Rodgers argue evolved in part due to a widespread sense throughout the African-American community that these musicians were “speaking truth” others would not dare, or could not manage to voice effectively.

As a part of Marrow’s political approach to music, “Cop Killer” communicates thoughts and ideas about violence perpetrated by and against police officers. Through lyrics that refer to Daryl Gates, then chief of the Los Angeles police department as well as to Rodney King, an African-American brutally beaten by LAPD officers, Marrow creates what he describes in his memoir, The Ice Opinion, as “a protest record” (169). Since Marrow received no government assistance in the production, distribution, or commercial release of the song, “Cop Killer” appears to be an ideal test case for the neoliberal approach to speech-as-commodity in the marketplace.

For more than a year after its initial composition, the song existed only in live performance as it underwent refinements. Despite its highly charged political nature, “Cop Killer” seemed to experience no chill in the limited marketplace of live concert performance. Here is Marrow’s account for the song’s beginnings.

Body Count toured with Lollapalooza in the summer of ’91. In twenty-one cities, 430,000 predominantly white kids waved their fists in the air and screamed “Cop Killer” along with us. Nothing happened. In the winter of 1991-1992 Body Count headlined its own tour. We hit seventy cities, performed “Cop Killer” to wild fans at about eighty shows. Nothing happened [. . .] my fans didn’t consider Body Count a controversial record. They listened to “Cop Killer” and smiled and understood it. (169)

In response to the song’s popularity, in March of 1992, Warner Bros Records, a division of Time Warner Corporation, released Marrow’s recording of “Cop Killer” nation-wide in various formats at usual prices. During its first two months as a commercial object, the record enjoyed vigorous sales. Joel Whitburn, writing for Record Research, Inc., reports that the record debuted at number twenty-six on the Billboard charts and spent twenty weeks in Billboard’s Top 200. Further Barry Shank, at George Mason’ University’s Center for History and New Media notes that within two months of its release, the song had sold well over 200,000 copies. Consequently, the initial circumstances surrounding the song’s release seem to affirm Senator Gorton’s assertion that art-as-speech is still viable in the marketplace.

Shortly after “Cop Killer” went national, however, an all-white jury in Simi Valley acquitted the four LAPD officers in the Rodney King case of all charges, including the charge of police brutality. Riots broke out in South Central Los Angeles. In the uneasy aftermath of this civil unrest, Marrow’s song “Cop Killer” began to draw strong criticism from police associations that interpreted its lyrics to contain “the underlying message of hate directed at society with the theme of killing police officers” (Oeser A17). Having reached a boiling point as political speech in the marketplace, the song functions as a test for the first part of the Gorton-Helms policy, which is whether or not the marketplace can reliably protect and facilitate the aspects of Marrow’s artwork that represent a public value as political speech.

Officer Dennis Martin, then-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, argued for the song’s suppression. In his essay, “The Music of Murder” Martin describes a shooting incident in which black youths attack white police officers while allegedly under the influence of rap music. Then, speaking specifically of Marrow’s “Cop Killer” Martin blames this music for an increase in racial tensions, and claims that it had been the cause of several shooting incidents. Ultimately Martin advocates suppression by any means possible, including the aggressive use of the court system as an economic weapon against Time-Warner, at one point stating, “One can only hope that Time-Warner will tire of the expense of defending state court actions.”

As the controversy deepened Michael Oeser of The Houston Chronicle reported that the Houston Police Officers Association had asked their city council not to renew Warner Cable’s contract unless its parent company, Time-Warner, “ban[ned] the distribution of “Cop Killer” and [made] a public apology to all police officers throughout the United States” (A17). In the same article, Oeser also notes that the mayor of Houston, Bob Lanier, who had judged the song “reprehensible” and stated his opinion that “the song should never have been written,” also affirmed an intention to “speak to the Warner people,” apparently indicating an effort to use his political influence to enforce a personal aesthetic opinion of the song. Shortly thereafter, the political speech of those opposed to the song crossed the line of the law. On two different occasions, bombs were sent to Warner Bros offices in connection with the controversy. In addition, then-president of Warner Bros, Lenny Waronker, received phone calls threatening the lives of his children if he did not stop promoting, selling, and distributing the records of Marrow’s band, Body Count (Siegmund 173-4).

Two months after the controversy began, the police-led campaign of moral panic, fear-mongering, and physical intimidation succeeded. Warner Bros withdrew the track “Cop Killer” from circulation. The following year, Mr. Marrow and Warner Bros decided not to renew their contractual working relationship, leaving others to speculate whether or not the incident would have any bearing on Time-Warner’s future willingness to sell politically charged music made by minority artists. Although Marrow expresses no ill will toward his former publisher, he observes that “they [could] not be in the business of black anger while being in the business of black control” (183). With such a short shelf life in the face of vigorous consumer demand, it might be tempting to conclude that the marketplace cannot function as a replacement for the State in its role both to create and sustain a climate encouraging to freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry; and to facilitate material conditions necessary to the release of creative talent. However, therein lies the essence of Gorton and Helms’ two key claims in favor of the efficacy of the neoliberal marketplace: first, that it yields a truly democratic action; and second that its fluctuations constitute only necessary and beneficial regulation, not a harmful censorship.

The Will of the People

Certainly, advocates for the suppression of “Cop Killer” laid claim to a majority of public opinion. An unattributed editorial in The Houston Chronicle announces: “We support Houston police officers, and the vast majority of ordinary citizens who no doubt agree with them, in making their objections to Ice-T and “Cop Killer” known” (Editorial A32). In “Fears of the White Unconscious” Barry Shank reports that numerous elected officials spoke in their representative capacities on behalf of voters to condemn the record and its distributor—not the least of whom was President George Bush, who publicly denounced “any record company that would release such a product”. 3 In the face of these high profile interpretations of ‘public’ opinion, Officer Martin, through his own statistical data, indicates that Warner Bros had distributed 500,000 copies of the record containing “Cop Killer”. This number, if accurate, would seem to suggest a broad perception of public support as defined by Warner Bros’ analysis of consumer demand. Meanwhile, as noted, Billboard consumer sales figures were cresting well over 200,000. By contrast, Stephanie Asin at The Houston Chronicle reports that 25 Warner Cable customers cancelled their service in response to “Cop Killer” (A21). With the dollar then as neutral indicator, statistics reveals a much larger group of citizens willing to spend money to hear the expression as compared to those willing to save money to cut off the offensive speech. Even using actual sales instead of anticipated sales data, according to the math of the marketplace, the general public appeared to ‘vote with their dollars’ at an approval rate of 10,000 to 1 in favor of “Cop Killer.”

In considering whether the suppression of the song in the marketplace then constitutes a truly democratic action, it should be noted that an historic component of the rhetoric of moral stewardship is the claim of government representatives to speak for a majority of community members. Yet, rarely does the math of the moral majority add up. 4 Looking back on the “Cop Killer” outcry, Jon Pareles of the New York Times turns up leaders of both major U.S. political parties who exploit the media frenzy to draw attention to unrelated aspects of their own career aspirations. Pareles’ Times article notes Dan Quayle’s attack on “Cop Killer” and Bill Clinton’s remarks against Sista Soulja as prominent examples of exploitative spin in rap controversies (A20). Meanwhile, Barry Shanks’ research points to then-Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and Congressional-hopeful Joan Milke Flores, both leaders of the outcry against “Cop Killer” who themselves attempt to lift the situation from its original context in order to exploit a climate of fear to their own political advantage. Thus, if democratic community sentiments can be measured in terms of marketplace action, then what the test case yields is not the operation of free markets according to the will of the people, but rather exactly the kind of shadow regulation MacEwan attributes to the neoliberal market model. “Instead of regulation whereby government limits the operation of markets,” MacEwan writes, “neoliberalism imposes regulation that assures the separation of markets from social control” (173). Further he argues that neoliberal political actors do this while maintaining a rhetorical thrust that opposes almost all forms of state regulation and economic activity, such that neoliberal ideology actually pulls community members further away from agency by distancing their representatives in government from the responsibility and authority for responsive actions.

Even if the suppression of “Cop Killer” cannot be termed democratic, neoliberal market theory still allows that such regulation might be justified because it is either necessary or beneficial. As to whether the suppression of “Cop Killer” constitutes a social necessity, Officer Martin and his adherents rely on a direct calculation of cause and effect between Marrow’s song and acts of violence. In “Music of Murder” Martin notes that “while on patrol in July 1992, two Las Vegas police officers were ambushed and shot by four juvenile delinquents who boasted that Ice-T’s ‘Cop Killer’ gave them a sense of duty and purpose, to get even with ‘a f-king pig’. The juveniles continued to sing its lyrics when apprehended”. Despite casting broad aspersions, this is the scope of Martin’s evidence for a causal relationship between “Cop Killer” and violent action. Instead of providing factual data, Officer Martin invokes his own de facto cultural analysis linking Marrow’s song to myriad musical traditions and aesthetic movements throughout history, which Martin then asserts “did not reflect the values of society but glamorized rebelliousness and adolescent sexuality.”

In response to Martin’s claims, sociologists Mark Hamm and Jeff Ferrell point out that the cultural interpretations upon which Officer Martin rests his argument are simply misstatements and prejudice, not any form of a critically acknowledged history. In “Rap, Cops and Crime” the authors address Martin’s work specifically as ‘a truncated distortion of rap’s gestation that largely misses the music’s social and cultural meanings.” In the end, they concluded that Martin has misunderstood both the aesthetics and the politics of rap. Even so, it would seem that they did not pursue Martin’s argument far enough on the grounds of necessity. Not only had his historical and cultural analysis been exposed as specious and hysterical (by many authors, certainly not limited to Hamm and Ferrell) but efforts to establish causality between music and murder—or artwork and violent response in general—had also consistently failed both legal and scientific scrutiny.

A number of court cases have been brought against musicians and record labels alleging causality for murders or suicides believed committed as a direct result of exposure to a musical idea. Previously Ozzy Osbourne and his record label CBS had been sued on several occasions over deaths allegedly related to his song “Suicide Solution”—although this is by no means the first or only case of this nature. In all the cases, however, the courts find the murderer responsible and not the musical speech, the composers, or the music industry. In 1988, in McCollum et. al. v. CBS, Inc., et. al.—the case against Osbourne—Justice Cole states the majority opinion. “[M]usical lyrics and poetry cannot be construed to contain the requisite ‘call to action’ for the elementary reason they simply are not intended to be and should not be read literally […] Reasonable persons understand musical lyrics and poetic conventions as the figurative expressions which they are.” 5

Similarly, scientific researchers have had a great deal of difficulty establishing causal relationships between a single expression and a single action. 6 By 1986, most had given up looking for such simplistic linkages. In their article “Moving Beyond Cause and Effect” Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer conclude, despite their self-admitted feminist bias, that “arguments that pornography ‘causes’ violent acts are, indeed, inadequate” (359). In the process, the authors call for other social scientists to re-focus their efforts on the cultural context surrounding the expressions, as they argue this does far more to create individual interpretations than the artwork itself (365). Consequently, for social science, study progresses away from individual artworks toward larger social forces in search of a more complex understanding of causality.

Notably Henry Louis Gates, Jr., expounds African-American arts discourse as a form of coded communication wherein codification serves in part to protect minority speech from the threat of majority reprisal. Seen in this light, the innovations of new linguistic and musical forms also play a crucial role in preserving access for minority speech to the public forum. Yet ironically, this innovation also plays a role in the misunderstanding and subsequent controversies of depiction. With respect to Marrow’s core-audience members, those who relate to his lyrics on a personal level, the symbolic expressions articulated by the raps actually provide a means to avoid the violence and anger endemic to a life extreme poverty and deprivation within the contrasting context of the world’s wealthiest nation. In Marrow’s words, “the misinterpretation of rap comes from people who have no insight into ghetto mentality and attitude [. . .] we get around a lot of fights and aggression by talking” (103). Unfortunately, many cultural outsiders initially fail to perceive that Marrow’s work is a cathartic experience for some listeners, just as it was cultural exchange for those for whom the interpretive context of the ghetto was neither intuitive nor innate. 7

Speech as Nonexcludable and Nonrival

The neoliberal market rationale also allows the possibility that the suppression of “Cop Killer”, though neither the product of majority will or necessity, might nonetheless be justified on the grounds of some greater social benefit. However, as Shauna Saunders notes in “The Case for the National Endowment for the Arts”, the basis of any “economic case for the public funding of the arts rests on the claim that the arts are a ‘public good,’” which in turn are defined as those that are “to some degree nonexcludable and nonrival” (593). In other words, the arts constitute systemic social benefits that extend beyond the material transaction and even beyond the direct ‘consumers’ to the society.

Even here though, the extent of the benefits has been understood too narrowly. Historically, in policy justifications that focus on economic rationales for public expenditure, these goods have been perceived in terms of enhancement to national prestige, heritage preservation and education; and in terms of their counter-balancing spiritual effects on the individuals in affluent capitalist society. As Saunders makes plain, presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were all greatly swayed by the arts policy rationales of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the Rockefeller brothers, who themselves were deeply invested in the framing of public funding of the arts as a moral concern. Yet, for Schlesinger and the Rockefellers, the arts represent the development of a national “soul”, and as such, they offer a utilitarian product with which to combat the negative images of American capitalism prevalent in the Cold War. Their advocacy of State sponsored arts, stems from the notion that the arts offer a vital outlet for minority speech, and in so doing they push against the negative tendencies of the capitalist marketplace to move, as described by MacEwan and Pally, toward anti-democratic expressions of power. 8 For the architects of the NEA then, the essence of American values are not specifically religious but democratic in the sense that the ultimate moral value is our national willingness to embrace speech as a human right and accept the obligation to foster and maintain a safe climate for cultural exchange, political dissent, and public debate.

Consequently, Marrow’s work embraces this notion where it encourages audiences to find in new contexts and new interpretations and new solutions to age-old inter-cultural social concerns. “I am not a separatist,” he explains. “I don’t believe in just getting black people to come together [. . .] I want everybody to see their opportunities” (187). As a vocalist and a writer, Marrow then seeks to expose American audiences to the voice of an African-American who has experienced the atrocities of American inner-city ghetto life first-hand and survived. In the character of Ice-T he attempts to represent (in a symbolic, constructive context) the anger of those who have also experienced such pain, but who themselves have no voice. Integral to this aspect of Marrow’s artistic speech is his desire to find constructive ways to confront ordinary Americans with the larger truths of American life. As one such example, Marrow notes that between 1986 and 1994 “47,000 accusations of police brutality were filed with the U.S. Justice Department and only 60 of the attackers were prosecuted” (7). Marrow’s record “Cop Killer” points out this issue. In order to be effective as socially beneficial political speech, however, Marrow knew he had to present that information in a way that would reach beyond the African-American community to audiences that were yet unaware such a truth existed.

In that regard, Marrow’s band Body Count presents a hybrid style of music that consciously fuses punk rock and rap traditions, in order to express its political message to wider audiences. Although both rock and rap have been widely noted as genres that blend art and entertainment with political speech, in the case of “Cop Killer” the act of fusion itself is also an integral part of the speech act because in crossing genre boundaries he also crossed racial boundaries. With Body Count, Marrow’s new form established a common ground between two racially segregated under classes through musical genres typically associated with economic and social disenfranchisement. In fact, Marrow’s decision to fuse rock’n’roll and rap forms to bring African-American urban experiences to white audiences came out of several years of musical experimentation and innovation. Prior to conceiving the form of punk-rap fusion that characterized “Cop Killer” Marrow had proven innovative in another genre, so-called ‘gangsta’ rap— a form of music that focused on the unabated harshness of ghetto life (163). “I call[ed] it reality-based rap because I used real situations and brought them onto the records” (97). As consequence of the profanity and violence Marrow employed to convey these realities, his 1987 release Rhyme Pays was the first record ever given a warning label by the music industry and the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) (163). After being labeled dangerous by the PMRC, Marrow perceived himself the victim of censorship. He saw the PMRC as enforcing a policy of racial segregation in the marketplace by denying what Marrow called “the free exchange of information” (98). From Marrow’s perspective, the PMRC wished to deny the reality and truth of ghetto life and to label it as too harsh and therefore unsalable to youth culture, coincidentally his primary audience. Within that move then lurked all the sinister aspects of perpetuation and denial and racial stereotyping that Marrow’s work sought to overthrow.

Despite the ambitious nature of his goals, Marrow nonetheless achieved a great deal of success building new communities through cross cultural information exchange. Before long, The Washington Post reporters Carla Hall and Richard Harrington revealed with some surprise that significant population of concert-goers at Body Count shows were in fact white (“Ice-T Drops ‘Cop Killer’” 29 July 1992, A1). In the same article, the authors note that Marrow himself, in his attempts to quell police fears, presented a video of his concert performances. Addressing assertions of causality between his music and African-American violence he remarked: “Here’s the problem,” pointing out the overwhelmingly white audience raising hands and singing along. “Aint no black hands”. Despite his intention to undermine notions of causality, Marrow also points toward substantial social benefit, where inter-cultural exchange could be shown in place of inter-cultural violence.

Meanwhile another Post writer, Eve Zibart, also commented on the popularity of so-called ‘rap’ music among wealthy, white, suburban youth. Zibart accounted for this new data in “Defending Rap Rights” by concluding that the youths were enacting a “perverse parody of their parents upward mobility” (3 July 1992, N12). Of course, it is also possible that white fans also reacted to the authenticity of the message, or that they identified with the speaker’s frustration over ongoing social hypocrisies, loudly underscored in the Rodney King verdict. In either case, the positive association of a wealthy, white population with a message of black, urban disenfranchisement presents compelling, nationally reported evidence taking place in the moment in support of the musical environment Marrow created as part of a peaceful, political, cross-cultural dialogue; and of Mr. Marrow’s speech in “Cop Killer” as hugely beneficial in promoting greater social awareness within the participatory, safe, and responsible symbolic context of art. Furthermore, the evidence of a new inter-racial community revealed in the concert footage of “Cop Killer” compliments the argument for overriding social benefit in suggesting once again that statistically demonstrable positive associations with Marrow’s music far exceeded negative ones.

The First Amendment & the Marketplace

Nevertheless, the final claim of the neoliberal position is that, no matter what else happens, the actions of the marketplace are not akin to censorship. In this regard, there seems to be a unilateral perception among supporters and detractors of “Cop Killer” that the market did not abridge Marrow’s First Amendment rights. Despite that Eve Zibart, in her reporting on “Cop Killer”, characterized the unethical tactics of Martin and the HPOA as “economic extortion” (N12), there is still no claim of censorship. Just as Senator Gorton, speaking of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” admits, “there’s no question [Serrano] has the right” to display his picture (Bolton 34); so says The Houston Chronicle, “contempt for the song and its hateful murderous message, does not, however, entitle government to deny the right to express that message” (Editorial A32). Likewise, the parent company, Time Warner, Inc., released a grandiloquent statement in support of Mr. Marrow’s expressive rights, saying “it is vital that we stand by our commitment to the free expression of ideas” (Asin A2).

Yet, even after Time-Warner’s withdrawal the song, few if any observers equate the action with coercion or censorship. Among Marrow’s supporters, this may be due to a preconceived notion of the marketplace as a controlled or censored forum, a priori. Marrow himself expresses a belief similar to Serra, saying “everything is censored, except in the underground [. . .] anything mainstream, network television, radio stations, or even record companies are at this point censored” (Heck). Given his experiences, it is not surprising that Marrow would view the rhetoric of the free-market as adjunct, if not integral to, federal neglect of the inner city and avoidance as a means of social control. These are among the consequences MacEwan anticipates when he argues that democratic values must be re-connected with State involvement in the social welfare of the nation. Even more disturbing, however, than the absence of a perception of censorship from Marrow’s opponents, is the suggestion that they would not have objected to “Cop Killer” if the artist had merely distributed the song (to quote Jesse Helms) “on his own dime.” What an odd position to take for those who so loudly argued for the safety of life and limb. “With growing lawlessness and violence in our society, every American is at risk of losing his property rights and his life to criminals” said Officer Martin in “Music of Murder”.

Indeed, there seems to be an unnatural distinction made between the removal of the art object by corporate forces and outright censorship by law or State authority. The advocates of the neoliberal philosophy of art-as-commodity hold one means of regulatory suppression as legitimate and another as illegitimate despite that the result, suppression, is the same in both cases. As MacEwan describes, this hypocrisy exposes the democratic fallacy of neoliberalism itself, whereby “instead of regulation [through which] government limits the operation of markets, neoliberalism imposes regulation that assures the separation of markets form social control” (173). Further he argues that neoliberal political actors do this while maintaining a rhetorical thrust that opposes almost all forms of state regulation and economic activity, until by its pursuit of extremes neoliberal ideology pulls society away from representative forms of government and away from democracy and democratic principles.

Despite that Officer Martin asks, “What are the people to do when the laws that are meant to ensure their freedom are abused in a manner that erodes the very foundation of law?” he makes no attempt to explore the history of the First Amendment or the social implications behind the tolerance of unpopular speech. Like many advocates of suppression, he reserves an anecdotal bias toward cause and effect, while acknowledging Marrow’s First Amendment right to publish and distribute the song “Cop Killer”. Though this gracious nod to the First Amendment confirms the ultimate legitimacy of Marrow’s work in the public forum, it also exploits the notion that the First Amendment cannot create, promote or facilitate; it can only defend. More importantly, the First Amendment can only defend unpopular speech from government censorship. Thus, even though Martin’s conclusions rest on untenable assumptions, he avoids those problems because market forces perform the suppression not the courts. Moreover, Martin’s claim that “Cop Killer” is hate-speech is never vetted with any scientific rigor or legal due process. For “Cop Killer”, contextualization as a commodity in marketplace effectively obviates the First Amendment because there is never any State actor to hold responsible for censorious behavior.

Realizing his minority status and his position within a what he believes to be a censorious marketplace, Marrow himself puts no reliance in the First Amendment but rather looks beyond it to the underlying principle of speech as a basic human right. In an interview with Mike Heck, titled “Ice T Speaks Out on Censorship” Marrow suggests that it is not the Constitution of the United States that gave him the right to speak, but his own living breathing existence. If Americans are to believe that it is not a question of whether a person has the right to speak, but only a question of how that right can best be guaranteed—then surely the facts of Tracy Marrow’s case reveal that the marketplace has neither the force nor the authority for the job. While Warner Bros was not opposed to Marrow’s expression politically or philosophically, clearly they were unwilling to protect it, to guarantee it, or to promote it once mob mentality and hysteria threatened its broader corporate position in the marketplace. Worse, it was at this very point when protection was most needed that the marketplace revealed its inherent inability to secure the material conditions of creativity or to facilitate a climate of debate. Warner Bros was wholly unable to stand in for the State in its principle responsibility to secure the ‘inalienable’ rights of all citizens from cooption and corruption because its mission was not related to authentic political expression but rather maximizing shareholder returns.

A Post-Keynesian Model of Public Funding for the Arts

One of the most sinister aspects of the marketplace, as revealed in the “Cop Killer” case, is the sanguine nature of the marketplace that eschews the voices and controversies that connect our communities with their democratic origins. Complex issues and ‘inconvenient truths’ are out of place in the sanitized world of marketing and entertainment, just as they are in American politics. In the end, the arguments against the song gain ground by successfully exploiting the apparent conflict of interest between political speech and entertainment. As Oeser and Asin note in their Houston Chronicle articles, those lobbying for the suppression of the song are quick to judge it (despite contrary sales data) as being “completely without entertainment value” (A17, A21). By framing “Cop Killer” as entertainment, the opposition rhetoric creates an interpretive construction of the song that fails to admit of its value as speech in the same way that Senators Helms and D’Amato deny the aspects of artistic expression in Serrano’s work. As a result those who desire suppression are able to invoke the regulation of the marketplace, wherein the object could be rejected on an entirely different set of standards—the responsibility to entertain—as evaluated by the needs of capital and not a court of law or even the public.

Here again, the shadow-regulation of the neoliberal “free” market obviates the agency of the people or the community because it severs the chain of responsible civic action by disconnecting elected representatives from responsibility or accountability in ‘facilitating and maintaining’ the democratic for a and values of the nation in favor of a blind system of corporate earnings and interests. Having successfully re-framed the issue of public arts funding as a matter for supply-side economics, a disingenuous Republican coalition checkmates its political resistance, who are unwilling to risk association with ‘controversial’ speech or its root causes. Ultimately, this particular triumph of rhetoric over reality is possible because our original rationale for the arts as national “soul” entangles church and state. With this soaring Romantic language, our understanding of the social role of art, as a form of local political speech, gives way too easily to paternalistic notions Christian moral stewardship and national export-commodity. The real issue for the State in funding the arts is the integrity of the State itself in its mission to foster and protect the full and open exchange of information, upon which the subsequent stability of its capital markets depends. Only once observers appreciate this depth, can they understand why a four-minute song can be so important, or why a single photograph can make national headlines; and why the arts matter. Art cannot and should not be a subordinate form of speech. It is the only arena in which truth, in forms yet unknown, can emerge without being subject to majority or minority tyrannies in the mass market places of information and entertainment.

In his essay, “A Trial Account”, legal scholar Douglas O. Linder reports that after seeing the televised video evidence of three Los Angeles police officers kicking, stomping on, and beating with metal batons a seemingly defenseless Rodney King, “polls [. . .] showed that over 90% of Los Angeles residents who saw the videotape believed that the police used excessive force in arresting King.” When this long hidden truth about injustice in American’s inner cities bursts to the surface of national consciousness in the form of the LA riots, the State faces the temptation to suppress that truth, because the State is in fact responsible for the policies of neglect that led to those conditions. State actors then participate en masse in the suppression of speech acts like “Cop Killer”, which has shown success in uncovering those very truths, because its representatives are themselves the architects of the policies that segregated minorities and facilitated the growth of ghetto conditions in cities in the first place.

Shank argues that Marrow’s music is targeted for suppression because it constructs a white teenage audience. This conclusion does not go far enough, however. The music is targeted by different groups for reasons, but insofar as it is a targeted by the Republican congress is because it threatens to re-appropriate the marketplace, through its subversive use of the channels of mass distribution for messages that have been traditionally suppressed or controlled. For a brief moment, Marrow manages to turn the marketplace from a means of control and censorship, through its homogeneous messages of status quo, into a bullhorn for the rallying cry of national truth and reconciliation. Where the essential elements in Marrow’s narrative have been recognized for years in the black community, it is suddenly underscored in the national consciousness by the Rodney King verdict. That the LA riots brought this situation to the attention of the nation only mirrors the success of Marrow’s own cross-cultural dialogue and further resonates with the broader public’s desire for more integrity from its leaders.

Unfortunately, despite the lessons of “Cop Killer”, the neoliberal ideology continues to dominate federal arts policy. Where once conservative and liberal voices battled, there are now neutered funding policies that dispense with individual citizens in favor of state legislatures and pork politics. Given the collapsing notions of human and civil rights America has witnessed in the twenty-first century, it is tempting to equate the waxing of our panoptic culture with the waning of the public arts. Who can deny that in the twenty years since Congress first backed away from the NEA, America has become less free? Or that a totalitarian ethos threatens to replace democratic values in Guantanamo Bay, The Patriot Act, unprovoked invasions of sovereign nations, over-classification of our own government’s records, sequestration of public documents in Presidential libraries, commoditization of the news media. . . . All shameless acts of demagoguery scapegoated with the same air of nationalist rhetoric and phony moral stewardship that condemn the artistic expressions of Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and Tracy Marrow.


1Andres Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ”, for example, is a single photographic print of a crucifix floating in a jar of urine. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato of New York introduces this exhibit into the Congressional debate as an example of an artwork deemed “controversial” because it is seen as “religious bigotry” partially funded by an NEA grant, i.e. “tax payers dollars”.


2On October 10, 1989, just prior to forming Body Count, Marrow had released an album entitled, The Iceberg: Freedom of Speech . . . Just Watch What You Say.


3Barry Shank tracks the State actions against the company led by President Bush and Vice President Quayle, along with sixty members of Congress (57 Republicans and 3 southern Democrats) in the form of both public statements and signed a letter to Time Warner characterizing the State’s view of the company’s actions as a despicable and unconscionable choice of profit over public responsibility. Not only are such moves a bold-faced duplicity from the lions of the marketplace, they are also in direct contradiction of Senator Gorton’s claim that the State has no call to “subsidy or censure”.


4Consider that in 1887, the notorious Anthony Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice had no statistical population of affected persons on which to base calls for the suppression of Victorian nudes. Likewise, in 1987, the Christian Right could point to no actual instances of public outcry over Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in any of his previous gallery showings (Bolton, 37). Neither did Jesse Helms offer evidence of public opposition to Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”. Nor could Rudi Giuliani, as Mayor of New York, demonstrate corresponding public dismay over certain “controversial” works he chose to denounce at the Brooklyn Museum of Art—in fact, in Giuliani’s case the New York Daily News reported a national poll showing 57% of Americans in favor of the exhibit with only 39% opposed (Smith, et. al., p7). Sculptor Richard Serra, also forced to debunk a “numbers game”, reveals that the Government Services Administration campaign against his Tilted Arc sculpture is not based in a community consensus, as the GSA initially claims. In fact, in his introduction to The Destruction of Tilted Arc, Serra admits that as a result of his dealings with the State he has come to believe that “all public opinion is manipulated opinion” (10)—a position frequently illuminated in the history of arts controversies.


5In addition, the court further held that even if Obsourne’s lyrics were understood to take the view of suicide as a preferable alternative to life, Osbourne had the constitutional right to publish or express such a view. The Appellate court agreed with the lower court and declined to hear an appeal. In the process, the Appellate court cites close to fifty precedent cases in support of its ruling (The Thomas Jefferson Center).


6Most famously, in 1968, President Nixon, seeking to galvanize political support from a burgeoning “Moral Majority” of his own, undertook a White House report on obscenity and pornography with the clear aim toward laying a basis for tougher obscenity laws. Much to Nixon’s dismay, his handpicked commission returned the recommendation to do away with obscenity and pornography laws altogether because their scientific studies failed to show any connection between immoral messages and subsequent harmful action.


7In his memoir, Marrow argues that the culture of urban violence is a reaction to economic hypocrisy, defining the ghetto as “the compiled interest of lost hope” (3) and attributing “injustice in the inner city” to more widespread forms social injustice in the form of a persistent unwillingness on the part of the larger society to investigate their true conditions of American life (155). As a result, Marrow targets agents of superficial causality, such as the Parents’ Music Resource Center, and addresses what he believes to be the truths of American life in the hope that his speech might increase cross-cultural understanding (36). Consequently, Marrow’s work could be viewed as functioning within the theory of a broader approach to causality, one which pays special attention to the relationship between poverty, social injustice and high crime rates in urban areas.


8Saunders reports that the 1965 Rockefeller Brothers Fund panel presents public arts “as one means by which man can achieve the satisfaction he seeks,” and therefore concludes that the arts are “important, even essential, to the human mind and spirit” (v) in striving for the ‘perfectibility’ of American capitalism through the mechanism of a counter-balance.


Works Cited

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