Art, Photography, and Homophobia

Sometimes the theater of the absurd, current events that is, just gets to be too much and I have to comment. This time the issue is whether photography is an art form, a case arising from a professional photographer’s refusal to cover a lesbian wedding. If photography is art, goes the argument, it’s a form of speech protected by the Constitution and that protection overrides any laws prohibiting discrimination on account of sexual orientation.

This nonsense arises from the notion that some forms of voluntary transactions should enjoy legal protection and others shouldn’t. Transactions that are deemed to be exercises of religion or freedom of speech are protected while it’s OK to suppress others even when they are mutually voluntary. The courts view artistic works forms of speech, and are protected. This protection covers not just engaging in protected activities but also refraining from engaging in them. Thus if photography is art, then refraining from photographing a lesbian wedding is an exercise of free speech, protected by the first amendment.

That’s all well and good as far as it goes, but it leaves courts with the job of drawing lines delimiting religious activity or free speech activity. Example: during Prohibition, Catholics were allowed to use wine as part of their Communion sacrament. But Native Americans who want to use peyote as part of their religious ceremonies have consistently run afoul of the law. What’s the difference? Obviously, Catholics are more numerous and politically powerful than Native Americans. Since there is no objective way of delimiting either religion or art (as presently understood), court decisions about these matters are necessarily political.

Delimiting artistic expression may be even more problematic than with religion. Given that any and all kinds of garbage can be found in “Modern Art” museums, it would seem that almost any activity, spraying graffiti for example, could be construed as artistic expression.

The solution is to recognize the right of free association and its concomitant freedom of dissociation, whether in personal or business affairs. (Though not a part of the First Amendment, these rights might be found in the Ninth Amendment.) There are two qualifications. First, any transaction that infringes on the rights of third parties is illegitimate. As Ayn Rand put it, “any alleged ‘right’ of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.” Second, politicians and bureaucrats must not be allowed to discriminate since they are supposed to represent the entire population. Those qualifications aside, any business person must be free to turn away gays, blacks, Jews, or anybody else, with or without explanation. But woe unto anyone who tries such exclusions in today’s world. They would pay a stiff price in lost business and boycotts. Unless they found a niche market among KKK bigots, such business people would very likely lose most of their customers, including, I hasten to add, this writer.

Some time ago I posted a piece on these pages defending the right of Lester Maddox, a truly obnoxious character, to exclude blacks from his chicken restaurant, which he did in the 1960s in defiance of the Civil Rights Act. Those were different times, and he garnered enough support to get elected Governor of Georgia. That would not happen these days.

Though I got a lot of pushback, I stand by the argument that obnoxious characters like Lester Maddox constitute a vanguard that helps defend the rights of us “normal” folks. If their outrageous but non-aggressive actions are protected, our moderate actions are safe. Nobody has made this case better than Walter Block in his book “Defending the Undefendable.” He trots out and defends one seedy character after another—pimps, prostitutes, you name it—whose actions, while distasteful to almost everyone, violate no one’s rights.

Returning to the photographer in question, it should make no difference whether her refusal is informed by religion or by hatred of gays.  She should be free to turn away customers for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason.

Incidentally, my friend Michelle Kamhi recently convinced me that photography is not art. I highly recommend her book Who Says That’s Art?, devoted primarily to demolishing modern and post-modern “art” which she calls “anti-art.” I think she’s spot on, but whether you agree or not, you will have to admire the courage and tight reasoning in her book.