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Randy Blaser: Cook County Board's cash grab – governance or performance art?

Thursday, August 25, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Randy Blaser

The great writer Oscar Wilde said in his preface to "The Picture of Dorian Gray" that "All art is quite useless."

Of course this is very disconcerting to the artist, who strives all night long to create what others might consider art.

Wilde argues it is fine to create something useful as long as it is not admired as art. The only reason for creating something useless is to admire it a great deal. Therefore, all art is quite useless. It is to be admired, but not useful.

Here's where the Cook County Board comes in, as I've read recentlyin a report in the Chicago Reader.

For them, some art is quite useful indeed. And they are trying to determine the difference between useful art, let's call it the art of the people, and fine art, or the art of the privileged.

For what purpose would Cook County be interested in what kind of art is useless and what kind of art is useful? So they could tax it, of course.

Let me explain.

Cook County currently imposes a 3 percent amusement tax on tickets people purchase to do fun stuff in Cook County, like go to a Cubs game. However, it exempts what it calls "fine art" from this type of tax.

What the heck is "fine art," you might ask?

The high intellects that run the county explain fine art as live theater, music, opera, drama, comedy, ballet, modern or traditional dance, and book or poetry readings.

In other words, as Wilde opines, fine art to Cook County officials is the type of art that serves no purpose other than to be admired. Therefore, there is no tax to be collected.

Other art is not so fine, and therefore it has some purpose, such as entertaining the plebeian masses. That type of art should get the tax.

And what type of cultural events are those?

How about rap, rock 'n' roll, country and electronic music? That's right, even though it is art, it is not fine art, the county automatons are arguing.

Why is this important? I think for several reasons.

First, the owners of the venues where rap, rock, country and electronic music is performed are going to have to cough up some cash as the county is seeking years of back taxes. It could put some small venues out of business.

Second, it treats us renaissance men and women rather unfairly, taxing us to seeToby Keith, but leaving us alone when we check out a poetry slam at some bar in Old Town.

But should government even be in the business of determining what type of art is better than some other form of art.

The obvious answer, to anyone who wants to live in freedom and not under that other system that President Ronald Reagan predicted would sit atop the ash heap of history, is no. Government has no business regulating art in any way, shape or form.

But it raises another question. Why is county government imposing an amusement tax on any ticket you buy? Cook County provides no service to the concert-goer, be it the Rolling Stones or some unknown quartet playing Bach and Mozart.

What possible rationale can the county have for taxing it?

I can only think of one. It wants the money. And since it wants the money, it is going to take the money. Any way it can. And since there is more money in Tim McGraw than four violinist playing classical music, well, they want it.

They're blatant thieves, posing as public servants.

Which brings us back to Oscar Wilde.

In his novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Wilde paints the portrait of our main character living the high life, enjoying all sorts of debauchery. Yet Dorian Gray never ages. However, his portrait does.

How fitting a symbol for the type of government we have. Officials go on and on, living the high life, playing the part of the high and mighty, making their money. Yet, their fiefdoms are decaying right before our eyes, from the violence plaguing Chicago to blighted housing, underperforming schools and a state that can't pay its bills or even pass a budget.

They are quite useless, which I guess makes their performance as public officials high art. You got to admire the chutzpah.

Randy Blaser is a freelance columnist for Pioneer Press.

Copyright © 2016,Chicago Tribune

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