Friday, September 23, 2016

COLUMN: Fine Art

It's no secret that our state's in a fiscal pickle right now. Any attempts to fix Illinois' budget woes have been routinely stymied by the political gridlock in Springfield, and there's only so far into the abyss we can fall before we lose grip on the rope to pull ourselves out. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Cook County, where Chicago's already fragile infrastructure is struggling to keep its head above water. As a result, Cook County keeps looking for new and exciting ways to tax its businesses and citizens. Well, they've got a new one -- and it's a doozy.

Ever wonder why concert and theatre tickets in Chicago cost a fortune? One of the main reasons is that 3% of your ticket price goes straight to Cook County's "amusement tax." It's been in place for a long time and large scale venues in the Chicagoland area have learned to live with it.

Thankfully, though, it comes with a loophole. Venues with a capacity of 750 or fewer are exempt from the amusement tax so long as the cover charges or ticket prices are for "in-person, live theatrical, live musical or other live cultural performances." The code goes on to define these live cultural performances as "any of the disciplines commonly regarded as fine art, such as live theater, music, opera, drama, comedy, ballet, modern or traditional dance, and book or poetry readings."

This is a crucial exemption. A 3% amusement tax probably doesn't have much impact on Chicago's huge concert arenas or large downtown theaters, but for a hole-in-the-wall corner bar charging $4 to see a developing band, 3% could be the very difference between success and failure.

Cities NEED small performance venues if they want culture to flourish. The Smashing Pumpkins did not one day wake up, form a band, and headline ampitheaters. Like every other band in the city, they had to make their name playing dive bars and holes-in-the-wall while honing their craft and gaining loyal fans. In fact, I remember going to shows in Chicago in the early 90s and walking out to find the Smashing Pumpkins standing in the rain, handing out flyers, begging kids to come see them play a late show down the street. For culture to thrive, small clubs need to be incentivized, not hit with a 3% tax.

But at a hearing last week, an administrator from the county's Department of Administrative Hearings (if that's not a red flag in and of itself) announced that live music venues in Chicago should not be exempt from the amusement tax because "rap music, country music, and rock 'n' roll do not fall under the purview of fine art."

In other words, Chicago has become "Footloose" as written by George Orwell.

As a result, needless tax dollars will be spent this October when the city goes to court to argue that rock, country, rap, and electronic music do not constitute their definitions of "music" and "culture." They're even trying to collect BACK amusement taxes from previously exempt small clubs, to the tune of around $200,000 per venue -- a fee which would easily bankrupt small clubs that subside from one show to the next.

This is some terrifyingly Draconian Frasier-Crane-style nonsense.

Let's look at the dictionary. Google defines fine art as "creative art, whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content." Mirriam-Webster goes simpler: "A type of art that is done to create beautiful things."

So, Hearing Administrator of the Department of Administrative Hearings, who are you to tell me what IS and ISN'T beautiful? Everybody has their own tastes. I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would rather listen to industrial machinery than attend an opera -- industrial machinery might at least have a beat I can groove to. But that's just MY taste -- you might dig an opera or a classical recital, and that's just dandy. But don't for a second try to tell me that Beethoven is somehow intrinsically more beautiful than Brian Wilson.

If rock, country, rap, and electronic music shouldn't be exempt from the amusement tax, then why does the exemption exist in the first place? To benefit Chicago's numerous small corner bars featuring live opera every weekend? Because those don't exist. Where do you draw the culturally "fine" line between a "live poetry reading" and a Lil Wayne show?

They're also going after venues featuring performances by DJs, claiming that the art of mixing records doesn't fall "within any disciplines considered fine art." This makes me want to raise a finger in salute, and I'll leave it up to you to guess which finger. I'm a weekend DJ myself, and I'm not conceited enough to call myself an "artist." But log on to Youtube right now and look up any video of DJ Q-Bert or Cut Chemist in action and tell me that's not art. I remember being at a warehouse in Cedar Rapids at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night as DJ ESP Woody McBride brought me to tears with a DJ set.

Again, that's just me. You might hate rap music or dance beats. That's cool. I think the most beautiful band in the world is the British group My Bloody Valentine. My mom once heard them and truly thought my stereo was broken. To each their own -- that's what art's all about. As long as someone out there finds it beautiful, it's fine art and that's fine by me.

That's why, come October, several small venues will be challenging this ridiculous ruling. According to the Chicago Reader, they're coming to court armed with witnesses that run the gamut from DJs to musicologists, all to make the obvious argument that music is, well, music. Remember when you were a kid rocking out to your favorite record when suddenly some adult started yelling, "Turn that garbage off! You kids today don't know what REAL music is!" Remember how MAD that made you? How your mom and dad had NO business telling you what is and isn't music? Well, the government shouldn't be in that business, either.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go put on some fine art by The Clash and turn the volume to 11. Trust me, it's gonna sound beautiful.

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