Saturday, April 27, 2013

THE HOLLOW MEN: The Taxman Declares War on Poets

The Minnesota Department of Revenue says it’s been hoodwinked by a poet and a rock singer, and it wants its money back.

On Tuesday, April 23, 2013, MinnPost published an article about a Minneapolis couple, a poet and rock singer/songwriter, who are living a Minnesota tax audit nightmare because the state doesn’t believe they’re really artists. Their Kafkaesque ordeal reveals the real-life hazards and cultural betrayal of an ideology so narrow that it can only define value—any value—in terms of financial profit. These two artists don’t deserve professional status, the bureaucrats say, because they don’t make enough money off their work (what's "enough" is apparently at the discretion of the taxman): on the books they’re just “hobbyists,” so they shouldn’t write off their expenses.

Poet and college professor Lynette Reini-Grandell and her husband, musician Venus DeMars, are being dragged through the mud to set an example. "I personally am beginning to think it’s part of an attempt by one branch of the state government to discredit arts spending and take back the Legacy money," said Reini-Grandell. Minnesota’s tax-fed Legacy fund supports cultural and environmental projects. 

If it’s a crime for poets, writers, and musicians to not get rich off their creations, then we wouldn’t have heard much more from Mark Twain after he went backrupt. Walt Whitman would have been shut down for being the sluggard that self-published his first two versions of Leaves of Grass rather than waiting for a publisher to launch him. If Wallace Stevens had been cut off from writing poetry before his first book got published at age forty-three (another tinkering hobbyist), he wouldn’t have won that Pulitzer or National Book Award.

The very idea of measuring the value of artistic endeavor on its increasing monetary value and defining “real artists” as those who make formidable and ever-increasing profits can only come from the kind of culture-starved mentality that plagues a hefty slice of the GOP.

For a tax auditor to claim that poets and musicians who are not getting wealthy off their work are mere hobbyists displays a cultural ignorance that runs rampant in our consumerist society. Forced to justify their work, the plight of Lynette Reini-Grandell and Venus DeMars should ring alarms in the head of every parent who reads books to her children at bedtime, every teacher who devotes himself to instilling a love and respect for literature and the arts (and the critical thinking that goes along with it) to the next generation, and every citizen who has a creeping suspicion that there’s more to life than shopping.

The great irony of this story lies in the fact that Minnesota is one of the most cultured states in the nation, with Minneapolis ranked “the most literate city in America” for its wealth of writers, literary publishers, dance, film, music, and visual art, and for having more theater seats per capita than New York. Minnesota bred the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerlad, Sinclair Lewis, Bob Dylan, Joel and Ethan Coen, Garrison Keillor, and Prince. Creative people thrive here and move art in new directions. But according to the Minnesota Department of Revenue, those who aren’t getting fat on their work are just playing around. 

The Minnesota taxmen hell-bent on making an example of Reini-Grandell and DeMars represent a mindset that has hollowed us out. They and their kind prove that the United States is not a haven for creative, innovative spirits or even a democracy—as some artists clearly show us in their stories and images. As Brad Pitt’s character so bluntly states in the final lines of Killing Them Softly, “America’s not a country. It’s a business. Now pay me.”

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