It's not often that income tax audits make big news, but the mammoth of an audit that's been thrown Venus DeMars and Lynette Reini-Gambell, a married couple and a relatively successful musician and poet respectively, has been getting some local press in their home state of Minnesota. This MinnPost article features an interview with the couple in which they discuss the details of the situation, but in short: the Minnesota Revenue Department is claiming that the couple's respective artistic careers are not profitable enough to qualify them as “professional” artists and is demanding around $100,000 in back taxes for work-related tax deductions the couple has claimed over the years. In DeMars' words, the Minnesota Department of Revenue is “throwing the book” at the artists. Complicating the matter are suspicions that the audit might be bias motivated stemming from the women's relationship or from DeMars' status as an out transgender woman.
Though it's just one tax case in Minnesota, the artists' case raises some large, unsettling questions about what is considered “legitimate” art.
BIG UNSETTLING QUESTION #1: Why does the government definition of a “professional” artist depend on their profits?
Venus, who leads the punk-glam band All the Pretty Horses, discusses the audit this way: “We've had several meetings with the auditor since November, and at the last one he said a preliminary determination had been made that we were hobbyists, not artists, and therefore could not write off our expenses. This has been unbelievably demoralizing. He basically is saying that if we really knew what we were doing, we should have been more profitable by now, and should have known to give up.”
Of course, I understand why the government would want a “profession” to bring in at least as much money as it costs. But by DeMars' and Reini-Gambell's account, the standard is far more stringent than that. DeMars reports that the auditor criticized her for not working hard enough to earn a profit, for failing to charge royalties for every use of each her songs, and for touring too much—basically for doing things that any independent musician would do to promote their work. Of course, the idea that DeMars is an independent musician seems to be a problem in itself. DeMars recalls that the auditor repeatedly chastised her for not having landed or even pursued a record deal with a major label. Such a comment may seem strange (she is, after all an independent musician), but in fact reveals a well-worn and uncomfortable truth: the government is interested in supporting big, expanding businesses. It's not enough that the multibillion dollar record labels have grown to the point that it becomes nearly impossible for independent musicians to succeed outside them (see also: filmmakers, authors, booksellers, coffee shops) but it appears that that economic power needs the hefty hand of the state to back its interests.
BIG UNSETTLING QUESTION #2: If someone doesn't make a profit off their art, are they legally not allowed to consider themselves artists?
While the still-recovering economy may make it seem like a good idea to force artists of all stripes into a profit-driven business model, that logic has potentially serious repercussions for who can afford to be a maker of art—and by extension, what that art can contain. In enforcing a particular business model on artists, the government is necessarily enforcing its own values—of profit, expansion, economic growth—on one of the groups of people best positioned to challenge, interrogate, and reformulate those values. Of course, artistic careers are already expensive and difficult to sustain, meaning economic privilege already gives a good chunk of aspiring artists a serious boost. It's an existing problem, why exacerbate it? Artistic communities have long been spaces for exploring new ideas, creating new cultures, for subversion and invention. How do artistic communities change when they're put under this kind of pressure to be profitable? How does art? Will the subversive, the challenging, the work that questions mainstream values be pushed out? Relegated to “hobby” status? Or will its practitioners be forced to lead a double life that's familiar to many: earning 9-to-5 profits on Fuck-the-Man work?
BIG UNSETTLING QUESTION #3: Why is the state tax agency hellbent on claiming these two artists aren't artists?
From DeMars and Reini-Gambell's description, the auditor himself is a real jerk. He was mockingly dismissive of DeMars' celebrity (“I know, I know. Big transgender rock star. I've seen all your videos online. I don't need any of that. I'm a numbers guy.”) and both DeMars and Reini-Gambell expressed the concern that they were being made an example of by the audit. DeMars' credit card debt (which she accumulated early in her career) makes them “easy targets” because they can't afford a legal battle. The point of the audit, it seems, is to expose government spending on “freeloading artists,” presumably to support a conservative agenda that cuts such frivolous spending. Who chose this particular (and fairly successful) couple as the target of such an overwhelming and suspiciously intense audit?
Which brings us to the BIG UNSETTLING CONCLUSION: There's something in this case that reeks of LGBT-based discrimination.
There's nothing explicit—and in fact neither DeMars nor Reini-Gambell express that suspicion—but still, the alarm bells in my head won't stop ringing. Public support for LGBT civil rights is surging, but as we've seen over and over, inclusionary and anti-discriminatory legislation doesn't mean discrimination will end. Rather, it simply means that those discriminations become subtler, less explicit, and thus less able to be proven discriminatory. While the letter of the law may be even-handed, auditors and prosecutors have a lot of discretion in how they enforce the law. Our legal system still has hula-hoop sized loophole through which the people who occupy positions of power may follow existing prejudice to their hearts' content.
Photo of Venus DeMars via BrieAustin.