The Art of Bureaucratic Noise

In suburban St. Louis County, Missouri, a judge has sentenced Lewis Greenberg, 66, to 20 days in jail.

Greenberg’s crime? Well, it would be silly to describe his offense as a “crime.” He’s in legal hot water because his neighbors don’t like his art, because a judge agrees with them, and because he refuses to modify that art to the specifications of his critics.

Greenberg calls his yard sculpture installations a “statement on the Holocaust.” Local bureaucrats cite “safety” concerns and characterize their demands as being made on behalf of “the children” who live near, but not on, Greenberg’s property.

The “case” — I hesitate to call it that, as it gives the government of Ballwin far too much credit — has been dragging on for years. It’s been the subject of a federal “cease and desist” lawsuit by Greenberg against the city, and apparently of attempts by neighbors to get Greenberg involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

Greenberg and his attorneys point out that many houses’ Christmas decorations are at least as “dangerous,” and that no injury complaints have every been filed (not to mention the fact that in order to be injured by Greenberg’s art, one would necessarily have to trespass on his property).

Local busybodies complain that Greenberg’s art “lowers property values” — an interesting complaint in a town known as a long-term living destination (Greenberg’s lived there for decades himself), in which the only noticeable effect of lower (appraised) property values is lower (assessed) property taxes. If the disgruntled neighbors are correct about the effects of his art on their property values, what they’re accusing him of is, um, saving them money.

Tempted to punt the matter into the category of “what is art?” Don’t bother. Greenberg is a retired art teacher with arts degrees from three universities. Any court in the country would be bound to accept him as an expert witness on the subject of what art is.

To me, the real art is the performance art — the self-righteous perorations of the bureaucrats, the NIMBY justifications of Greenberg’s birdbath-deploying, Virgin-Mary-Statue-placing, Christmas-light-stringing neighbors, the feigned moral outrage of those who bought property in the area with the intention of “flipping” it for a profit rather than living there, and who now want to force Greenberg to assist them in doing so without even offering him a piece of the action.

In previous columns, I’ve noted that local government has both the potential and the tendency to be far more oppressive, in many and different ways, than higher levels of government. Ballwin is a prime example of this phenomenon.

The last time the city made it onto my political radar, its government was driving restaurants and bars out of the city limits with a smoking ban (and thereby either reducing the government’s budget or raising the remaining businesses’ and citizens’ taxes).

Although many of Ballwin’s “government services” are provided from the county level, one of every 200 Ballwinians works for the city government, and that government lavishes nearly $500 per year in … attention … on each citizen (after having extorted or otherwise extracted that $500 from each citizen, of course).

What do the people of Ballwin get for their $500 per year? Citizens who don’t like Lewis Greenberg’s art get to see him sent to jail for it. And citizens who do like Lewis Greenberg’s art? They get to see him sent to jail for it anyway.

It seems to me that the citizens of Ballwin would be better off spending their $500 per year on privacy fences than on continued care and feeding of a city government. Even given the ample yard sizes in Ballwin, the cost of those fences would amortize out over only a few years of increased freedom to do just about anything they liked that didn’t involve putting artists in jail.

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