Answering once and for all the nebulous question of what counts as “fine art”—as only a mid-level Illinois bureaucrat can—a Chicago-area official has ruled that rock, rap, country, electronic music, DJ sets, and pretty much any sounds that don’t involve viking helmets or a harpsichord probably won’t be making the cut.
The wide-sweeping aesthetic declaration comes as part of Cook County’s ongoing arguments about its tax code, and specifically the amusement tax levied against concerts, sporting events, “flower, poultry or animal shows,” and any number of other ways the people of the Windy City get their kicks. The county is claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes from venues it claims illegally decided to forego paying the 3 percent charge.
The crux of the argument—which mostly affects smaller clubs and bars that often cater to electronic shows or DJ sets—comes down to Sec. 74-392 (d) (1) of the Cook County Code Of Ordinances, which reads,
“The tax imposed in subsection (a) of this section shall not apply to or be imposed upon: The admission fees to witness in person, live theatrical, live musical or other live cultural performances that take place in any auditorium, theater or other space in the County, whose maximum capacity, including all balconies and other sections, is not more than 750 persons,”
and Sec. 74-391, which says,
“Live theatrical, live musical or other live cultural performance means a live performance in any of the disciplines which are commonly regarded as part of the fine arts, such as live theater, music, opera, drama, comedy, ballet, modern or traditional dance, and book or poetry readings.”
(Never let it be said that The A.V. Club isn’t willing to spend its Saturdays digging through county tax codes in the interest of capital-A Art.)
As pointed out by the Chicago Reader, that definition for exemption would seem to apply to small clubs like Chicago’s Beauty Bar or Evil Olive, currently targeted for the back tax payments. Not so, according to hearing officer Anita Richardson, who said, “Rap music, country music, and rock ‘n’ roll” do not fall under the umbrella of “fine art,” and thus aren’t protected from taxation. The implication being, we guess, that only opera and chamber music performances should be exempted from the tax. (Although those shows would be subject to the county’s surprisingly high fees on monocles, nosegays, and the wear-and-tear on high-end fainting couches.)
The City of Chicago proper actually dealt with this issue a few years ago—hence the wonderfully titled government document “Amusement Tax Exemption Application For Live Cultural Performances—DJs”—with the city coming down on the side of spinning discs being artsy enough to avoid taxation. According to The Reader, at least some Cook County commissioners are looking to push their interpretation of the ordinance in a similar direction. In the meantime, cultural arbiter Anita Richardson eagerly awaits the debate, the better to weigh all human endeavor in the crucible of her faultless artistic judgment. Richardson noted that she’d be “happy to hear your DJ witnesses”—which, yes, please, do that—but also said venues would have to bring her an “expert musicologist” to “further testify the music you are talking about falls within any disciplines considered fine art.”