James J. Kilpatrick

October 24, 1990|By James J. Kilpatrick

WASHINGTON. — IN FLORIDA a jury has acquitted members of 2 Live Crew. In Cincinnati a jury in effect has acquitted the late Robert Mapplethorpe. The people have addressed the conflict between public morals and artistic freedom, and freedom has won. Permit me a faint and barely audible hooray.

The rap group known as 2 Live Crew is a band of smart-alecky children who have just discovered dirty words. Beyond the rhyming of cat and bat, they have no discernible talent. Forget them. As for Mr. Mapplethorpe, not even Sen. Jesse Helms challenged his right to produce photographs of perverted sexual acts. What infuriated Mr. Helms and me and many others was that our tax funds were being spent on junk.

These individual controversies have become a bore. They obscure much more important issues involving the role of the federal government in subsidizing ''artists.'' The disputes stir up so much dust that larger questions of public policy rarely are seen at all.

Let me advance two postulates: (1) The federal government has no business in the arts business; (2) the government has no business in a hundred other things either.

In its annual report for 1988, the National Endowment for the Arts routinely listed the grants it had made during that fiscal year. In the field of music, this is where our tax money went:

To Sarina B. Bachleitner, New York, $2,500 to support intensive one-on-one study with pianist Joanne Bracken; to Zachary B. Brown, Brooklyn, N.Y., $5,000 to support intensive one-on-one study with percussionist Warren Smith; to Ira N. Coleman, New York, $5,400 to support intensive one-on-one study with bassist Dave Holland.

The NEA made 10 grants ranging from $12,500 to $17,500 to would-be playwrights. Teri J. Edelstein, South Hadley, Mass., received $10,830 ''to support travel to London to complete a study of the paintings of Edward Penny.'' Judi H. Freeman of Los Angeles won $8,550 ''to support travel to France to study museum and gallery collections.'' Susan T. Goodman of New York received $10,000 "to support travel to Israel in order to gain greater knowledge of Israeli art.'' A grant of $20,000 went to Edmund L. Keeley of Princeton, N.J., ''to support the translation from Greek of a selection of Yannis Ritsos' poems based on ancient Greek sources.'' And so on.

In the name of the founding fathers, how did such outlays get to be the business of the federal government? Congress has no authority to spend our money in this arbitrary and capricious fashion. The individual grants bear no relationship whatever to the general welfare. It is the old problem of not being able to see the forest for the trees. By wasting too much attention on a handful of NEA grants, we lose sight of the constitutional principle that is being violated.

In a trillion-dollar budget, the NEA grants are nickels and dimes. The outlays are small; the principle is large. How can Congress justify grants to individual towns for construction of sewerage? Surely the building of local sewers is a local responsibility. Let us inquire into the constitutional authority for the endless time-wasting seminars and conferences sponsored by the Department of Education. The federal budget teems with appropriations that rest upon a flimsy basis or on no basis at all.

It is this failure to recognize constitutional restraints that leads directly to the fiscal mess we are in. Congress operates on the airy assumption that its powers are unlimited. Anything goes. In the closing hours of this session, Congress voted for a study of jazz, for a study of Acadian culture in the state of Maine, for the protection of fish in the Corejos River of Colorado and for the establishment of a Japanese-American museum. Bills were flying enactment faster than reporters could keep up with them. And in the midst of this blizzard of activity, members were still arguing over ways to prevent the NEA from subsidizing dirty pictures. Sometimes one despairs.

The dirty pictures matter and the dirty ''rap'' sessions matter, for they contribute to the steady erosion of old values of modesty, taste and sheer decency, but they don't matter greatly. No one has to listen to 2 Live Crew or look at Mr. Mapplethorpe's photographs.

What matters, and matters deeply, is the casual irresponsibility of Congress in spending our money on programs not sanctioned by our Constitution. If today's topic is obscenity, look no farther than Capitol Hill. Now, that's obscene.

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