How to Make Headlines

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

September 22, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Headlines of the week: Dog Bites Man. Beauty Wins Contest. Politics Seen in Government Grants. Actually, the dog didn't make the headlines this time, but by the same news standards it should have.

It was almost as much fun hearing modernists emote about the results of the Miss America "scholarship pageant" as it was watching Miss Hawaii sashay up and down the runway wearing her crown.

There are many, in this era of high consciousness, who maintain that rewarding a young woman for merely looking good is chauvinism, sexism, exploitation of the worst old-fashioned kind. this year's Miss America pageant, points for talent were supposed to outweigh those for bathing-suit and evening-gown appearance combined. By that measure, the opera singer representing Miss New York would have been a shoo-in. But the first time Miss Hawaii walked out, nobody doubted who would take the title.

The Washington Post headlined its story, "The Ugly Truth: Beauty Wins." That was written tongue-in-cheek, but millions of Americans who take life more somberly said it with a straight face. Imagine that: Beauty Crowned Miss America! Outrage!

It was almost as shocking as news that the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts once cited politics as a factor in denying grants to controversial applicants. The transcript of a closed meeting showed that the chairman, John Frohnmayer, asked whether awarding those grants might endanger the NEA's future. According to the New York Times, he suggested that "in the very short political run," caution might be the better course.

Documents released in a Los Angeles lawsuit disclose that the word "political" was used more than once last year when grants were being considered. Four artists who didn't get grants are suing, accusing the NEA of denying the money on other-than-artistic grounds.

Of course they are right in asserting that politics was involved. Certain upright citizens in Congress were raising hell about the raunchy, intentionally provocative work supported by some NEA grants.

Among them are a lady famous for the single reason that she performs with her nude body smeared with chocolate, and a gentleman who is not yet famous but is trying to become so by pretending to masturbate. The other two are a lesbian and a gay man who air their enthusiasms publicly. All this happens on stage.

Previously, all of them had gotten federal money. But last year, grant decisions were being made in the uproar following the Robert Mapplethorpe photographic exhibition, some of which made viewers queasy. The NEA appropriation for fiscal 1991 was at stake. Debate was hot and heavy in both houses of Congress; zealots on the religious right were demanding that the endowment be closed down. Understandably, Mr. Frohnmayer did not want to make things worse.

His caution was marginally effective. The House voted this summer to increase the NEA budget to $174 million, and last Thursday, the Senate voted down Nancy Kassebaum's amendment to cut the appropriation by 10 percent. Sen. Kassebaum, R-Kans., unsatisfied by Mr. Frohnmayer's discretion, said "there seems to be an atmosphere that anything presented as art deserves public support. We must send a stronger message."

But shortly after the vote on the Kassebaum amendment, two-thirds of the Senate approved an amendment offered by Jesse Helms, R-N.C., to deny NEA funding for any "patently offensive" or sexually explicit projects. "These so-called artists are leading senators around by the nose," Mr. Helms declared. If that's not politics, Mr. Helms is a commie atheist pornographer.

Unfortunately, the cloud of politics obscures the fact that most sane persons would deny government support to such performances on grounds of good taste. Even without the Helms amendment, anyone asking for a grant for something distasteful enough can allege that it was denied by politics alone.

What Mrs. Kassebaum complains of is inevitable once a government body gets into making artistic judgments: "an atmosphere that anything presented as art deserves public support." Just as inevitable is the charge of politics: the NEA chairman is politically appointed, so every NEA board is open to charges of politics, regardless of how qualified it may be.

There's no way around it. If it's government money, it's political money. Unfortunately, that is true even when the decision to grant or withhold it is made for the soundest of artistic reasons.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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