HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Last month, the Robert Mapplethorpe time bomb finally went bang -- or maybe poof. The modest little explosion pushed the chairman of the federal government's chief art-subsidizing bureaucracy right out of his office and focused attention once again on two philosophically interesting questions, one ancient and the other modern.
The ancient question is, of course: What Is Art? The modern one, of more pressing concern in these times of budgetary angst, is: Whatever Art Is, How Much If Any Money Should the Government Give It, and How?
John Frohnmayer, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, had no doubt that the homo-erotic photographs of the late Mr. Mapplethorpe were art. A great many taxpayers took a contrary view, and were outraged that their dollars were being used to underwrite exhibitions of such material.
The sentiments of the taxpayers eventually carried the day, and President Bush, albeit rather delicately, canned Mr. Frohnmayer. This development Mr. Frohnmayer described, artistically, as an "eclipse of the soul."
In Maryland, we had our own little version of this controversy over a proposed publicly-funded exhibition in Frederick of a painting showing George Bush naked. This masterpiece too was eclipsed, giving rise to the usual mumbles about censorship and philistinism.
The debate over the nature of art goes back to the Greeks, but in this country it dates from Feb. 17, 1913, when hundreds of works by unknown and unconventional artists were exhibited in New York's 69th Regiment Armory. The show-stopper was "Nude Descending a Staircase," by the French artist Marcel Duchamp. One critic wrote that the picture looked like "an explosion in a shingle factory."
But people were fascinated by the exhibition, even Theodore Roosevelt, who noted that it was at the very least free of "simpering, self-satisfied conventionality." And since that time, unconventional art from the metal mobiles of Alexander Calder to the soup cans of Andy Warhol has been critically acclaimed and commanded high prices.
In 1937, in the belief that his country should have ready access to great works of art, Andrew Mellon gave his collection of Old Masters to the nation, and provided funds to build the National Gallery, which opened in 1941. Today, on exhibition there, along with Old Masters and many newer ones, you can see "32 Soup Cans" by Mr. Warhol.
No one, as far as I can tell, seriously objects to this. Mr. Warhol's soup cans may not be what some of us would journey to Washington to see, but they've passed the basic test of any marketplace. Many people do want to see them, and for that reason they have acquired value. The same is true of other 20th century works on exhibition at the National Gallery.
One day, who knows, the photographs of Mr. Mapplethorpe may be on display at the National Gallery too. The Gallery is developing its photographic collection and has acquired important work by Alfred Stieglitz and Walker Evans. It's hard to imagine that the Mapplethorpe pictures will stand the test of time as these have, but if soup cans can be famous, so perhaps can bullwhips.
The outgoing Mr. Frohnmayer moaned that he was the victim of people who see "artists as enemies and ideas as demons." But he just didn't get it. As offensive as many people found some of the works the National Endowment for the Arts subsidized, hardly anyone has said they shouldn't have been created or shouldn't have been exhibited. The objection was simply over who paid the bill.
In his 1968 book "Artist in America," the painter Thomas Hart Benton complained about the impact of the famous 1913 show in the New York armory. It began a process, he said, of "turning art away from the living world of active men and women into an academic world of empty pattern."
He bitterly cited the growing influence on art of "coteries of highbrows, of critics, college art professors and museum boys [with] a vested interest in aesthetic obscurity, in highfalutin symbolisms and devious and indistinct meanings." This is a familiar refrain, and a sympathetic one today to many Americans disgusted with the exclusionary atmosphere of much of the art world.
The National Endowment for the Arts was created, like other American disasters, in the mid-1960s. It started out with a $5 million appropriation, and was intended to make modest grants to support a variety of artistic activities.
But the power to subsidize is both intoxicating and corrupting. The National Endowment for the Arts grew, as did its twin, the National Endowment for the Humanities, until it was spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Over the years, waste proliferated and taxpayer resentments grew; all the Mapplethorpe affair did was toss a match into an already combustible situation.
On the whole, both Endowments would surely be better off shut down. And if the money thus saved must still be used for art, then it ought to be given directly to the states. Because if politicians are going to decide what's deserving art and what's not, the closer to home they have to do it the better.
Peter Jay's column appears here each Sunday.