Only Partly Degradable

GEORGE F. WILL

July 22, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "The arts,'' laments Rep. Sidney Yates, D-Ill., ''will be terribly, terribly hurt'' by the ''enormous impact'' of what the House of Representatives did. What it did was cut 5 percent from the $174.6 million budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Now, even allowing for the fact that federal funds often generate matching private contributions, it is a bit much, even by the standards of congressional hyperbole, to say that in this nation that spends many billions on the arts, their fate is imperiled by a nick of $8.7 million from a budget that is just a tad more than three times the sum fetched by the last Van Gogh painting auctioned. Speaking of whom, just think:

Van Gogh painted without a subsidy from the Dutch government. Today that government, like ours, has discovered the pork potential of handouts for the arts ''community,'' as that lobby calls itself. In ''The Culture of Complaint,'' the art critic Robert Hughes says of the art subsidized in the Netherlands: ''So there it all sits, democratic, non-hierarchical, non-elitist, non-sexist, unsalable, and, to the great regret of the Dutch government, only partially biodegradable.''

But I digress.

The little cut in the NEA came from an amendment of Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who noted that the NEA's proposed budget was million larger than federal funding for prevention of breast and cervical cancer. ''What,'' he asked, ''is more important -- promotion of the arts or the health of the women of this nation.''

Good question, but it is unclear what Mr. Stearns' opinion is, given that the NEA's budget is still $30 million larger after his amendment.

An amendment to eliminate the NEA -- restoring American arts to the conditions that existed between 1776 and 1965, when the NEA was created as a filigree on the Great Society -- got 105 House votes this year, up from 85 a year ago. Just 113 more votes and America's artists would have to work as George Caleb Bingham and Winslow Homer did, without a federal subvention. Imagine.

The House debate about the NEA was particularly entertaining concerning an exhibit at New York's Whitney Museum, ''Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art.'' NEA defenders said: Yes, the Whitney has received NEA money, but that exhibit was funded privately. NEA critics countered: Money is fungible, so NEA money helped condition all the Whitney's activities; and the NEA money went to the Whitney's Independent Study Program that organized the ''Abject Art'' exhibit; and if the Whitney can afford such exhibits without tax dollars, why send those dollars?

The NEA's critics won that exchange. There is taxpayer involvement in the Whitney's exhibit, the catalog for which says the exhibit confronts ''taboo issues of gender and sexuality.'' Taboo? Where? Not in Manhattan. Or Manhattan, Kansas, or anywhere else in modern America. On campuses you can hardly study Emily Dickinson, or, for all I know, electrical engineering, without ''confronting'' the ''issues'' of gender and sexuality.

Anyway, the exhibit, which features such ''abject materials'' as dead animals, menstrual blood and rotten food, includes a three-foot-high mound of synthetic excrement, a film showing a man pushing his head into another man's rectum, framed samples of an infant's fecal stains, and, of course, two hardy perennials that government funding has managed to make into two of the most famous works of contemporary art -- Robert Mapplethorpe's ''Self- Portrait,'' a photo of him with a bullwhip in his rectum, and Andres Serrano's ''Piss Christ,'' a photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine.

Mr. Serrano's urine, to be precise, as one should be regarding art. When Mr. Serrano was visiting the University of Pennsylvania he said his urine did not necessarily have negative connotations: ''It's very hard for me as a human being to put a value on these fluids. . . . I accept my bodily fluids and I think Jesus did, too.''

Penn's president at the time, Sheldon Hackney (President Clinton's choice to head the NEA's twin in subsidizing the intelligentsia, the National Endowment for the Humanities), said in defense of NEA support for exhibitions of ''Piss Christ'' that the ''best protection we have found for a democracy is an unregulated market in expression.'' Think about that: Mr. Hackney believes that government subsidies create an ''unregulated market.''

It is peculiar but true that many people who preen about their love -- expressed in expenditures of other people's money -- for the arts seem to regard the arts as akin to say, soybeans: Subsidize them and they will flourish. Indeed they will, with the help of semantic fiat: Anything funded by an NEA grant is, by definition, art.

Art, perhaps, but alas only partially degradable.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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