The NEA defends the Indefensible

GEORGE F. WILL

August 23, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

San Diego. -- Back on the other edge of the continent, in Washington, the National Endowment for the Arts, responding to yet another debacle, is saying, as usual:

The peculiar goings-on (this time in San Diego) are aberrations; NEA approval of the grant that enabled three ''experimental'' artists to give, as an ''act of art,'' crisp new $10 bills to illegal immigrants should not be considered evidence that the NEA approves of this; and this episode should not become a reason for attacking the ''freedom'' of the ''arts community.'' And so on.

The NEA has this pitter-patter down pat, having had much

practice. It used it concerning the money for displaying the photograph of the crucifix in urine, and the money to display the photograph of the bullwhip in the man's rectum, and the money for the ''performance artist'' who smears herself with chocolate to dramatize that America treats women as ''nothing but s---,'' and the money for the Whitney Museum's display featuring a mound of synthetic excrement and a film of a man pushing his head into another man's rectum, and money for . . .

Because money streams can be melded or separated by creative bookkeeping, the NEA, using what the CIA would call ''plausible deniability,'' may claim it is not ''really,'' or any rate ''directly,'' involved in -- although it supports a group involved in -- a current Times Square exhibit. This exhibit features bright yellow mannequins clad in clothes made of condoms. An NEA spokesperson says San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art here has behaved, well, unexpectedly by funding the cash giveaways by the ''experimental'' artists. One of San Diego's ''experimenters,'' speaking in the arts-babble that impresses arts bureaucrats, explains that handing $10 bills to illegal immigrants is ''the interaction of physical space with intellectual space and civic space.'' It also was lunch, as some recipients rushed to a food truck to buy tacos with their windfalls.

Defenses of the NEA rarely rise above rhetorical cotton candy -- sugary air about the virtue of spending to ''connect'' art, however defined, with audiences, however composed. The defenses rest on infantile reasoning: Art is a Good Thing, therefore public spending on it is a Good Deed.

That is a crashing non sequitur. (For the word ''art'' substitute ''religion'' or ''volleyball'' or ''oatmeal cookies.'') But, anyway, the NEA is, strictly speaking and because of its own principles, indefensible. Any defense must begin with a definition of art and its public function, and NEA defenders will not let it begin.

Government subsidizes soybean production. Some people agree with this, some disagree, but all agree about what a soybean is. However, the NEA cannot define art, yet it resists restrictions on its activities. It seems to regard standards -- the linking of public funds to defensible public purposes -- as disguised censorship. (It says its standards come from ''peer review'' of grant requests. Please. Imagine ''peer review'' of defense contracts by defense contractors.)

Given the far-advanced decay of the idea of art in our time, the NEA's primary task -- to define its mission -- is impossible. There no longer is public consensus about the meaning, let alone the public importance, of art.

Ours is an age in which a ''postmodernist'' exhibits a caged pig. Another drapes curtains across Colorado valleys. A ''conceptualist'' spends 16 days on the Trans-Siberian Railway, burns his notes, smears the ashes on slates, and exhibits the slates. An ''environmental artist'' puts a ''kinetic sculpture'' (a bucket of fireworks) atop the Brooklyn Bridge. A British gallery exhibits ''Room Temperature,'' a bucket of water with two dead flies. (A janitor at London's Tate Gallery cleaned up a pile of bricks. Big blunder. It was an exhibit.) An artist representing America at the 1976 Venice Biennale produced a short unpainted stick cut from standard lumber and hung on a wall. College credit in ''art'' has been given for spending a week in a gym locker -- ''a duration-confinement body piece.'' So the San Diego artists who disbursed $10 bills, and called the disbursement art, were not too peculiar by today's standards, or lack thereof.

The arts lobby (''community'') says the government should pay up and pipe down. It says the government should give it money without defining art or saying what sort of art serves the public purpose and thus deserves public funding. Not surprisingly, the NEA, that private preserve of the arts lobby, acts as though art is whatever is done by anyone calling himself an artist. And that is why San Diego's ''experimenters'' have scattered paper money.

Many NEA defenders are philistines passing as anti-philistines. They assume that society can increase its supply of art the way it increases its supply of soybeans, by making production more lucrative. The result of such thinking was on exhibit here, when those illegal immigrants were buying tacos with crisp new $10 bills.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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