HAS THE National Endowment for the Arts cleaned up its act?
In 1989, Sen. Jesse Helms drew attention to the NEA's practice of funding stunningly offensive "art" -- Robert Mapplethorpe's photos of himself being penetrated rectally by a bullwhip, for example, or Andres Serrano's images of a crucified Jesus submerged in urine, or Annie Sprinkle masturbating with sex toys before live audiences. The controversy Helms triggered is ongoing, and the public's scorn for the NEA has been noted in Congress. Two years ago, the endowment's funding was cut by 40 percent; last month the US House of Representatives voted to eliminate it altogether. (The Senate takes up the issue in September.)
Helms wasn't the first to point out the gross and vicious stuff the NEA was rewarding with public funds. In 1982, Dinesh D'Souza reported in Policy Review on the vile output of several NEA grant winners. ("My eyes are glistening grapes/ of gladness;/ yours are two turds floating/ in the toilet of your face" -- from "Death Collage and Other Poems" by Tom Veitch, $10,000 NEA literary grant recipient, 1976). Earlier still, the Saturday Review had asked, as a 1980 headline put it, "Are We Funding Junk?"
To the NEA's partisans, this is ancient history. They swear that the Annie Sprinkle days are over -- that the critics' objections have been taken seriously and the grant process reformed. "Although the NEA has awarded more than 100,000 grants . . . only a few have been controversial," insists Barbara Grossman, a member of the NEA's supervisory panel. Critics, she says, should stop "reciting the same tired examples like an incendiary mantra."
One lawmaker who seems to agree is US Sen. Slade Gorton. And since Gorton chairs the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the NEA's budget, his opinion matters.
"It's always been my view that the NEA required delicate surgery, but not death," he told CBS on Sunday. "Two or three years ago, it was engaged in activities that I found offensive myself, and know my constituents found to be offensive. I worked very hard to see to it that that didn't happen in the future and helped set up the conditions under which it operates today."
But the senator errs. The NEA hasn't changed. Mapplethorpe may be dead, but the process by which his proctological snapshots were deemed worthy of a federal subsidy is alive and well at the NEA. The agency continues to funnel taxpayers' money to arts organizations that promote work of mind-boggling nastiness. It does so despite public outrage. Despite congressional scrutiny. And it does so deliberately, advisedly, after an elaborate peer-review procedure that turns down thousands of appeals and selects only those that fit the NEA's agenda.
This past April, the NEA made a $400,000 grant -- its largest this year -- to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Even Barbara Grossman, so weary of hearing "the same tired examples" of past NEA funding travesties, would agree that the endowment may fairly be judged by its current grantmaking. So what does it mean when the NEA gives $400,000 to the Whitney? What do the taxpayers get for that money?
That's easy. They get the Whitney's trademark obsession with hostile dysfunctionality; they get art that is militant and crude; they get postmodernist mockery of traditional values and morality.
The Whitney's 1997 Biennial was underway even as the NEA grant was being announced. One of its largest exhibits was a video montage of what one reviewer called "a wildly perverted Santa's workshop." The videos featured a bare-bottomed man dressed as "Rudolph" who plays with naked female "elves." Among other activities, the elf-girls are shown defecating into buckets, mixing their excrement with chocolate, and feeding it to each other.
Another current NEA grant recipient is the Fiction Collective at Illinois State University, which received $25,000 to produce several books, including "S&M," "Blood of Mugwump," and "Mexico Trilogy." Each book displays the NEA seal of approval. Each is also filled with grotesque sexual imagery and language so vulgar it can't be quoted in a newspaper. Among the books' graphic scenes: a brother and sister rape their younger sister, two women engage in oral sex, an older woman anally tortures a young boy.
Speaking of torture: The NEA is sending $60,000 this year to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, to underwrite more exhibitions like the society's 1997 New Directors/-New Films series. Among other works of cinematic art, the festival featured "Sick," the tale of a masochist who nails the head of his penis to a board while what the New York Times calls "a perky rendition of `If I Had a Hammer' " plays on the soundtrack.
Speaking of sex organs: Hallwalls, an arts center in Buffalo, N.Y., got an NEA grant to screen "We're Talking Vulva," a video of dancing lesbians costumed as vaginas. But -- to be fair to the NEA -- Hallwalls's request for another grant to develop "Vulva" into a full-scale live performance was denied.
"We're Talking Vulva"
Dancing vaginas on video, yes; dancing vaginas on stage, no. Though Sen. Gorton may wish it were otherwise, that's about as far as "reform" goes at the NEA.
But why dwell on reform? It's not the government's job to be passing judgment on artists in the first place. Nor is it the government's job to be subsidizing them. The NEA dangerously erodes the separation of art and state. That's why it should be shut down.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)