Risque? No! Some Art Is Just Lousy : NEA: You know pornography when you see it, it is said. But the endowment’s dilemma is: Will anybody admit to recognizing bad art?

<i> Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to Newsweek and the Atlantic</i>

Two men in blackout costumes sit on a darkened stage pushing flashlights around a table. Every few minutes a disembodied voice recites a poem that begins: “Vincent plucked the primal lobe up.” The men repeat the verse in German. Occasionally, a flashlight swings by on a rope. This continues in various permutations for nearly an hour. Intermission.

A man with a brass instrument attached to huge amplifiers plays discordant melodies described in the program as “trombone-propelled electronics imposing on structural adaptations and cultural misunderstandings.” Intermission.

A small orchestra performs a nerve-grating symphony as an actor shouts a deliberately repetitious monologue till the cacophony drowns him out. House lights up, and good night.

Welcome to The Kitchen, a small Manhattan performance art “space” supported in part by federal taxes. The Kitchen experienced a moment of national notoriety in the late 1980s, when a woman named Annie Sprinkle exposed herself on its stage while telling the audience she had funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. She didn’t, though The Kitchen did--$60,000 in federal overhead grants that year.

Press accounts promptly suggested wild sexuality to be standard avant-garde fare. Patrick J. Buchanan, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and other NEA opponents continue to assert that lurid sexual content is typical of government-supported art. The mood in the art Establishment has become so grim that, in his farewell address, former NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer compared right-wing attacks on the arts endowment to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Buchanan fired back with more claims that NEA art is rife with hard-core images.


Rife with men pushing flashlights is more like it. The smut sideshow has been sustained by its monetary value to conservative fund-raisers and by its appeal to journalists, who cannot resist a valid-sounding excuse to slip phrases like “caressed her naked breasts” into serious public-policy stories. (Hmmm . . . which we just accomplished here.) Smutty art just isn’t that common.

As a medium-strength fan of experimental theater, I’ve sat through many evenings of NEA-backed performance art. I’ve seen little that would make anyone’s librarian aunt uncomfortable, though lots that might leave her bored.

What goes on at a typical night at The Kitchen has far more significance to the NEA debate than the occasional salacious work. Acts like trombone-propelled electronics meet all anti-obscenity strictures. Such work is in good taste. It’s serious. And it’s a category the NEA has difficulty dealing with--bad art.

“Some of the art we fund is quite bad,” says Kitty Carlisle Hart, director of the New York State Art Council. “Historically there has been a great deal of bad art, and there’s going to be a great deal more.”

Consider the Brooklyn Academy of Music, an avant-garde organization that receives government funds. In recent years, BAM has hosted several unconventional events of aesthetic significance, including the haunting Philip Glass opera, “Einstein on the Beach.”

BAM has also presented a number of projects that fall in the gray area between waste of time and really bad. Memorable was a “mock epic poem” called “The Warrior Ant.” Belly dancers, puppeteers and calypso bands performed seemingly at random as narrators read what one critic called “an alternatively pretentious and facetious script” having vaguely to do with an ant that becomes a Japanese samurai. The show’s highlight was an 18-foot-high mechanical insect.

Perhaps future generations will consider “The Warrior Ant” an unappreciated work of great distinction. NOT!

In addition to general government support, “The Warrior Ant” received a special $25,000 chairman’s discretionary grant from the Reagan-era NEA. Now, $25,000 for a clockwork ant--could this have sounded any way other than nutty on the grant application?--is a greater argument against government arts funding than the smaller sums inadvertently conferred on work some find offensive.

That government underwrites bad art is not the indictment. Art is fundamentally experimental, and a percentage of experiments fail--as science-funding agencies know. Conservatives sometimes argue that public funds should support only art widely agreed to be of abiding merit, coded as “the best.” But consensus about excellence applies only to past eras whose bad art has been sifted out. If “the best” were the guiding principle of cultural investment, all art would be like opera: endless restagings of the classics, with new works on rare occasion.

The existence of bad art is a natural and even healthy sign of a vibrant, risk-taking cultural scene. The problem is the NEA has enormous difficulty coming to grips with this harmless fact.

An outgrowth of the numerous historical instances of the Establishment rejecting what came to be seen as brilliant art--Van Gogh, Mozart, jazz, James Joyce, Martha Graham, the Sistine Chapel--is that today many otherwise-opinionated people seem to feel the only intellectually safe position on art is to call nothing bad.

In recent years, whenever an NEA-supported work, such as the Andres Serrano photograph, “Piss Christ,” has become controversial, the art world response boils down to, “No one dares criticize us.” The subtext is that one must be either utterly unquestioning that all works produced by all artists are equally worthy, or be a hayseed with a pitchfork. Imagine how art controversies might be doused if the NEA could simply say to Congress of a few cases, “Sorry, that was bad art. Pretty stupid, huh?”

Yet NEA officials practically turn somersaults claiming they have no business considering what does or doesn’t constitute worthwhile use of a grant, squirming in correct liberal agony. This is an absurd position, given that the NEA’s job is to decide which art is good in order to determine who deserves funding.

In some ways the determined refusal to acknowledge that any art can ever be bad differs little from the pork-barrel imperatives of other interest groups. When was the last time the defense contractor community admitted that a weapon was a waste of money--was “bad?” The art world considers the NEA to be its one exclusive possession in the great Washington pie-slicing apparatus, there solely for the purpose of distributing funds.

But in the same way a “none may judge us” stance backfired for aerospace contractors at the end of the Reagan defense buildup, it is now backfiring for artists, keeping NEA opposition alive.

One outgrowth of the NEA flap is a handful of artists now seem to go out of their way to create dubious work with public funds, to show themselves pure by biting the hand that feeds. Yet there has been no comparable phenomenon of artists going out of their way to offend corporate sponsors--and they give artists about four times as much as the NEA.

The leading corporate arts patron is Philip Morris, also the leading tobacco marketer. You’ll search a long time before encountering an arts organization using Philip Morris funds for a work of art depicting suffering of lung-cancer victims. Though it’s inconceivable any big business would have sponsored the Mapplethorpe show, artists rarely express anger about this in the way many are furious at any suggestion that the government put qualifications on its grants.

Most corporations do not append formal content restrictions to grants, as at times the NEA has. But recipients understand they will never be funded again if they create any negative publicity for the sponsoring company, and most seem willing to do their more conventional work when on a corporate dime.

Yet when it is suggested artists do the same when employing the public’s money, artists go into a rage. Perhaps this is because they have come to think of public support as a right, rather than a privilege: A common confusion in an American society that has increasing difficulty making the distinction between those aspects of government that are elemental, and those merely nice to have.

A principal reason the arts endowment squabble drags on and on is that the arts community won’t come out and say that, splendid theories of freedom of expression aside, it was dumb for the NEA to support borderline endeavors such as “Piss Christ.” And it is dumb for artists to pretend that they should be above judgment, instead of just admitting that art, like everything else in life, often fails. There is no shame in producing bad art; only in refusing to admit it.