AN AMERICAN VIEW

Jesse Helms on the meaning of art

'If someone wants to write ugly nasty things on the men’s room wall, the taxpayers do not provide the crayons’

FRED BRUNING August 14 1989
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Jesse Helms on the meaning of art

'If someone wants to write ugly nasty things on the men’s room wall, the taxpayers do not provide the crayons’

FRED BRUNING August 14 1989

Jesse Helms on the meaning of art

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

Contemporary art often can be as perplexing as the times that produce it. If society brings forth crack-addicted babies, AIDS, warring youth gangs, Mafia murders, child prostitution, rooftop snipers, racial assaults, junk food and aluminum baseball bats, artists may not content themselves with tranquil seascapes and watercolor renderings of springtime bouquets.

Art is obligated to provoke more than please, although one can be forgiven if he does not quite make sense of all that is hanging on museum walls or shown in the local sculpture garden. In one such New York City grove, there is a titanic pile of rusting steel that looks a great deal like the aftermath of a train wreck, but to the artist, and those who appreciate his intent, the assemblage may speak some essential truth, even if it is nothing more than to make certain your life insurance is in order before boarding the next Amtrak express.

Bewildered we may be by the profusion of abstractions and grotesqueries favored by certain sculptors, painters and photographers, but let us not be fooled into thinking that their work represents a threat to domestic peace or the national morality. In other words, we do not need to be saved from the artist, unless we believe it true that we need to be saved from ourselves. Spare us, instead, the yokels and yahoos who consider it their solemn duty to shield the public from what they, the yahoos, consider disturbing. Most specifically, spare us at this moment the most honorable Jesse Helms, Republican senator from North Carolina, defender of prevailing community values, arbiter of good taste, outstanding American and art critic extraordinaire.

Recently, Senator Helms, heretofore best known for his 18th-century views on social problems and civil liberties, saw fit to propose a measure that would bar the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from promoting material deemed “obscene or inde-

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

If someone wants to write ugly nasty things on the men’s room wall, the taxpayers do not provide the crayons’

cent.” Who does the deeming, of course, and by what standard, is a matter for another time. The point is that Helms, perceiving a clear and present danger, plunged headlong into the breach and—what do you know?—the United States Senate followed.

Helms was exercised upon learning that government money had been used to support exhibitions of two unorthodox photographers, Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. Serrano, listed as a “conceptual” practitioner in the latest Who’s Who of American Art, contributed, among other things, a print of a plastic crucifix submerged in what the artist claimed was a pail of his own urine. Mapplethorpe, now deceased, trained his attention on the world of male homosexuals, and, in part, on the sadomasochistic lifestyle of some gay men. As Jesse Helms recalled his wife exclaiming after she looked at a Mapplethorpe catalogue, “Lord have mercy, Jesse, I’m not believing this.”

Many Americans would likewise petition the heavens upon confronting such vexatious subject matter. It would never occur to most of us, after all, to seek pain and, hence, pleasure, by practising stepover toeholds on some ardent volunteer of the same sex. Perhaps even fewer

of us have been tempted to collect our own drainage and marinate the holiest symbol in Christendom. Nor, to be sure, can we fail to anticipate Mrs. Helms’s dismay if she happened upon a Mapplethorpe work titled Man in Polyester Suit. Revealed here, from chest to kneecap, is a slender male attired in a threepiece polyester suit. Apparently, however, the poor man had to dress hurriedly, because his zipper is quite conspicuously ajar and a prominent component of his anatomy awaits retrieval. Oh, yes, he is black, too. Lord, have mercy.

Helms makes a point of saying that if people want to engage in this sort of mischief and call it art, that is their perfect right. But, he insists, “No artist has a pre-emptive claim on the tax dollars of the American people to put forward such trash.” His desire to withhold funds is not an act of censorship but a reaffirmation of common sense. Referring to one of the disputed works, the senator blustered: “I don’t even acknowledge the fellow who did it was an artist. I think he was a jerk.”

What Helms overlooks is that it makes little difference what he thinks. Congress is no more prepared to determine what is art than artists are prepared to revise the income tax laws— although it must be said on that score that Serrano and Mapplethorpe couldn’t have done a much less satisfactory job than the professionals on Capitol Hill. The language employed by Helms in his pro-decency measure is so broad as to encompass everything from a Playboy cartoon to Michelangelo’s statue of David. “It’s hard to think of any work except flowers or still lifes which isn’t offensive under its terms,” said Robert Buck, director of the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

Unless the Helms initiative is overturned further along in the legislative process, two art groups that exhibited the disputed photographs will be denied government assistance for five years and $500,000 will be shifted from support of visual arts to less problematic local projects and folk endeavors. In addition, the move by Helms upholds an earlier decision by the House of Representatives to shortchange the NEA budget by $54,000—precisely the amount represented by the cost of showing the works of Serrano and Mapplethorpe.

When elected representatives feel called upon to negotiate standards for artists, their constituents are invited to wonder if the people we send to Washington have enough honest work to stay busy. When our leaders undertake to define what is “obscene or indecent,” we may suggest to them that, as Americans, we can do so quite adequately for ourselves. “Totalitarian governments dictate what art and what ideas are acceptable,” said John Brademas, president of New York University. “Governments of free peoples don’t.”

Overcome by righteousness, Jesse Helms says he will not relent. “If someone wants to write ugly nasty things on the men’s room wall, the taxpayers do not provide the crayons,” he proclaims. Let the gentleman from North Carolina be reminded, however, that if a senator chooses to jot unseemly things on a piece of legislation, the taxpayers may prefer to no longer supply his crayons, either.