Jim Holt

Time to End All State Subsidy for the Arts

 

‘When you’re feeling glum, stick a bullwhip up your ***.’ This bit of traditional schoolboy’s verse appears to have been the inspiration for a photograph that is at the centre of the latest arts controversy on these shores. The photo in question is a rather lewd self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe (who died of Aids last year), in which he moons the camera with a whip sprouting from his rear. It was to have been part of a retrospective of the photographer’s work at the Corcoran Museum in Washington that was underwritten by a government arts grant. But then a Senator from North Carolina named Jesse Helms got wind of what was going on. Someone gave this unreconstructed Old South conservative a catalogue of the Mapplethorpe exhibit –which, in addition to the aforementioned self-portrait, also included depictions of sadomasochistic scenes involving nasty-looking genital gadgets and plenty of nude black men. What was especially striking about the last was the hugeness of their prependents. ‘Lord have mercy, Jesse, I’m not believing this!’ exclaimed the Senator’s wife upon seeing the picture.

Helms was understandably disturbed. ‘This Mapplethorpe fellow was an acknowledged homosexual’, he pointed out to a reporter. ‘He’s dead now, but the homosexual theme goes throughout his work’. Though tagged ‘Senator Know-nothing’, Helms is not really a philistine. ‘I like beautiful things, not modern art’, he says adding that he has several oil paintings in his home, one of a man with his hands folded in prayer over a Bible. He does not advocate censorship. What irks him is the idea of the government spending the taxpayer’s money to support art that is perverted and immoral by his lights and those of the American people.

Accordingly, Helms has introduced legislation that would bar Federal arts funds from being used to ‘promote, disseminate, or produce obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion’; or which ‘denigrates, debases or reviles a person, group or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin.’

Helm’s proposed restriction passed the Senate in a nearly unanimous voice vote last summer; by the middle of the month congress is to decide whether some version of it should become law. Meanwhile, the Corcoran was frightened into cancelling the Mapplethorpe retrospective (it was picked up by an independent Washington museum which posted a warning at the entrance: ‘The Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit contains material that may be considered inappropriate for some children.’)

The beauty of the Helms measure is its logical inclusiveness. By banning grants for art that gives offence to believers in any religion or nonreligion, for instance, it would presumably make anti-Communist art ineligible for funding, which could hardly have been the Senator’s intention. But its lack of ideological bias has not mollified the arts lobby, whose members are currently on the ramparts fighting for the soul of American culture. For them the Helms measure is the thin end of the wedge: first you ban funds for Mapplethorpe; then you ban funds for Shakespeare; the next thing you know, you have fascism (the last part of this scenario was made explicit by the artist Robert Motherwell). Helms rejects such slippery slope arguments, noting that ‘there’s a big difference between The Merchant of Venice and a photograph of two males of different races [in an erotic pose] on a marble table top’.

Sub specie aeternitatis, however the difference may not be all that great. So at least, some critics seem to suggest. Although most sensible people are content to acknowledge Mapplethorpe’s technical mastery when it comes to finish and framing (while perhaps expressing reservations about the importance of photography as an art form) John Russell of the Times, for one, has declared Mapplethorpe a ‘Platonic idealist whose energy was focused on redeeming precisely what conventional moralists find offensive’. But the most touching tribute to Mapplethorpe’s moral seriousness came from a woman who had modelled for him in some of his oral sex photos. ‘I remember when I met Robert, the first thing I noticed on his wall was a crucifix’ she wrote in a letter to the Times, going on to observe that ‘the crucifixion of Christ has inspired an incredible amount of art; it is the most powerful S/M symbol of all time.’

Around the same time, as it happened, another state-subsidised photographer named Andres Serrano aroused the ire of Congress by exploiting just this image. A $15,000 federal grant enabled Serrano to exhibit a photo entitled ‘Piss Christ’ which depicted a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar with his own urine (although one source alleged that the liquid in the jar was actually beer). To many this was an even greater imposture upon the public than Mapplethorpe, since Serrano’s work evidently had no aesthetic pretensions; it seemed calculated merely to outrage religious sensibilities. Senator Helms was characteristically blunt in his assessment: ‘I don’t even acknowledge the fellow who did it as an artist. I think he was a jerk.’

Not unexpectedly, those better in touch with the contemporary art scene saw ‘Piss Christ’ as something more than a crude act of sacrilege. The Times observed that the photo ‘can be interpreted as an attempt at exorcising the artist’s Roman Catholic upbringing’ and commended it for bringing together ‘the sacred and the profane’ in an ‘economical’ way (this is certainly true given the negligible cost of the ingredients). Serrano himself declared ‘Piss Christ’ to be a protest against the commercialisation of sacred imagery. Apparently the work is capable of sustaining multiple and conflicting meanings – which, if I remember correctly from college aesthetics lectures, is one of the earmarks of genuine art.

The federal agency that plays the role of the subsidising muse in this country is the National Endowment for the Arts. Since it was founded in 1965, only a handful of the 80 thousand grants it has handed out have come under attack. A few years ago, there was a bit of a stir when the son of the playwright William Saroyan got $15,000 towards writing a poem that consisted of the single word ‘Lighght’ [sic]; perhaps the fuss could have been avoided had the NEA sprung another $10,000 for a proofreader. In 1984 a congressman called Mario Biaggi decried an NEA-subsidised production of Rigoletto for portraying the opera’s characters as Mafiosi; Biaggi himself, however, probably did the Italian-American cause more harm when he was subsequently thrown in prison for corruption.

Whether the government should be in the business of financing the arts in the first place is a vexed question. Although such subsidies have been shown to have a beneficial impact on culture, providing a sort of life-support system for an otherwise moribund modernism, they also represent a veiled transfer of wealth from the lower to the upper classes. As long as they are continued, maybe Jesse Helms’s measure would not be such a bad thing. Effectively it would replace the peer-review system by which grants are currently doled out with a Congress-as-connoisseur system. And what could be more amusing or instructive for the American public than the spectacle of a bunch of Senator Claghorns grappling with the nuances of avant-garde art?

* * *

This fall the end of history and the end of nature were simultaneously proclaimed here, giving rise to much high-flown cocktail-party chitchat. It was as if the two biggest shows on Broadway closed the same week.

The end of history was announced by someone called Francis Fukuyama. In an article appearing in the National Interest, a conservative Washington political journal, this hitherto obscure State Department functionary and pop-Hegelian submitted that the contradictions which used to drive the historical dialectic have all been resolved now that the Cold War is over; with Western consumerist democracy triumphant around the world (in spirit if not in practice), man’s ideological evolution has reached its highest stage. Lest we begin dancing in the streets, however, Fukuyama hastens to add that post-history will be ‘a very sad time’, since ‘the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal’ will have given way to more ‘economic calculation’. Who knows, he says, the prospect of ‘centuries of boredom’ might even spur us somehow to get history started again! Instructions for doing this, I suppose, are to be found somewhere in Vico.

Just as Fukuyama’s end-of-history thesis was becoming fashionable, the New Yorker came out with an article entitled ‘The End of Nature’. It argued that the greenhouse effect has turned the earth into a giant science-fair project; consequently, nature is no longer sublime, or a fit subject for lyric poetry, but merely a reflection of our own squalid activities.

The end of nature and the end of history, both in the same month – rather a large coincidence, isn’t it? There would seem to be little left to do but await the Second Coming. To combat such discouraging thoughts, perhaps it is time to revive that slogan one used to see emblazoned on buttons in the early ’70s: ‘Don’t Immanentise the Eschaton!’

* * *

A few months ago I went on at some length in this space about ‘the perils of cable TV’. Let me tell you, I did not know the half of it at the time. The other day I turned on the tube in search of some mindless entertainment, only to find the editor of this journal gibbering away – in French, no less! And a most peculiar sort of demotic French it was, too. Nonetheless, his remarks seemed to be evoking great hilarity among the other guests on the show, a book-chat affair from France called l’Apostrophe that was being re-broadcast here. I lost no time in cancelling half my cable subscription; I now receive only every other channel.

* * *

Until this year Philip Larkin was neither known nor admired widely here. Many people who could quote Allen Ginsberg and John Ashbery from memory had not even heard his name. He was mainly the province of the ‘young farts’, America’s Pym-and-Orwell-reading counterparts to Britain’s young fogeys.

I used to be in the habit of declaiming Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’ at parties when the repartee showed signs of flagging, confident that no-one would be familiar with it. It always got a good laugh. I would then relate how John Betjeman (another unknown name) once surprised a television interviewer who was curious about his favourite poem by coming out with ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ etc, forcing the BBC to juggle their programming for that evening so that the show wouldn’t be aired until after the kiddies were in bed. But when I tried to explain that its author had turned down the poet-laureateship of England, there was great incredulity. Eventually I just started saying that I had composed the poem myself.

Now that Larkin’s Collected Poems have been published and prominently reviewed here I can no longer get away with this sham. ‘This Be the Verse’ has attained wide currency (although the poet Derek Walcott – whom Larkin regarded highly, by the way – misattributed the line ‘Man hands on misery to man’ to the poem ‘Aubade’ in a review). It is time to import another striking bit of doggerel from England to liven up listless Manhattan social occasions. Could someone kindly supply me with the four lines that complete the verse beginning ‘When you’re feeling glum, stick a finger up your bum’?

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