THE most revealing statement made in the current debate about government ``censorship'' of the arts was made by a resident of Cincinnati when the exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's photography, ``The Perfect Moment,'' came to town. ``You can't disguise pornography and get away with it in Cincinnati.'' This anonymous critic summed up the general suspicion towards the art world vented in the current debate about arts-funding through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He feels it's not just that funded art seems pornographic or atheistic, but that artists disguise their prurient or subversive motives - don't act in good faith towards their audiences. The group not heard from in this exchange is a group which has, historically, served as a bridge between the art world and popular taste. These are art critics. At their best, art critics interpret, explain, judge, and encourage audiences to watch and learn. They can act as a mediating force between popular suspicion or contempt, and good art. They can possibly prevent the citizen of Cincinnati from believing he is deliberately being made a fool of.
Newspapers can't provide this, no matter how thorough their coverage of what some call the ``war against art and culture'' in this country. Journalists are concerned to report first amendment issues. But they aren't prepared to make sense of the art works involved. The Village Voice came close when, in its June 5th issue ``The War on Art,'' it ran with the piece a photo of the performance artist Karen Finley au chocolat which, in grainy black and white, accomplished all that was desired in terms of thrills. It is the purpose of criticism to get beyond such visual gags and to interpret.
Both sides in this ``war'' have been driven to extremes. Members of the arts world condemn the NEA for its ``censorship.'' There is no censorship involved in denying taxpayer money to artists. It would be censorship if an artist were told: ``You cannot publish, you cannot perform, you cannot exhibit.'' The NEA instead is not awarding grants to artists, for political reasons.
On the other side, the Endowment's critics, such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California offered a sweeping affirmation of the NEA's decision to go against peer panel recommendations for four performance artists, saying: ``It shouldn't have been that difficult to reject sacrilegious and pornographic art. It is time we set some standards.'' Are these artistic or societal standards? Should politicians be setting standards?
Wars don't begin overnight. The conditions for the ``war against art and culture'' in the US have been created over time. Inattention towards the widening breach between popular concerns and the subjects of artists have helped create these conditions.
Placing this war-like debate in a larger context, consider the fate of Salman Rushdie. He writes without government funding, though now with government protection, and he has been sentenced to death by certain Moslem religious leaders. For Rushdie, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or Milan Kundera, the idea of our ``war against art and culture'' must seem ridiculous. The debate over arts in America can seem trivial. Here, art is not a life and death matter. But when it comes to public attention, it's a matter of money, though really very little. (The four recent grants advised against by the Advisory Council for the NEA were for amounts ranging from $5,000 to $11,250).
For this reason, too, criticism exists: to remind us of why great art is to be taken seriously. The critic is in the often uncomfortable position of interpreting both in and outside the art world. And this includes the onerous task of making judgments which insist that not everything which purports to be art, however shocking, or modest, is good art. There is now no critic of whom it can be said, as poet Robert Lowell said of Randall Jarrell: ``He had a deadly hand for killing what he despised. He described a murky verbal poet as `writing poems that might have been written by a typewriter on a typewriter,''' Congressmen are not art critics. They don't have either the power to kill what they despise, or to introduce audiences to what they love. That power and responsibility lies with critics. When the activity of criticism becomes sealed off from a general audience or even the art world fringe, it can only meet such crises as a ``war against art and culture'' with silence or cheers for the good guys. Unfortunately, neither silence nor cheering will end the ``war.'' It won't promote good new art, and it certainly won't convince the voter in Cincinnati who thinks he's being had.