How Helms Helps Mapplethorpe

THE old Jewish cemetery in Warsaw is a dank and teeming hillside, like a dark secret the authorities wish would go away. I asked my impromptu guide, a young man who was one-quarter Jewish, whether certain things were true regarding the unhappy plight of Jews in that country. ``Maybe,'' he replied, the word full of nuance. It seemed a residue from the days, still recent, when Poles couldn't say what they really meant. Americans aren't used to such shades of meaning. We say what we want. As a result, we generally convey less.

Vaclav Havel, the new Czech president, put our politicians to shame when he addressed Congress back in February. ``He held us spellbound,'' one House member recalled. Compelled to speak in allusion and code, the people who became Eastern Europe's new leaders developed real voices. Beside them, our own officeholders can sound adolescent and shrill. ``Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around,'' was Havel's assessment of Marxism. Can you imagine Dan Quayle or your local congressman saying something like that?

Havel, a playwright, once addressed the question of expression and restraint in a letter to his wife from prison. ``I have always stressed the importance of convention in theater,'' he wrote. ``Where everything is allowed nothing has the power to survive.'' What is true of form applies also, in a different way, to content as well. Unfortunately, the point is lost on Congress in the brouhaha over the latest crisis to the republic - nude pictures.

It all started, of course, with the exhibit of photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, some of which showed children without clothing. Led by Sen. Jesse Helms (D) of North Carolina, the political right seized gleefully upon the issue (federal arts funding was involved). In response, liberals hauled out the old alarms. ``Democracy is being threatened,'' Joseph Papp, the theatrical producer, said.

Charges of ``obscenity'' and ``censorship'' fly back and forth. Both sides have a point, yet both miss the important one. Liberals seem unwilling to see the obvious: If you want to take pictures of naked people, that's your own business, but please don't expect the Internal Revenue Service to take money forcibly from taxpayers so the government can hand it over to you.

More than taxpayer sensibilities are involved. The one thing worse than censorship is irrelevance. Standards, even stodgy ones, are important even for those who flout them - especially for those who flout them. Expression needs resistance the way ballet needs gravity and tennis needs a net.

This is not a brief for a police state. Artists and writers were miserable in communist regimes. But denial of federal funding is hardly that. If there's nothing worth opposing - if there's no danger - who cares? (This is why Eddie Murphy's stand-up routine is so tedious. His vulgarity defies a standard that hardly exists anymore.) Who even heard of Robert Mapplethorpe before Jessie Helms came along? The arts world should thank the senator. He made Mapplethorpe matter.

That doesn't make Helms right, however. Like most moralists, he represents a prudery and reaction that always begets its opposite. The pictures are antisocial, he proclaims. Naturally crowds now flock to see them. This is the same wrongheadedness one sees in antidrug ads. Drugs are dangerous, they sternly warn. Exactly why so many kids want drugs.

In her last days, the writer Katherine Mansfield confided that she would write much differently given a little more time. A friend recalled her new goal: ``To make the commonplace virtues as attractive as ordinarily the vices are made: to present the good as the witty, the adventurous, the romantic...; and the evil as the platitudinous, the dull, the conventional....''

The problem with pornography (which the Mapplethorpe show isn't) is not that it's naughty. It's that it's pedestrian and dull. There's more challenge in conveying romance by allusion, much as radio is often more compelling than TV. Today's risk-taking comic shuns four letter words as the easy way to get a laugh.

Missing this, Helms manages to give virtue a bad name.

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