A flag in the toilet

BOSTON — BOSTON -- Further proof that this is a great country: If you stuff an American flag in a toilet and invite people to look at it, Uncle Sam will send you money. Do we have an enlightened government, or what?

Well, maybe Uncle Sam won't send you money. But the National Endowment for the Arts just granted another $35,000 to the Phoenix Art Museum, up from $15,000 last year. That's quite a vote of confidence, considering that Congress has sliced the NEA's budget by 40 percent and is thinking of defunding it altogether. The museum is apparently being rewarded for its current exhibit, "Old Glory: The American Flag in Contemporary Art."


And a fine exhibit it is, too, unless you're too culturally stunted to appreciate serious art. It includes Kate Millet's "The American Dream Goes to Pot," which consists of a wooden cage housing a porcelain toilet with a U.S. flag in it. Such subtlety. Such poignance. Such economy of expression. Another work, "What Is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?," invites viewers to write answers to that question in a guest book -- but requires them to walk on an American flag to do so. Isn't that powerful? Doesn't it speak eloquently to the human condition?

It's easy to see why the NEA is lavishing tens of thousands of dollars on the Phoenix Art Museum this year. What better use of public money could there be than bolstering an institution willing to present "Lime Pit" to the public. From the catalog: "In 'Lime Pit' (1990), a blood-dripping crucifix with a beheaded and legless Christ has been superimposed over the flag, thus turning it into a graven image." If there's a hacked-up Jesus in it, you know it's great art.


And how about "48 Star Flag (NU)5?" What a masterpiece: an American flag sewn from human flesh -- "specifically that of Caucasians," the catalog notes. Andrew Jeff Jacoby

Krasnow, the creator of this inspired work, acknowledges "an obvious association" with "the Nazi lampshade atrocities of the Second World War." That must be what makes it so good.

Not everyone is enamored of the Phoenix flag show. Thousands of Arizonans have protested outside the museum. The American Legion is outraged. The exhibition has been condemned by Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War POW, and by presidential candidate Bob Dole, a disabled World War II veteran. Most of the museum's corporate donors have explicitly renounced their ties to the exhibit.

Who, if not the feds?

But that didn't stop the folks at the National Endowment for the Arts, bless their spunk. Some agencies might balk at using tax dollars to display flags in toilets and Nazi-esque needlework. But if the feds didn't pay for this crud, who would?

The NEA, to be sure, swears that its new grants to the Phoenix Art Museum are not earmarked for the "Old Glory" exhibit. But dollars are dollars, and 35,000 more of them have just gone to the flag-in-the-toilet people. Did Congress really think that putting the NEA on probation would end its infatuation with sophomoric shock art and crude anti-establishment slop? If so, Congress has another think coming.

The Phoenix flag-fest is all in a day's work for the NEA. Even with Congress looking over its shoulder, the endowment continues to channel public funds to the tasteless and the tiresome.

For the 1995-1996 season it sent more money to Highways, the Santa Monica performance center where genitalia and homoerotic exhibitionism are mainstays. Among last season's government-subsidized offerings was "Boys R Us" (described in the Highways brochure as "our continuing series of hot summer nights with hot fags") and "Not for Republicans" (in which Marga Gomez held forth on "her favorite subjects," among them "sex with Newt Gingrich's mom."). Currently on stage: "Elements of Flesh," featuring a 68-year-old woman who, according to the Los Angeles Times, "writhe(s) provocatively to . . . a bass clarinet while offering graphic and humorous descriptions of her sexual exploits." Your tax dollars at work.


Then there is William Pope of Lewiston, Maine, one of the last recipients of an NEA fellowship. (A 1995 law ended the endowment's practice of making grants to individual performers.) Mr. Pope told the Maine Telegram he had two projects in mind for his $20,000 federal grant. One: to chain himself, in his underwear, to an ATM machine and give money to passers-by. The other: to rig a 6-foot-long white cardboard penis and walk through the city streets wearing it. No wonder the NEA was so keen to give him $20,000 before the fellowship money ran out. Again: If the feds didn't pay for this crud, who would?

Art that has to be subsidized by the government is -- by definition -- art that nobody wants. Americans will pay voluntarily for art that inspires or moves or enriches them. They will reach into their pockets to support theater, music, literature, dance. They will build museums and found orchestras and publish poetry and endow libraries.

But will they pay $20,000 for someone to stroll through town in a six-foot faux penis? Probably not. For that, you need the NEA.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 6/04/96