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Tax dollars aren't an artist's right

John Frohnmayer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, acquired three new vertebrae the other day. It was a nice acquisition: It gave him twice the backbone he had the day before. Thus emboldened, he actually denied grants to a couple of applicants from the far-out fringe. Hallelujah!

To be sure, it should not have required even one more vertebra to reject these beauties. One application came from the Franklin Furnace, the other from Highways. The Washington Post reported the story on Feb. 4.

It appears that every year for the past 16 years, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has given a potful of the taxpayers' money to the Franklin Furnace, a "New York bastion of avant-garde art." The current grant is $40,000. Another way to say it is that last year Frohnmayer took all the income tax paid by eight middle-income families and gave it to this outfit.

For the 1992-93 season, the Franklin Furnace sought a $25,000 grant. The NEA's advisory council looked at a videotape of a monologuist who goes by the name of Scarlet O. Lest I be accused of making things up, let me quote from the Post:

"In the videotape, she discussed attitudes about sexuality. She starts out dressed as a man (using a sexual prop) and shows highly explicit photographs of herself in various bizarre costumes that she uses to explore her sexual 'personae.' She then invites audience members to apply lotion to her nude body."

The Post noted that the NEA had not funded her performance on this particular tape. Nevertheless, the tape was submitted in support of the Furnace's application. A 12-member peer review panel recommended that the grant be awarded, but the advisory council said no, and Frohnmayer affirmed that recommendation.

Naturally, this has set off a hullabaloo. Renny Pritikin, chairman of the peer review panel, is complaining that the council acted after seeing only a few minutes of the tape. He feels the council should have looked at all 70 minutes of it, on the theory that one must eat the whole of a rotten egg before concluding that something is fatally yucky.

The council also voted to turn down a $5,000 grant sought by Highways, identified in the Post account as a fledgling gallery in Los Angeles. The gallery submitted a selection of 25 "homoerotic photographs" as part of its application.

One of the Highways' photographs depicted men engaged in oral sex.

The advisory council voted 17-1 against the Franklin Furnace, 10-7 against the Highways application.

Frohnmayer once asked me why I picked on him and the NEA. I tried to explain, but couldn't quite get through to the gentleman, that I find no constitutional authorization _ none, zero, zilch _ for the NEA's funding of individual artists who produce art that is patently bilge.

An artist has no "right" to practice his art at the taxpayer's expense. The artist's right is a right of free expression, stemming from the First Amendment's protection of a right to free speech. Nothing on Earth prevents Miss O from hiring a hall, selling tickets, stripping down to garter belt and stockings, "and inviting an audience member to rub lotion between her legs." The cops may raid the joint, but that's between the lady and the law. If her art is art at all, it is not the kind of art envisioned when the NEA came into being.

Perhaps a constitutional authority can be found for granting tax subsidies to museums, major orchestras, and long-established theaters and festivals. I say perhaps. It's highly doubtful. James Madison would not have thought so. The Constitution authorizes Congress to lay taxes to provide for the general welfare. Only by the most tortured twisting of that clause can justification be found for spending tax funds to promote the art of Scarlet O.

Congress has had abundant opportunity to abolish such individual grants. They ought to be abolished. We cannot rely indefinitely, after all, on Frohnmayer and his brand-new vertebrae.

Universal Press Syndicate