Although I very much regret that I never had the chance to meet Jesse Helms, we did have what you might call a peripheral connection. The first took place nearly 20 years ago, when I was serving the second of my two terms on the Board of the Writers Guild of America.
Because the Board had the authority to mete out any sum less than $5,000 without putting it to a vote of the membership, groups and individuals were constantly showing up at our meetings and requesting $4,999. Often, they wanted it to help defray legal expenses in censorship cases, and because censorship is always a hot button issue with writers, and because most of the Board members were liberals, with a liberal sprinkling of ex-Communists, it figures that we usually coughed up the dough. Leftists, after all, are notorious spendthrifts when it comes to other people’s money.
On this one particular occasion, it was Robert Mapplethorpe’s lawyers who came hat in hand. Mapplethorpe, in case he’s slipped your mind, was a pornographer -- whoops, I mean a photographer -- whose work mainly consisted of frontal nudity shots of homosexual males and prepubescent boys and girls. He had also wowed the effete snobs who inhabit the art world with his Crucifix in Urine.
In any case, Sen, Jesse Helms had used the work of Mr. Mapplethorpe as a reason to cut off government funding of the National Endowment of the Arts. Inasmuch as I agreed with the senator’s low opinion of the NEA, and as I have always opposed tax dollars going to fund art, I voted against forking over good money to help Mapplethorpe fight an obscenity charge.
To convince a liberal that something is art, I came to realize, you merely have to put a frame around it. On more than one occasion, that “something” has not merely figuratively, but literally, been human excrement.
I’m not certain after all these years what Sen. Helms said when he railed against the NEA, but it goes without saying that he was excoriated by the New York Times and the rest of the liberal press. For my part, I was opposed to the NEA for two main reasons. One, in a country this large and prosperous, any artist who couldn’t support himself was in need of vocational guidance, not a government handout. Two, any no-talent poseur who applied to the NEA and didn’t get an endowment could be counted on to insist he was a political martyr being censored by Big Brother, and would inevitably show up in our boardroom, demanding $4,999 of the members’ money.