Heiner proposed a novel defense. If smearing elephant dung on a portrait of the Virgin Mary was speech, so was smearing white paint on the elephant dung. "Answering speech with speech" is how Heiner describes it.
The thing is, if he'd been tried by a jury of National Endowment for the Arts grantees, he'd have a pretty good case. In her new, invaluable and shockingly intelligent book, "Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance," cultural critic Lynne Munson lays bare the new, rigid art ethic enforced by government bureaucrats and official academicians. Heiner's project would fit right in.
"Postmodernism ushered in an established academicism which celebrated the contrary for its own sake. Suddenly, being shocking or offensive or just anti-art was the safest approach an artist could take," writes Munson. Where once the NEA offered support and recognition to a variety of artists of proven merit, today the exclusion of artists not working in the postmodern mode is "virtually systematic, with nearly all of the fellowships going to artists whose work was intended primarily to serve as social critique." "I'm not impressed by craft or skill," three-time NEA grantee and NEA panelist David Diao makes clear. "I'm more impressed by ideas and something that's driven by conceptual issues. ... for me it's always the culture that generates ideas, not individuals." This is why the NEA funds everything from Piss Christ to Finley Feces. One enterprising artist got the NEA to pay for his home's hydroelectric system. Another artist successfully got the NEA to fund a performance piece that involved shutting herself up in a concrete cube with some wild animals and building nests. But perhaps the ideal performance piece, as Munson reports one postmodern artist suggested, would be to invite an audience and shoot them.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.