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Government-subsidized works of the untalented

| Thursday, Feb. 22, 2001

Here. We. Go. Again.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art, like an infant squalling for adult attention, specializes in the naughtiness of the untalented. Two years ago it put on ''Sensation,'' an exhibition of the works of young British artists - average age, 35 - including the portrait of the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung. The marketing campaign for the exhibit included a mock - and mocking - government health warning that the works of art might cause ''vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety.''

It was supposed to cause, and did cause, a political tempest about the use of public funds for exhibitions offensive to a portion of the public. A cutoff of funds was threatened. The ''artistic community'' responded with cries of ''censorship.'' And so it went.

Now comes ''Yo Mama's Last Supper,'' one of 188 works in an exhibit of ''contemporary black photographers.'' The photograph features the photographer, Renee Cox, a muddleheaded and theoretically inclined - a common combination of traits nowadays - exhibitionist with a flair for self-promotion. She appears in the photograph nude, arms outstretched, in the place in which Jesus is traditionally portrayed in the Last Supper. Twelve of her friends pose as apostles. Another photographer's contribution to the exhibit is a topless woman on a crucifix. Last year at the Whitney Museum, Cox exhibited a black Jesus crucified and castrated. She calls this ''flipping the script, creating my own kind of kingdom, my own universe.''

By now, the indignation ritual is familiar to the point of banality. The minuet begins with one party trying to give offense. Next, the intended party takes offense. Then the first party theatrically resents that taking of offense. The unvarying subtext is that offensive artists feel entitled to public subsidies, any denial of which is censorship that proves the need to shock the bourgeoisie from its dogmatic slumbers.

Cox says she is not anti-Catholic, but she says there are ''major discrepancies with the Catholic faith'' and ''as an artist, my role is to create a discourse'' and she wants ''an open discourse'' about the church's retrograde attitudes about women and blacks, and 40 percent of slave owners were Catholics, and Catholics ''are about business, money'' and ''that it is about, you know, the fact that, I mean, for instance that we have, you know, celibacy within the church'' and ''you know, from my research that I found out - I mean I found out it went back to medieval times, where the church basically realized that if you had celibacy you didn't have to share the wealth upon somebody's death - the wealth could stay in the church'' and ''I don't really understand the problem of the nudity due to the fact that, I mean, this is like the oldest thing'' and ''it's done in a statuesque manner'' and ''there is no, sort of, like, sexual innuendo'' but ''apparently, you know, in the United States people have a problem with the nude form'' and people are so much more mature about these things in Europe.

In America, land of equal artistic opportunity and no nonsense about merit, such addlepated people always will benefit from government subsidies of the arts. But perhaps government could use subsidies to steer such people into an inoffensive genre. It can do so in the name of political populism and high artistic theory - call it the emancipation of the viewer from the tyranny of imposed form. The idea is inspired by the late Peter De Vries, a brilliant satirist, in his 1976 novel ''I Hear America Swinging.''

In the novel, a minimalist - a really, seriously minimalist - artist ''aimed at a progressively more drastic refinement of the principle of minimal form. Thus an area of virgin space unoccupied by anything save what the viewer himself might imagine it to contain, rather than what the artist has arbitrarily imposed, came to represent to him the ultimate distillation of linear values.'' The artist affixed to empty pedestals and picture frames small brass plates with titles such as ''Gloucester Fishermen,'' ''Ped Xing,'' ''Mrs. Rumplemeyer's Flesh'' and ''Shortstop with Glockenspiel.'' The point was to encourage - actually, to require - private improvisation by the viewer. So, herewith a modest proposal. Government should subsidize, generously but exclusively, such art.

Government should begin by turning the Brooklyn Museum into the Louvre of private improvisation. The museum should be lavishly furnished with empty pedestals and empty frames, each with titles on little brass plates. Cox should be the museum's curator. She has demonstrated a genius for what that office would require, maximum prattle about minimal achievement.

George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.

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