Magazine article The Nation

Vile Bodies

Magazine article The Nation

Vile Bodies

Article excerpt

In the late 1970s, when Robert Mapplethorpe was producing the photographs that would make his name famous, he had no expectation that even advanced commercial galleries would be interested in exhibiting the work. It was instead shown in various spaces supported without controversy by the National Endowment for the Arts during those years. Mapplethorpe and other artists took it for granted that it was the N.E.A.'s role to support art regarded as too difficult for the private sector, just as it is the government's role to support scientific projects that, for whatever reason, cannot be undertaken by the private sector.

There are a great many art projects, by no means all of them explicitly erotic, that have no commercial potential whatever. Artists spontaneously turn to the N.E.A. to subsidize what cannot easily be thought of as marketable. None of this can be art of what one might term the lowest common denominator, which is evidently what Anne-Imelda Radice, the acting chairwoman of the endowment, had in mind recently when, rejecting two projects unanimously recommended by her panels, she said it was not art that has "the widest audience?' Indeed, a lot of the art the N.E.A. sustains will have a very narrow audience. The argument against Radice must be that support of such art benefits the entire population, just as it benefits humanity at large that science be subsidized that has no immediate or direct commercial application. People generally accept the premise that the nation benefits from the support of art for which most of the electorate will not be part of the audience. …

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