"I am suffering," Karen Finley declared last week in what a reporter for the New York Times described as "a hushed voice." She went on: "A year ago I was in a country of freedom of expression; now I am not." At this, according to the Times, "she then wept and choked, but she was soon laughing boisterously and shouting at the top of her voice," which presumably is what she did when she said: "I'm being punished because I'm a morally concerned artist!"

This was in New York City, during a news conference at the Public Theater. It was held in anticipation of the beginning of floor debate in Congress this week on the future of the National Endowment for the Arts, and it featured a number of enthusiastic speakers. Among these was Philip Arnoult, who is artistic director of the Baltimore Theatre Project and chairman of an NEA grants panel that recently had four of its recommendations rejected by the NEA. Arnoult read a statement that said: "We denounce these rejections because of our belief that the endowment has replaced its artistic process with a political process."

This no doubt is true, but it is only part of the truth. If the NEA has been forced into a political posture by Jesse Helms and the other antediluvian creatures who are exploiting the endowment's difficulties for their own cynical ends, by the same token many of the self-described artists who so passionately object to this assault are demanding that the taxpayers, through the NEA, underwrite what is essentially political expression masquerading as art.

"I'm being punished because I'm a morally concerned artist": No doubt it never occurred to Karen Finley that in speaking thus she was merely echoing one of the underlying assumptions of the contemporary art world, but certainly she was. In so many words, she was saying that art is a form of political and ideological expression, and that to reject its political content is also to reject it as art. In the orthodoxy of the day, art and politics are inextricably intertwined, and to suggest that they should not be is regarded as both repressive and philistine.

Presumably this is yet another outgrowth of the 1960s, when political expression burst out of the confines it had previously occupied and made places for itself in everything from popular music to such high art as remains in our denuded culture. To be sure, politics had worked its way into this country's arts in the past, but never so pervasively as in the 1960s and never with so distinctly ideological a cast. The country may have been drifting vaguely to the right, but the arts community was moving rapidly and emphatically to the left; that is where it is now entrenched, so firmly that it seems to take the interconnection of art and left-of-center politics for granted.

How else is one to interpret the furor over the four artists whose grant applications, though approved by a panel of their peers, were overruled by the NEA's National Council on the Arts? The four were the subject of a sympathetic group profile in The Washington Post last week; the dominant impression it conveyed, apart from a sense that these artists are clever and irreverent, is that their work is political to the core.

Their work, The Post reported, "involves elements that have lately drawn fire from NEA critics: sexuality (both homo- and hetero-); nontraditional views of religion; four-letter words; attacks on political and religious antagonists." In a word: politics. Not having seen their work -- it is all in the relatively new genre of "performance art" -- I cannot pass judgment on its merits, if any, as art; but their own words, as well as those of reporters at The Post and elsewhere who have covered them, leave no doubt as to its essentially political character.

Holly Hughes came to New York a decade ago; she wanted, she says, to "arrange a giant quartz-and-steel vagina in Federal Plaza that would topple the military." Among the elements that Tim Miller cites as essential to "my creative work" are "my social activism" and "provocateur organizing." John Fleck speaks of working as an artist in "this day of the plague." Karen Finley says her work is "about social issues {that her critics} don't want to hear about," critics who are "trying to maintain the power structure of the straight white male."

That all of this is leftist politics is to the point, but not essential to it. What really matters is that these self-proclaimed artists -- disarmingly, Tim Miller says his work is art "because I say it is" -- assume that art is politics, that the connection between the two is not merely deep but inherent and inescapable. It seems no misrepresentation of them to say that in their view, it would not be art were it not for the political messages -- the "moral concern," as Finley has it -- it conveys.

It is an assumption that somehow has worked its way from the fringes that these artists occupy into the orthodoxy of mainstream American culture. On the same day that The Washington Post reported the utterances of the four rejected NEA applicants, the New York Times published a long analysis by John J. O'Connor, the brunt of which was that "television is far more likely than any current movie to grapple with pressing realities, from domestic abuse to the homeless to AIDS." Television, he wrote, "has tackled important social issues that most film studios wouldn't dream of touching," among them abortion, racism and environmental pollution.

In O'Connor's view television is more "serious" and "memorable" -- artistic, if you will -- because it is more willing than movies to enter the arena, to intertwine drama (art) and issues (politics). By taking what amount to political stands, even if watered down for the mass market, television thereby occupies the high ground both morally and artistically. Hollywood, O'Connor writes, has abandoned "art for art's sake" in favor of "production values for production values' sake." In the context of his article, it's difficult to read this as anything except an argument for the artistic value of anti-establishment political expression as opposed to the commercialism of mere entertainment that shrinks from "prickly issues like American foreign policy ..., contemporary greed ... or the Vietnam War."

John J. O'Connor in alliance with Karen Finley? It's an unlikely, if agreeably amusing, thought. But it points clearly to the prevailing sentiment, which is that art gains in artistry when it assumes a political stance. This of course ignores the history of art, which tells us that the passing interests of politics make for fine propaganda and bad art, but then we don't pay much attention to history these days in these United States, so that's right in character.

Still, when the members of Congress get around to wrangling over the NEA this week, they would do well to ask themselves whether it is an appropriate use of taxpayers' money to underwrite the expression of political attitudes. What those attitudes are is entirely beside the point. Left or right or middle of the road, radical or reactionary or dead center -- the government of the United States hasn't been in the business of financing political expression in the past, and there's no reason why it should be in that business now.