Not since flag burning (and how quickly the light-brigade charges of yesteryear are forgotten) has the republic focused so vividly on an issue -- public funding for performance artists, especially the ones who take their clothes off and cry out sardonic epigrams about Holy California and who are homosexual.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is known to oppose evil in all its wily forms and he is opposed to tax dollars going for pornography -- that is, things on his list of nasty things. He has found some support.

The money in question is chicken feed. Typically it permits the performance artist to travel to New York or feed himself a few days while performing in some obscure barn in Tulsa or Bergen or Walnut Ridge. Hardly anybody goes, and of those few hardly anybody knows what the hell is going on.

But here is the point: There are some, whether few or many, who are struck by the ideas presented in this minority art, and they ought to be served.

Everybody in America who has money is highly subsidized, from corporations to rich farmers to owners of modest $400,000 houses on quiet streets in this capital. Even in the arts you find lavish funding and subsidies for opera, ballet and great museums, and some of it is tax dollars from people who never enjoy any of it, people who neither know nor care for the difference between Giotto (Italian, ain't he?) and Jasper Johns.

But there are other artists, at least they proclaim themselves such, and God knows they aren't getting rich at it, who are serious, dedicated, loyal, courteous, kind etc. Their art abounds in irony and sarcasm and their audiences rarely show up in Bentleys and emeralds.

Since nobody goes, should they receive any public money at all? Or, worse, if a lot of people go and seemingly like this art that upsets the average golden bassoon of the Senate, is it not even more important to cut off money lest the youth of the nation be corrupted?

There are committees, people competent to judge art, who pass on even the most piddling grants to artists. They say, in some cases, that a performance artist deserves support to the extent of perhaps $10,000. Such support, a half-endorsement by the Establishment, may make it easier for the artist to get a little more support from corporations that like to think of themselves as latter-day Medicis but are nervous indeed about supporting an artist suspected of lewd displays.

An artist supported by the National Endowment for the Arts who is dropped by it when the Senate bubbles and grunts is in a worse position than if he had never got a few bucks in the first place.

Since statistically speaking the money is nothing, the audience size is nothing, the impact of the art is seemingly nothing, then why make such an issue of it one way or another?

Well, I make an issue of it. I say it is blatant censorship when an artist deemed supportable by the arts foundation is abruptly dropped because it is supposed the majority of Americans do not like his work and because another organized minority (the Helms folk) sound off against him.

"It's not censorship at all," you hear people say. Which is the same as saying rich and poor are equally free to sleep under bridges.

Maybe there should be no government programs for the arts. Maybe there should be no government programs for airplanes, maybe no programs for anything. Maybe let everybody do what he can get away with and the Devil take the hindmost.

But in plain fact we do have government support for the arts, to a quite modest extent. To then deny an approved artist the little money he needs to do his work is just as efficient a censorship measure as outlawing his work by legislative or police action. If it prevents the art being made or displayed, then the art is silenced, and if you prefer to call it by some other name the effect is still the same as censorship.

It is argued by many in the arts field that homosexuals are the particular target of tightening money for poor artists, and it is widely suspected that the extreme minority position of homosexuals has accounted for general indifference to discrimination in funding.

Well, why should tax dollars support, however minimally, those whose sexual behavior offends the standards of American society? Why should tax dollars support to the end of his life Marion Barry, if you want to argue societal sexual norms. Why should tax dollars support planting pansies in the parks, since most people (if asked directly) would say grass is good enough, and why cut it (which costs a great deal)?

The truth is, there are civilized habits in great nations and one of them is support for the arts, extended however grudgingly to young artists whose ideas we do not necessarily approve of. Precisely as pension systems extend to Marion Barry, whose behavior is probably even less popular than he supposes.

Beneath that leaky umbrella of support there is and ought to be room for performance artists who have been judged by competent committees to be serious and worthwhile, even if you or I or, God save us all, some Carolina boom box or other barbarian does not quite get it or does not quite approve of it.

Otherwise, the list of things increases that Americans are not supposed to do or say or think. The whole point of the American experiment (and it is by no means certain it is going to work in the long run) is that citizens may be free and may stretch and romp and get stung by yellow jackets -- the whole ballgame of the free life.