''This,'' says Rep. Newt Gingrich, speaking of (and like) George Bush, ''is a traditional values kind of guy.'' This testimonial was elicited not by Bush's stand against the menace of flag burning but by his reversal of position regarding subsidies for the arts.
Bush no longer opposes restrictions on grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Now he favors support for ''good projects'' but not obscene ones.
The controversy about protecting the flag testifies to a consensus so strong that no action is needed. The controversy about the arts testifies to the absence of the sort of consensus needed to justify the NEA.
The flag merits special protection as a symbolic summation of national values. Thus the Supreme Court is wrong in ruling that the Constitution, which both depends on and establishes those values, forbids criminalizing desecration of the flag. But the strength of public fury about flag desecration proves that it would be disproportionate to amend the Constitution to combat sporadic desecrations.
Bush says flag burning ''endangers the fabric of the country.'' Such hyperventilating signifies insincerity; it is the synthetic indignation of the politically calculating. Bush is pandering to a consensus the existence of which makes his proposed amendment superfluous.
The public is far more volatile regarding the flag than art. What is notable is not that some art scandalizes but that so little art does. What distinguishes 1990 from, say, 1875 or 1913 is the indifference of the public to art.
Robert Hughes, writing in The New Republic, says, ''When Parisian gallery-goers in the 1870s recoiled in horror from the 'leprous' blue shadows in a Monet, it was because they felt an important contract had been broken -- the agreement between painting, as a primary form of social discourse, and reality.'' Painting has long since lost almost all its power to engage the public's passions.
Even before it lost its primacy to photography (a subsidized exhibition of homoerotic photographs triggered the current controversy) and other modern media, painting had lost its power by shredding the contract Hughes speaks of. That contract was shredded by the stance of modernism, with its aura of anger and repudiation toward the inherited culture and the traditional task of transmitting the culture's values.
On May 29, 1913, there was turbulence between two morally passionate groups at the Theatre des Champs-Elysee. The occasion was the premier of Stravinsky's ballet ''Le Sacre du printemps.'' In a sense, the turmoil in the auditorium ratified the art. By turning ballet, the most graceful of arts, into a jarring experience, modernism defined itself. It was art as sensational event, as provocation severed from improving purpose. The meaning of the art was in the audience's tumultuous reaction to it.
Today the problem with public funds for the arts is not just that subsidies sometimes go to projects in which urinating (and simulated sex acts and whip handles in anuses) is important. The large problem is that there is no consensus about what art is, or why it is important.
The definition of art has been democratized: art is whatever anyone calling himself an artist says it is. This is the philistinism of the elites. It makes the ''arts community'' (the phrase connotes ostentatious separation from the larger society) the most arrogant lobby. That ''community'' demands the most extravagant entitlement -- public funds for no defined public purpose. Setting limits on the kinds of art for which public funds shall go (for example, excluding blasphemy or obscenity) is called ''censorship.''
If art has no improving purpose, it has no claim on public resources. Anyway, when there is no consensus concerning the purpose, or even the nature, of art, political institutions are especially ill-suited to the task of formulating standards for the intelligent disbursement of subsidies.
Some artists seeking subsidies accept the need to acknowledge a public purpose, and they say: shocking, provoking and discomfiting the public is good for it. Fair enough. They are free to do so.
But the perverse result today is that political institutions, rendered passive by the fear of being branded philistine, acquiesce in the demand for unrestricted subsidies to support the shocking, provoking and discomfiting of the subsidizers. Mark my words. It is only a matter of time before someone burns a flag, calls it ''kinetic art,'' and gets a grant to take his act on the road.
The argument for subsidizing the arts has a distinguished pedigree. It holds that the arts elevate the public mind by exposing it to beauty that gives rise to ennobling sentiments that leaven society. But nowadays if you speak of art's public purpose, or discuss standards for what is elevating and ennobling, you are apt to be denounced as an enemy of ''artistic freedom.''
Fair enough. Let artists be free from the taint of public purpose and thus from the burden of public funds.