House Speaker Tom Foley has wisely postponed until the fall the great Kulturkampf over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. The fight badly needs its August recess. It is hard to think of a debate in recent years that has generated more nonsense.

For example: the bill to extend the life of the NEA is encumbered with 26 amendments, including one that prohibits federally supported art from including "any part of an actual human embryo." At first I thought that must mean any artistic representation of the human embryo. But since no one could possibly be for banning that, it occurred to me that the author, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), means that one may not include an actual fetus in a piece of federally funded art (Why just federally funded? And why just art?), an idea that wins the award for most bizarre antiabortion legislation of the year.

But it is not just ax-grinding members of Congress who have muddied the debate. Self-serving artists have risen mightily to protest a Jesse Helms-inspired provision in current law that bans the NEA from giving money to any work that might be deemed obscene.

"Democracy is being threatened," cried Joseph Papp in a statement true to his name. "I feel like I'm living under McCarthyism or Stalinism," cried Karen Finley, the New York performance artist best known for smearing ("deftly" -- Newsweek) chocolate on her semi-nude body, a statement, it seems, against the degradation of women. "Censorship!" cries the art world in unison. And, of course, "First Amendment!"

The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law ... " It does not say "Congress shall subsidize." Restricting federal subsidies for art has as little to do with censorship as it does with abortion. No one is censoring anything. Artists have the right to unfettered expression. The only question is by what right they demand unfettered subsidy for their unfettered expression.

Artists have every right to scandalize the bourgeois. However, when they demand that the bourgeois pay (with his taxes) for that which scandalizes him, they go too far. The bourgeois has every right to say, through Congress, "I'll only support, say, music that is tonal and art that is not obscene."

The New Republic says that by signing the NEA pledge to forswear obscenity, artists "come a step closer to being servants of the state." In fact, artists become servants of the state a little earlier: when they agree to take tax money in the first place. Don't want to be a servant? Don't take -- don't make a grant application for -- the money.

A free society allocates its resources through its democratic institutions in order to achieve some freely chosen public purposes and social goods. The idea that artists should have some special say in the allocation of goods that line their own pockets has no more validity than the same claim by the sugar lobby. The only difference is that the sugar lobby doesn't have the chutzpah to claim that its subsidies are a constitutional right.

Artists have good reason, however, to insist that the NEA debate is about censorship and the First Amendment. They don't want -- they don't know how -- to talk about the real issue, which is public purposes and social goods. If they didn't talk about the First Amendment they would have to explain why chocolate-smearing and not bus-driving is entitled to a federal subsidy. In other words they would have to defend the value of their art. Given what passes for art these days, they had rather not.

The real problem with prohibiting obscenity in art is not that obscenity is impossible to define, but that art has become impossible to define. In 1976 there was an uproar in Britain when the Tate Gallery spent a $1,000 to acquire an artwork that consisted of 120 bricks lying on the floor of the gallery. Had the masonry not been in a gallery and had it not been attributed to an artist, it would have been hauled away by the trash man.

It is because art has become so self-indulgently and vacuously defined that legislators run around trying to contain it at the edges. Now some Republicans are proposing to ban federal funding for art that "deliberately denigrate{s} the cultural heritage of the United States, its religious traditions, or racial or ethnic groups."

One's initial reaction is to say forget the whole enterprise. Get government completely out of the arts. No more absurd debates over how to restrict an activity that no one can adequately define in the first place. Do what you want, go into the marketplace and, if enough people think it is art and will support you, fine. Otherwise, try bus driving.

I'm sympathetic to this throw-up-your-hands approach. But I have a better idea. It comes from historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. Since no one can define art, let alone obscenity and racial insensitivity, and since no one really wants to cut off the local symphony orchestra, let's make a new rule: The NEA will support the reproduction and dissemination only of old, established art. Not a penny for anything new.

Creativity? On your own time at your own expense. But if you want to expose the good citizens of Tempe and Truro to the wonders of the past -- Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, Raphael and Rubens -- the American taxpayer will look sympathetically upon your request.

The Himmelfarb Amendment. A great idea with not a chance of passage.