The clamor over public funding of the arts that erupted last summer when the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., cancelled an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe seems to have died down. But the issues raised by that controversy—deep issues about the relation between public patronage and the transmission of cultural values—have by no means been settled. This was brought home to us in January when the Kitchen, a well-known “alternative” arts center in Manhattan, sponsored a series of performances by the “feminist porn activist” Annie Sprinkle entitled “Annie Sprinkle: Post-Porn Modernist.”

Miss Sprinkle’s performance at the Kitchen was directed by Emilio Cubeiro, who among other credits is Director of the International Theater of Poetry and Pain. “The ITTPP philosophy is simple,” we read in the program notes: “Open the bedroom and bathroom doors. Open them wide.” The Kitchen’s handout for the performance described Miss Sprinkle (née Ellen Steinberg) as “one of a new group of women who, in a male-dominated field, create their own kind of self-produced pornography.” It noted further that she has appeared in over 150 X-rated films and was for several years a prostitute. Today, Miss Sprinkle styles herself a “performance artist.” She is also a New Age holistic sex therapist who uses sex for “healing.”

We can hardly comment on the efficacy of Miss Sprinkle’s sex therapy. Nor is it appropriate to describe the details of her performance in these pages. Indeed, propriety prevents us from even naming all of the pieces. “Pornstistics,” “Sex Toys for World Peace,” and “Annie’s Cervix” are among the more benign tides featured in her performance. But it is clear that events like “Annie Sprinkle: Post-Porn Modernist” at the Kitchen tell us a good deal about the state of “cutting edge” art in this country. They also tell us something about the state of public stewardship of culture. Among the more than thirty sponsors listed in the Kitchen’s program were the New York State Council on the Arts, which gave the Kitchen $25,000 for the 1989-90 season, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, which gave them $20,000 in 1989.

In response to our inquiry, the Council issued a statement that its grant to the Kitchen was meant to support only thirty-two of thirty-six planned performances. “The Council purposely did not fund the full series,” the statement concluded, “because it believed that the Annie Sprinkle presentation was not of an artistic quality to warrant Council support.” Not only does this raise the impolite question of whether other performance events at the Kitchen can be said to be of sufficient artistic quality to merit public support, it also confronts us with an interestingly novel form of evasion. After all, a $25,000 grant for a performance series is presumably $25,000 the Kitchen wouldn’t have otherwise had, and if Miss Sprinkle appeared in the series then she must be counted a beneficiary of the grant.

The Kitchen’s program notes did not mention the National Endowment for the Arts as a sponsor. But a quick look at the record shows that the NEA approved a total of $325,400 for the Kitchen in 1989. This includes $200,000 “to reduce notes payable and eliminate an accumulated deficit” as well as $60,000 “to support artists’ fees and related costs for the 1989-90 presentation season.”

Early on in her performance, Miss Sprinkle, lying almost naked on a bed, urged members of the audience to come up to the stage to photograph her in any pose they liked. “Usually I get a lot of money for this,” she explained. “But tonight it’s government funded.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 7, on page 4
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