The porn controller

Senator Jesse Helms, the retiring dinosaur of US racism and misogyny, hates modern art. But his foll

When Senator Jesse Helms announced last August that he was to retire after the next election, sections of the American press distinguished themselves with polite euphemisms. With his "unabashed and outspoken conservatism" (USA Today), he was one of the "most ardent champions of conservative causes . . . a man of bold colours and few pastels" (Washington Post). He "personified the unvarnished, uncompromising, attack-dog brand of conservative politics" (Los Angeles Times).

To set the record straight: Helms is a bigoted, misanthropic, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, xenophobic curmudgeon whose best service has been to the tobacco manufacturers of North Carolina. His legacy is almost 30 years of obstruction and destruction: when the world moved beyond his steadfast refusal of any civil rights legislation, he decided to take it on as chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations.

In tribute, I could cite Helms's leading role in maintaining an economic stranglehold on Cuba, quashing foreign aid for family planning, blocking the appointment of ambassadors who were gay or pro-choice on abortion, and refusing to give financial support to families of Aids victims. I could salute his scuttling of international treaties, from the ban on the testing of nuclear weapons to the prohibition of landmines. I could hold up his reduction of the United Nations to "servant of the American people", his "just-say-no" attitude to the child soldiers protocol of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and his demolition of any US role in the International Criminal Court - including the threat to invade the Netherlands if The Hague should hold any US serviceman liable for a crime. I could recall his sensitivity in praising dictatorships, death squads and "freedom fighters" from El Salvador to Mozambique; when told of doctors, nurses and children killed by the Contras in Nicaragua, one of his staff noted sagely: "Well, they're just communists - they deserve to die."

But, as this is The Back Half, let's just recall Jesse's central role in the war on art and thought. Here, after all, is the senator who claimed in 1996: "Your tax dollars are being used to pay for grade-school classes that teach our children that CANNIBALISM, WIFE-SWAPPING and MURDER of infants and the elderly are acceptable behaviour."

Helms's most famous assault was upon the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 1980s, when decadence threatened America. This was the era when Robert Mapplethorpe's "The Perfect Moment" exhibition was summarised as "Black Man with Large Penis Hanging out Trousers, Little Girl with Exposed Crotch and Porno Flowers". The Corcoran Gallery in Washington lost its nerve and cancelled; Dennis Barrie, at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Centre, hosted the exhibition and became the first museum director indicted for displaying photographs. (He was acquitted after a six-day trial but lost his job.) Congress slashed the NEA's funding and passed a requirement that any supported work must comply with "general standards of decency". When the NEA's chairman refused to apply the standard, President George Bush the Elder, with an eye to the 1992 campaign, fired him.

Throughout the 1990s, Helms and his allies kept the issue alive, holding up works such as Andres Serrano's Piss Christ to threaten further cuts or even the abolition of the NEA. While Jesse established that "No tax fund shall be used for garbage just because some self-appointed 'experts' have been foolish enough to call it 'art'", his own experts - Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, for instance - clarified the issue: "If a monkey could possibly have done it, it probably isn't art."

But now I'm thinking that maybe we should shift the focus from Jesse. After all, his assault is part of a fine tradition of defending America by bashing art. In the late 1940s, the State Department had the wacky idea of promoting the nation through sponsored tours of modern painting, including the early work of the abstract expressionists. George Dondero, that Congressional scourge, responded: "Modern art is a term that is nauseating" and stressed "its connection to communism". President Harry Truman stepped away from the initiative, saying: "If that's art, then I'm a Hottentot." (Thus was born the momentous curiosity that the American vision of modern art, including AbEx, would have to be presented to the world through the covert assistance of the CIA.)

The tradition is stumbling on. Three years ago, Rudolph Giuliani attempted to win a few knee-jerk votes by grandstanding the "Sensation" exhibition, with Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary, out of the Brooklyn Museum. In its biennial of 2000, the Whitney Museum of American Art featured Hans Haacke's Sanitation, which visually compared Giuliani's statements to those of the National Socialists in 1930s Germany and to Helms's contributions, fuelling more tabloid-led fury.

Yet, if we focus on Jesse and his fellow-travellers, we may miss the real threat. The prosecution of art isn't front page these days - Mapplethorpe has been shown in places like Santa Monica, California, to comments such as "Still not obscene", while Cincinnati's Citizens for Community Values claims: "All across the country these days, people are much more careful about the kind of artwork they show in their museums and galleries." Instead of expending energy on deviance, today's Americans just need to think "positive". Let the effete have their elephant dung, we've got the flag. As Dinesh D'Souza, the scourge of political correctness, calls his new book, that's What's So Great About America.

Instead of the nasty face of Jesse Helms, we have the helping hand of Lynne Cheney, wife of vice-president Dick, leading light at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and darling of the Wall Street Journal. Cheney, far from coincidentally, was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986-93, as Jesse was carrying out his purge of dubious art; while Helms was threatening the NEA from the outside, Cheney was shackling her organisation from the inside by blasting any support of "politically correct" projects. After she left her post, she turned from reformer into destroyer, calling for the burial of the NEH.

Since 1995, however, her public emphasis has been on the positive side of American wholesomeness. First she penned Telling the Truth: why our culture and our country have stopped making sense - and what we can do about it, telling us to stop listening to those postmodernists who "rewrite the past and are shocked when we object". Instead we should get the sensible, "real" story from Lynne and hubby Dick in Kings of the Hill: how nine powerful men changed the course of American history.

This spring, Lynne capped her truthtelling with America: a patriotic primer. It's a definitive A-Z. America is the "A", of course, with its "C" constitution, "F" freedom and "V" valour, "shown by those who've kept us free". The good guys are here, too: "K" Martin Luther King, "L" Abraham Lincoln, "W" George Washington and "M" James Madison (rather than Robert Mapplethorpe, one presumes). Above all of this is "G" God.

No grey tones here. Lynne was going to use question for "Q", but settled for "America's Quest for the new, the far, and the very best". After all, "Generations have passed from the earth never dreaming that people could be as fortunate as we Americans are." So "T" for tolerance follows a few pages on from "N" for Native Americans (and Sitting Bull is an "H" hero) without a hint of irony.

As for art, her cover says it all. A group of children raise a flagpole, renewing the iconic Second World War photograph of six marines hoisting the standard at Iwo Jima. All the decadent abstraction of "modern" art is swept away, for the joy of the children "best describes how we all should feel when we think of the many freedoms that we have by being Americans - joy, pride, and respect for the history of our country and the people who helped build it".

This shiny, happy vision doesn't mean that Cheney can no longer get medieval on bad artists and bad thinkers. To the contrary, her persona as America's number one teacher means she can get away with some heavy-duty flogging. For a decade, she has lashed miscreants such as the developers of the National History Standards, for spending too much time on the Ku Klux Klan and Joe McCarthy, devoting too little to other white guys like the mighty Ulysses S Grant, and being mean to John D Rockefeller. How can the Depression of the 1930s be as important as the American revolution?

The 11 September has given her cause momentum and potency. After the attacks, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, co-founded by Lynne Cheney in 1995, established a "defence of civilisation" fund. The fund's first service was a 38-page report tagging 115 academics as "America's weak link in the response to the attack". Skilfully lifting quotes out of context, the report bellowed about "the moral cleavage that exists between the intellectual elites and mainstream America".

In contrast, in his last months in office, Helms has gone a bit soft. He is now ready to "treat Russia on the basis of shared goals and interests". He has asked for an increase in Aids-relief funding to Africa. Heck, he's even a patron of high culture now, through the "Free Enterprise" exhibition at the Jesse Helms Centre.

Let's leave him be. With the caricatures of Helms - Jesse the caveman, Jesse the dinosaur, Jesse the holdout of the Confederate South - the rest of us can feel pretty darn normal. It is in the "normality" of Lynne Cheney that real danger lies. For the patriotic moment, the Mapplethorpes, the Ofilis, the Serranos, even the performance artists, are safe in a world removed from the front line; it is the flag-doubters that best beware.

Scott Lucas is working on the book Poisoned Legacy: how America won its cold wars and lost the millennium, to be published by Verso in 2003

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The Reckoning