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A former heroin user by the name of Ron Athey has proved once again that there is no such thing as awful art. There are only awful people who fail to appreciate a moving artistic moment when they experience it.

This, at least, is the striking message being trumpeted in recent weeks by America's arts establishment, which has risen with dreary predictability to defend Athey's good name from assault by supposed philistines in Congress.The politicians object to spending public money so that Athey, who is HIV-positive, can pierce his scalp and arms with needles, open streams of blood over his body, and then slice designs on the back of another artist, whose blood is blotted onto paper towels and hung above the heads of an audience.

In Minneapolis, this performance was billed as "erotic torture," a description that has the modest virtue of being exactly half right.

What Athey does with needles and knives might be no one's business, of course, except that the Walker Art Center sponsored his Minneapolis appearance last March in part with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The NEA subsidy was tiny - only $150 - but the controversy it has provoked speaks volumes about the resolute blindness of some in the arts establishment.

Rather than simply apologize - "Sorry, we didn't intend to support this sick spectacle and will try not to do so again" - the NEA's chief and a number of arts administrators have circled the wagons and, in effect, blamed the critics for a lack of discernment.

Jane Alexander, the actress and current NEA chairman, complacently told the press that "not all art is for everybody" - an insipid insight that begs the question of what art is in the first place.

Unfortunately, condescension has become the standard reaction by too many doyens of the arts world to every outcry over public funding of degrading or otherwise bizarre works.

Why the widespread refusal among artistic elites to repudiate these patently sophomoric creations - especially when they are not typical of subsidized art?

Part of the answer no doubt lies in a natural reluctance to admit that the enemy ever has a point.

Yet such stubbornness is risky, for leading NEA critics are hardly alone in opposing tax subsidies for Ron Athey and his ilk.

Given such signals, the refusal to concede that the NEA sometimes errs and underwrites atrocious or fraudulent art is all but baffling. Baffling, that is, until we consider the possibility that a significant number of influential people in the arts community may actually believe - or at least behave as if they believed - that bad art does not even exist.

Art patrons, like critics, appear cowed by any attempt to mock, shock or mystify them. To object, they believe, would be to impose their limited tastes on the rarefied sensibilities of creative genius.