Congress's Unfinished Business: `Obscene Art' and Protecting the Public Interest

COMMENTARY

WILL the fiercest attack yet on federal grants for the arts scuttle America's 24-year-old experiment in government patronage? That question will be answered after Congress returns tomorrow from a summer recess to resume the crusade against what it already has labeled ``obscene'' art. An important task awaiting a House-Senate conference is to iron out differences in punitive measures, passed in July, against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The Endowment became a target in early summer, after Congress learned about two controversial NEA grants. Some $15,000 in taxpayer money had been used to exhibit New York photographer Andres Serrano's color image of a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine, and $30,000 had been spent on an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, the late photographer, who was a homosexual. His exhibit included seven or eight sadomasochistic and homoerotic pictures.

The concern was justified, but Congress instantly turned the issue into a political football.

What better way to score points with conservative voters, some legislators thought, than to take a noisy stand against obscenity and indecency - particularly at a time when ethics investigations are gaining momentum in Congress?

So on July 26, with a voice vote in a nearly empty chamber, Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina secured Senate passage of a measure that prohibits NEA funding for ``obscene or indecent materials ... or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion....'' The Helms resolution also forbids any NEA grants for the next five years to the groups which sponsored the Mapplethorpe exhibit and the Serrano photo.

Earlier, the House had approved a symbolic $45,000 cut (the sum of the two grants) in the proposed NEA budget and a change in the grant-making process that would give the NEA, rather than the recipient of the grant, final say (and indisputable accountability) over how the funds are used.

The broad language of the Helms amendment raised immediate questions: Who will decide what is obscene, indecent, or sacrilegious? Congress? The courts? A reformed NEA, using a fail-safe anatomical checklist? And what might prevent a crank who finds Michelangelo indecent from censoring ``objectionable art'' on the flimsiest of pretexts?

None of this hairsplitting has cost Senator Helms much sleep, though, partly because he says he has ``fundamental questions about why the federal government is supporting artists the taxpayer has refused to support in the marketplace.''

Never mind that the marketplace often rallies a century too late. The costliest painting in history, for instance - Van Gogh's ``Irises,'' which brought $53.9 million at auction two years ago - was painted by an artist who was unable to make a living from his vocation. And never mind that the NEA ``seed money,'' which provides a level of recognition that enables thousands of regional theater, dance, music, and art groups to raise the additional funds they need to subsist, is hardly a drop in the Washington pork barrel.

The entire $171.4 million budget proposed for the NEA amounts to only 1.6 percent of the $10.9 billion Interior Appropriations bill of which it is a part. Or viewed another way, the total figure for federal support of the arts adds up to only one-third of the price of a single Stealth bomber.

SO, since the government can't be charged with profligacy in arts spending, possibly the harsh measures were called for because of a notorious laxness on the part of the Endowment. But no, says Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D) of Illinois: Among the 85,000 grants made by the agency over its 24-year history, fewer than 20 have been controversial for reasons of obscenity, pornography, racial degredation, or frivolity - a batting average Congress could well aspire to.

Are there no real grounds, then, for the congressional outrage? Well, yes, there are.

Arts administrators are badly out of touch with the communities they serve if they use public money to bring into a museum setting the Mapplethorpe images of child pornography, bullwhips, genitalia, and sexual acts that the law protects minors from viewing in magazines or films. Also, some of the images depicted in the exhibit are far more brutal than images in violent movies or on television. Ultimately they denigrate the human spirit even more than the human body.

And when dealing with public funds, arts adminstrators should show some sensitivity to the religious community's profound distaste at a crucifix in urine. But if such works are art by some new definition, they needn't be public art.

Of course, a free society must tolerate forms of expression with which some of its members take issue, if freedom is to have any meaning. But such a society should not also be required to pick up the tab for the excesses it tolerates.

Though great art sometimes shocks, offends, or proselytizes, one wonders if Mapplethorpe's talent was compromised by the politics of gay rights. We don't yet have the needed perspective to answer that question, but are his images typical of what the gay community wants to promote about itself?

In the mean time, we can hope that Congress will support the NEA grant-makers and their peer-review process. Though imperfect, it is better equipped to sort out the issues surrounding public art than a legislative definition of decency and taste will ever be. And American society would be far poorer if its modest level of federal arts support were to dry up.

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