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11th-Hour Arts Funding

Congressional compromise gives NEA three years of life but doesn't lay obscenity issue to rest

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 1990


SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN stood tall, like some snow-topped mountain, in the middle of the Senate and beamed benignly toward Sen. Jesse Helms. The Senate was a few hours into a debate on the future of the National Endowment for the Arts, scheduled to last eight hours because Sen. Helms had insisted on a full-dress parade for his arsenal of anti-NEA amendments just before Congress hurried to recess. Pat Moynihan (D) of N.Y. smiled at Helms (R) of N.C. and said: ``This sudden flurry of difficulty we've had here on this floor the past year is passing. ... Peace returns to the legislative process, and the artists once again are on their own to be as perplexing and important as they have ever been in our lives.''

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Then Sen. Helms fumed: ``I'm not much of a forecaster, but I will make one prediction.... We will be in the same fix one year from now with respect to this National Endowment for the Arts as we are now....''

Somewhere between the Helms and Moynihan predictions lies the future of the fiery national debate over art, obscenity, and federal funding through the NEA.

Has peace finally come with this week's last-minute compromise bill on Endowment funding, which passed just before Congress adjourned in the early hours of Monday morning?

The new legislation is both good news and bad news for the federal arts agency whose critics have tried to kill, ``defund,'' or neuter it for the last year-and-a-half.

The good news is that the NEA, has, like the heroine in ``The Perils of Pauline,'' been snatched from the railroad tracks at the last moment. It's been given three more years of life (though not the traditional reauthorization period of five years). It has also been funded to the tune of $175 million for fiscal 1991.

For those concerned over possible threats to First Amendment guarantees in a Helms amendment attached to temporary funding last year, there is some good news: The new legislation does not use specific language to restrict the kind of art produced by grant recipients. But it does include a ``decency'' clause that puts the NEA chairman into the saddle as national censor, charge critics. The legislation asks him to judge applicants by ``taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.''

Another piece of bad news for the NEA is that 27.5 percent of its grant money, rather than the previous 20 percent, has been channeled to state arts agencies. Endowment grant-making rules have also tightened, requiring any artist whose work the courts judge to be obscene to repay the grant and barring them from receiving any other grants for three years.

The timeless tension between the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression vs. obscenity has periodically worked America into a lather. Several members of Congress cited examples to bolster the case against censorship. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of R.I., one of the founding fathers of the NEA 25 years ago, pointed out that great art like Rodin's ``The Kiss,'' Michelangelo's ``David,'' and Manet's ``Reclining Lady,'' ``could be ruled unfinancable'' under the NEA content restrictions in effect over the last year.