BOSTON — LAST week's Senate vote to trim the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts by 5 percent comes as a setback for NEA chairwoman, Jane Alexander. Her jubilant confirmation hearings last fall had suggested that the endowment's burden might soon be lifted.
The spirited floor debate, in what has become an annual symposium of art and morality in America, ended in a unanimous approval of an amendment to cut the endowment's budget from $170 million to $161 million. Adjusted for inflation, this figure would leave the 30-year-old arts agency with its lowest level of purchasing power since 1985.
The amendment, proposed by Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, included a new stipulation: targeted cuts that require the reductions to be made in four specific grant areas, including theater and visual arts.
NEA officials say these targets, designed to limit the likelihood of controversial grants, would be more traumatic than a blind reduction, because they would shrink funding in these individual categories by as much as 42 percent.
Although many senators opposed targets, congressional sources say that Senator Byrd's bill passed with the tacit understanding that targets would be dropped this month, when the measure appears before a joint congressional conference committee.
In addition, the committee will reconcile the 5 percent Senate cut with the 2 percent reduction passed a week earlier by the House of Representatives.
Yet whatever the severity of the budget cut, the vote amounts to a punishment designed to steer the endowment away from grants that might yield controversial art.
This year, as in every preceding year since 1989, the NEA has drawn fire for art it funded either directly or indirectly. NEA opponents have focused on a Bush-administration grant to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, $150 of which went to a show by Ron Athey, a performance artist diagnosed with HIV.
During a performance about AIDS in March, Mr. Athey reportedly displayed paper towels covered in another performer's blood to the audience.
Calling this performance ``disgusting revolting garbage,'' Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina proposed an amendment that would have prohibited NEA funding for any art that involves ``the mutilation of living or dead human beings, or the drawing or letting of blood.''
Although the Helms amendment was tabled, a sense of frustration with the endowment pervaded the comments of some legislators, including Byrd. ``It is difficult to conceive how some of the [controversial art] that has consumed this appropriations bill can be argued to be examples of the best art America has to offer,'' he said.
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut indicated a desire to ``send a reasoned message to the endowment about the kinds of activities we would like to see supported and not supported.''
NEA advocates counter that evaluating the agency on the basis of one small grant is outrageous. ``Those who would like to eliminate the endowment entirely are being allowed to determine who we are, and it bears no resemblance to what we really do here,'' NEA spokeswoman Cherie Simon says. ``A full range of programs would be threatened by these cuts.''
Among them, she notes, are programs that benefit children in rural communities and impoverished inner cities, as well as major theaters, museums, and musical groups.
Senator Helms called this position disingenuous. During the debate he said, ``I have never heard one complaint ... about any grant to a symphony orchestra or a choral group or a program to teach young people how to play instruments or sing songs.''
Nevertheless, Helms argued that because federal money winds up in the hands of Athey and other ``filthy'' artists, the entire endowment deserves a jolt. ``One cockroach in one soup is one cockroach too many,'' he said.
The three-hour debate came as no surprise to those who have followed the events of the last five years, in which the NEA has been battered by conservatives who charge it with obscenity, liberals who charge it with caving in to conservatives, and arts advocates on all sides who fault it for not defending itself.
Groups like the Christian Action Network (CAN), a conservative political-action group based in Virginia, have made the NEA a theme in their efforts to act on what Helms calls ``the sober realization that for the past two decades, an unmistakable decadence has saturated American society.''
A recent CAN fund-raising letter, called a ``Declaration of War'' against the endowment, asked recipients for $50 contributions to help abolish the NEA, arguing that it represents a threat to American society.
Ms. Simon, who has accompanied Ms. Alexander on a 50-state tour, says the claims are baseless. ``The endowment has a very human face when you get on the road.... People aren't asking Jane Alexander about these controversies, they're asking how they can get more art into their schools and communities.''
Simon contends that conservative groups have advanced the idea that NEA officials ``sit at their desks all day doling out grants'' when, in reality, grant applications are reviewed by peer panels in a process she describes as ``extremely democratic.''
``We've made 100,000 grants since the mid-1960s,'' Simon says. ``Thousands of local art groups would not exist without seed money from the government. That's who we are.''