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Arts Community Responds To Decision on 'Decency'

By Lee LawrenceSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 1998


With the exception of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), nobody in the arts community is cheering last week's decision by the United States Supreme Court to uphold the right of Congress to ask the NEA to consider decency as a criterion in allocating grants. But neither is everybody up in arms.

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Some, like James Levin, artistic director and founder of the progressive Cleveland Public Theatre, deplore the ruling as "a dangerous move toward fundamentalism." But many others view it as a useful compromise and an opportunity to bridge what they believe is a widening gulf between the arts community and the public.

Ironically, the ruling has been praised by both NEA leaders and the agency's detractors. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich hailed it as validating the right of Americans not to pay for art that offends

them, while NEA chairman William Ivey expressed unequivocal pleasure with the ruling.

In a statement issued last Thursday, Mr. Ivey called the ruling "an endorsement of the Endowment's mission" and said it would not affect the NEA's day-to-day operations. "The Endowment's citizen-review panels represent the broad diversity of the American people," he added, "and we're proud of our high standards and rigorous grantmaking process."

For others, however, the law's inclusion of such an undefined and some say undefinable term as "decency" portends trouble. According to constitutional expert Jonathan Entin, a professor of law and political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the way the law is written forestalls any future challenge such as the one brought by performance artist Karen Finley and three other non-mainstream artists. They argued that the NEA had restricted their freedom of expression in denying them grants. But the Supreme Court, as Dr. Entin explains, declared that the "government is not suppressing Finley because the government has no obligation to fund the NEA at all."

And given the NEA's right to decide what is decent and what is not, Entin explains, there is virtually no way to contest its decision.

This is one of the reasons Ben Cameron, executive director of the New York-based Theatre Communications Group, is worried. Citing the single dissenting voice in the Supreme Court, Justice David Souter, Mr. Cameron says that the ruling "has the potential of having a chilling effect on art and sending a message that may influence artists."

This chilling effect could result from artists and art organizations censoring themselves in order to receive federal funding as well as from the increasing ghettoization of challenging art. In Levin's view, "there will always be a venue to present this work. What will get atrophied is the general public's access to works that challenge the status quo."

This would widen what many already see as a dangerous lack of communication and understanding between the general public and experimental artists like Karen Finley, who was unavailable for comment. She is currently performing in "The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman" in New York.