Holding a Mirror To Arts Funding

THE Senate vote last week to bar federal money for ``obscene or indecent'' art cheapens and politicizes - even hides - what ought to be a serious discussion about public standards. The vote, engineered by Sen. Jesse Helms, follows a controversy over federal money used to exhibit the homoerotic photographs of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, and a photograph by Andres Serrano that vulgarizes a crucifix. Many (we're included) felt the art objectionable enough to question using public money to support it.

It's reasonable to suggest an outside panel of respected artists can review the grants process or develop a serious policy that finds an intelligent middle ground - one protecting genuine artistic integrity, and at the same time recognizing some minimum standards of decency. Efforts were beginning in that direction.

Unfortunately, Senator Helms has inflamed the situation. Everybody's reacting. Politicians with an eye to reelection appear hypocritical by voting for a regressive bill. Many in the art world have taken on the role of high priest - throwing around terms like ``fascist'' and generally acting as though one has to have a PhD in creativity to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, many who questioned the art are running for cover - not wishing to look like cultural neanderthals who think Jackson Pollock is a kind of fish.

Congress needs to take another look at it's vote. The idea of US Senators micromanaging arts grants is absurd. The restrictive language in the bill is vague and confusing, if not unconstitutional. It could chill the spirit of the National Endowment for the Arts. The fact is, only a tiny fraction of NEA grants are questionable. Further, its unfair, after the fact, to penalize the arts groups that funded Mapplethorpe and Serrano, as the Helms legislation will do. They weren't warned.

At the same time, outrage over the bill shouldn't divert attention from the fact that some line needs to be drawn. Not every piece of art ought to get public money. Hilton Kramer, dean of New York art critics, says of certain Mapplethorpe works, for example: ``Even in a social environment as emancipated from conventional sexual attitudes as ours is today, to exhibit photographic images of this sort, which are designed to aggrandize and abet erotic rituals involving coercion, degradation, bloodshed and the infliction of pain cannot be regarded as anything but a violation of public decency.''

Standards of public decency already exist implicitly. For example, TV and newspapers wouldn't reproduce the controversial art. General media standards may be too tame. That's for a carefully selected outside panel of artists to decide.

Charges of ``censorship'' and ``repression'' need to be balanced by an awareness of how free artists really are. One congressman says if left to it's devices, the NEA will ban Huckleberry Finn and The Diary of Anne Frank. That's bunk.

We support federal funding of the arts. An enlightened outside panel is needed to hold a mirror to the works, if we're to pay for them.

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