Putting Arts Dispute in Context

ONCE upon a time it was the 1913 Armory Show. Then it was James Joyce's ``Ulysses.'' Every few years, it seems, the arts find themselves in a battle royal over obscenity and community standards. The current battleground is the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a $171-million, federally funded activity that comes up for reauthorization next September.

On one side are Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and his legions. They include the American Family Association, which last month ran a full-page ad in USA Today blasting the NEA for funding ``pornographic, anti-Christian'' works. They also include many people in Cincinnati, the latest locale upset by an NEA-funded exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit, homoerotic photographs in their city.

On the other side are the artists and their supporters. Their rallies in support of NEA funding have enlisted such luminaries as President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia - who wrote the NEA advocates that ``we know firsthand how essential is a fierce, independent, creative artistic spirit to the attainment of freedom'' - and President George Bush, who has come out in opposition to ``content restrictions'' on NEA grants.

In the middle is a slightly bewildered public. Why bewildered? In part because the wrong questions are being asked. Here are three samples:

Should my tax dollars fund things I find morally offensive? Two problems here. First, ``dollars'' is an exaggeration: The NEA costs each citizen about 65 cents a year. Second, the nation funds things lots of people find morally offensive, from weapons research to nuclear power. But the essence of democracy is compromise: We don't require every expenditure to satisfy every voter.

What about libraries? Doesn't tax money go to preserving offensive texts? Two problems again. First, libraries usually store existing texts rather than commission new ones. Second, a book squirreled away in the stacks reveals its contents only to those making the effort to find and read it. An artwork in a public display is immediately accessible.

If freedom of expression is an absolute right, how can we restrict the arts? In fact, it's not, as proved by the well-trodden arguments about shouting fire in a crowded theater. Expression always occurs in a context.

It takes meaning from its context, and it's significant or trivial because of that context. Artists who claim special privilege for an intense individualism fail to understand that even their most creative acts are deeply influenced by the context - and that the audience is essential to creativity.

The real question is simple to phrase: Should content determine quality? Fortunately for art, that's impossible to answer.

To say ``Always,'' as the legions of Senator Helms want, is to assume that we can know, a priori, the context of the future and pass judgments to protect the mores of the unborn. There are few better recipes for stifling progress.

But to say ``Never,'' as the artists insist, is to allow any statement that claims to be artistic - whether violent, commercial, racially biased, or whatever - a full hearing. There is no quicker way to debase art than to call everything by that name.

At bottom, this is a question of values. And as in all such matters, the way forward lies not in extremes, but in the willingness of each side to communicate with the other in a context of respect for freedom, obedience, initiative, religious observance, honesty, diversity, artistic intuition, and so forth. Those values shape our context.

They depend for its survival neither on government nor on artists - however much each side claims to be their rightful defender. They survive because individuals, working within communities, agree to live and practice - and, in times like these, to argue about - the values they share.

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