`I USED to think that it would be great if we could get the arts on the front page,'' said John Frohnmayer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). His audience at the National Press Club laughed. ``We've managed to do that,'' he said wryly, ``and it's been a very interesting time.'' The NEA has made page one across the United States, but at an incredible price to the endowment, to the public it serves, to the arts community, and now in an ever-widening circle to the freedom of expression Americans regard as their birthright under the First Amendment.
The issue exploded recently when the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges for displaying seven allegedly obscene photos from its current exhibition of 175 photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, originally funded by an NEA museum grant.
The very existence of the NEA is under siege this year from critics who charge it has funded some offensive or obscene art, that grants to artists should include restrictive language forbidding obscenity, and that the NEA should be done away with entirely. This comes in the silver anniversary year of the NEA, when reauthorization hearings will determine whether it is to continue another five years. At issue is whether public funding should be used to support art that some people find offensive.
Catalyst for controversy
The show, ``Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,'' includes several photographs alleged to be obscene for their depiction of homosexual and sadomasochistic acts and poses of nude children. It was canceled last summer at the Corcoran Gallery here in Washington but was later shown at the Washington Project for the Arts, and then in Hartford, Conn., and Berkeley, Calif., without incident. It will be displayed in Boston at the Institute of Contemporary Art from August through September.
In Cincinnati, a pretrial hearing is set for April 30 before Municipal Judge David Albanese, a former assistant prosecutor for Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis, the man who blew the whistle on the show. Mr. Leis charged that the Mapplethorpe photos were ``criminally obscene,'' noting he did not want ``Cincinnati's good, solid reputation for fighting pornography to be eroded.''
The Arts Center then went to court to remove the obscenity issue from the police and learned that a grand jury had viewed the show and returned indictments. The gallery and its director, Dennis Barrie, were indicted on April 7 on two misdemeanor charges of alleged pandering of obscenity and illegal use of a minor in ``nudity-oriented material.'' The museum could be fined $10,000; Mr. Barrie faces up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Legal battle in Cincinnati
Immediately after the indictments, police closed the Arts Center for an hour to videotape the show as evidence. They removed the press and public, which led to an anticensorship demonstration.
Federal Judge Carl Rubin issued a temporary restraining order forbidding police from seizing photographs, closing the show, or in any way preventing the public from seeing it. A poll showed 59 percent of Cincinnatians backed the gallery.
Because the Cincinnati trial date must be set within 90 days of April 30, this timing could coincide with the midsummer schedule for full House and Senate debate on the NEA reauthorization.
Last summer, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina led the charge against the NEA on the issues of public funding, obscenity, and artistic freedom. He wrote legislation on NEA obscenity restrictions for this fiscal year. Senator Helms could not be reached for comment.
Before the $171 million NEA appropriation for this fiscal year was approved by Congress last fall, legislation required the docking of $45,000 from the NEA budget for the allegedly obscene Mapplethorpe and allegedly profane Andres Serrano works. The NEA funded both shows through museum grants.
A commission was also stipulated to investigate the grantmaking process. Grant recipients are now required to sign a pledge that their work will not be obscene.
Despite the passage of the measures, some members of Congress vigorously protested restrictions on arts content as censorship, and noted that these two grants were the only two ``lemons'' out of 85,000 successful NEA grants since 1965.
Since the Cincinnati controversy, even Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California, a vocal critic who wants to eliminate the NEA, has opposed the legal action against the Arts Center, calling it a ``First Amendment issue.''
Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Post-Secondary Education, which has been holding NEA reauthorization hearings, says: ``Following almost a year of controversy, and after five congressional hearings [in Washington, Los Angeles, and North Carolina], it now appears ... there continues to be overwhelming support in the US House for continuing the National Endowment for the Arts. There is also a majority of support for finding legislative language that tightens the selection process'' of the NEA, he says. ``The trick is to do that and still avoid content censorship.''
Representative Williams says no further hearings are planned, and he hopes to bring a reauthorization bill to the full House by June. A Senate reauthorization bill may also emerge from its subcommittee by early June.
NEA chairman Frohnmayer, an Oregon lawyer who specialized in First Amendment cases, told Congress: ``I truly believe that the arts endowment promotes what is most dear to me as an American, and that is [that] truth comes out through the vigorous clash of ideas, not the suppression of them.''
The battle over freedom of expression and public funding of the arts involves a wide circle beyond Congress. It includes NEA opponents like the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, and the Rev. Pat Robertson's ``700 Club.'' In March, several arts advocacy groups - American Arts Alliance, American Council for the Arts, Arts Coalition for Freedom of Expression - and hundreds of artists met in Washington to back NEA reauthorization and to protest censorship.
The second and final Senate reauthorization hearing will be held in Washington April 27, with Sen. Claiborne Pell (R) of Rhode Island chairing the subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities.