SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN stood tall, like some snow-topped mountain, in the middle of the Senate and beamed benignly toward Sen. Jesse Helms. The Senate was a few hours into a debate on the future of the National Endowment for the Arts, scheduled to last eight hours because Sen. Helms had insisted on a full-dress parade for his arsenal of anti-NEA amendments just before Congress hurried to recess. Pat Moynihan (D) of N.Y. smiled at Helms (R) of N.C. and said: ``This sudden flurry of difficulty we've had here on this floor the past year is passing. ... Peace returns to the legislative process, and the artists once again are on their own to be as perplexing and important as they have ever been in our lives.''
Then Sen. Helms fumed: ``I'm not much of a forecaster, but I will make one prediction.... We will be in the same fix one year from now with respect to this National Endowment for the Arts as we are now....''
Somewhere between the Helms and Moynihan predictions lies the future of the fiery national debate over art, obscenity, and federal funding through the NEA.
Has peace finally come with this week's last-minute compromise bill on Endowment funding, which passed just before Congress adjourned in the early hours of Monday morning?
The new legislation is both good news and bad news for the federal arts agency whose critics have tried to kill, ``defund,'' or neuter it for the last year-and-a-half.
The good news is that the NEA, has, like the heroine in ``The Perils of Pauline,'' been snatched from the railroad tracks at the last moment. It's been given three more years of life (though not the traditional reauthorization period of five years). It has also been funded to the tune of $175 million for fiscal 1991.
For those concerned over possible threats to First Amendment guarantees in a Helms amendment attached to temporary funding last year, there is some good news: The new legislation does not use specific language to restrict the kind of art produced by grant recipients. But it does include a ``decency'' clause that puts the NEA chairman into the saddle as national censor, charge critics. The legislation asks him to judge applicants by ``taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.''
Another piece of bad news for the NEA is that 27.5 percent of its grant money, rather than the previous 20 percent, has been channeled to state arts agencies. Endowment grant-making rules have also tightened, requiring any artist whose work the courts judge to be obscene to repay the grant and barring them from receiving any other grants for three years.
The timeless tension between the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression vs. obscenity has periodically worked America into a lather. Several members of Congress cited examples to bolster the case against censorship. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of R.I., one of the founding fathers of the NEA 25 years ago, pointed out that great art like Rodin's ``The Kiss,'' Michelangelo's ``David,'' and Manet's ``Reclining Lady,'' ``could be ruled unfinancable'' under the NEA content restrictions in effect over the last year.
Sen. John Heinz (R) of Pa., an art collector himself, spoke of Hieronymus Bosch and Goya as two painters who shocked the people of their day but are now recognized as great painters. ``We legislate the content of art at our peril,'' Heinz said.
Helms, his deep voice soft as cotton but his words sharpened steel, battled on:
``We're not talking about banning anything; let me make that clear. I'm talking about use of the taxpayers' money to fund sleaze. Whether it's 20, or 10, or 200 [grants] out of 85,000 nobody knows. But I do know that even one sleaze photograph by [the late photographer Robert] Mapplethorpe is too many for the taxpayers to fund....
``And the sleaze has continued from last year, like the woman [performance artist Karen Finley] who smeared herself with chocolate, and the one Annie Sprinkle, who ... invited people to - how to put it delicately? I guess there's no way - to conduct a gynocological examination. That's what I'm talkin' about; that's all I'm talkin' about; that's all I've ever talked about.
``And this business of 85,000 good things, [funded by the NEA] - Bosh! Nausea! We're not talkin' about that. We're talkin' about these sleazeballs who have been getting money from the NEA under the pretext of having produced something that they call art. And I submit to you that that is a farce. But it's worse than a farce; it's a fraud on the taxpayers of America.''
It didn't matter how many dozens of senators or congressmen pointed out on the floor that the NEA, in its 25 years, has funded 85,000 works of art out of which only 20 are viewed as ``lemons'' (the Pell word) or obscene or blasphemous (the NEA critics' words). It didn't matter how often NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer pointed out that it did not fund Annie Sprinkle in performance at The Kitchen in New York or that it had denied a grant this year to Karen Finley and three other performance artists.
Sen. Helms, who has considerable political power in Congress, is also up for reelection in a close race. The Senate allowed him to charge on with his set-piece tirade against the NEA, because it feared he would filibuster night and day until he got his way. But the Senate roundly defeated his major amendment, bristling with content restrictions, and voted instead for a moderate compromise amendment by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Sen. Pell.
Although it looked as though the Hatch-Pell compromise might be the basis of House-Senate conferees' legislation, it was a bill by the NEA's articulate defender Pat Williams (D) of Montana and Ron Coleman (D) of Texas, that resulted in the compromise language that allowed for a ``decency'' requirement.
A Cincinatti jury handed down a not-guilty verdict the very week of the NEA House vote, for a museum charged with obscenity in displaying the Mapplethorpe show. Rep. Bill Green (R) of New York said, ``It is obvious that that jury verdict has shocked the legs totally out from under the case of those who would seek to gut the National Endowment.'' But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of Calif., one of the most adamant foes of the NEA, asked: ``Is it censorship, bigotry, and book-burning to set standards so that scarce federal dollars are not wasted on projects that are indistinguishable from hardcore pornography?''
Perhaps Rep. Richard Durbin (D) of Ill. summed up the issue best: ``I suspect that 200 years from now some form of this debate will still be taking place.''