Arts Community Responds To Decision on 'Decency'

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.

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.

By its very vagueness, the decency clause also might open the door to more regulations, or so believes Bonnie Brooks, until recently the executive director of Dance/USA, a national service organization dedicated to the advancement of dance. Speaking from Los Angeles, she worries that "it invites even more language. The camel's nose," she warns, "is under the tent."

Similarly, Susan Lubowski Talbott, executive director of the Southeast Center for Contemporary Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., thinks the ruling's impact will depend on "whether the NEA, either willingly or unwillingly, interprets what decency means and whether this goes into the guidelines."

Levin takes this a step further, speculating that "all it will take is one NEA grant that funds something the right wing considers indecent, and it will say, see, the ruling is not enough. Then it'll attack and do away with it."

Not everyone shares these concerns. Cameron is among those who believe that the court's decision preempts any move to further restrict the NEA.

And Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., thinks any problems that might arise from attempts to narrowly define decency "will turn out to be minor skirmishes. The broader picture," he adds, "is that 99.99 percent of what the NEA has funded has been completely acceptable to the bulk of American citizens."

This is the point that many hope they will now be able to get across, and they welcome the ruling in so far as they feel it can quell the rage that erupted in 1989 over NEA subsidies for a traveling exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs.

"We need to get Congress to shift the focus from the narrow area of discomfort to a broader view," says Jan Denton, executive director of the American Arts Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group for some 2,500 professional nonprofit arts organizations around the country. Thanks to this ruling, she adds, "we can now focus on trying to build the resources of the NEA."

Although the NEA's 1999 budget won't be finalized until after the July 4 recess, Ms. Denton and others are encouraged by last week's events in the House Appropriations Committee. Just as the Supreme Court was delivering its decision, the committee unexpectedly backed a bill allocating the NEA a budget of $98 million.

"Last year at this time we were in a horrible battle," Denton says, referring to Congress's attempt to withhold all funding from the NEA.

Most agree that the ruling will enhance the NEA's chances in the final round, and many see that its vagueness could open the way for an even longer benefit.

"One silver lining in this rather sorrowful cloud," says Ms. Talbott, "is that it can generate a new dialogue."

A recurring concern is that the arts community has set itself apart and lost touch with the general public. And the hope is that the issue of decency might become the springboard for programs and discussions that help bridge that gap.

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