Arts Supporters Fear Amendment as Censorship Step
It began in April as a controversy few people took seriously over two pieces of art many found in questionable taste.
But by Thursday morning, a day after the U.S. Senate approved an unprecedented amendment by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to bar the National Endowment for the Arts from financing obscene or offensive works, many were calling it a full-blown censorship crisis.
Arts observers found themselves questioning the survival, as it is now known, of federal support for cultural institutions.
While legal experts said the constitutional implications of steps by Helms and other senators to control subject matter supported by the endowment remained unclear, most arts experts said a strict interpretation of the limitations would make it impossible for the federal agency to continue to operate.
“I think the endowment would not be able to function,” said Hugh Southern, acting chairman of the NEA. “My own personal view is that it would be better that there be no National Endowment for the Arts than that we become the ‘National Endowment for Nice Art,’ which is clearly the intent of this amendment.”
As meetings took form in Washington and elsewhere Thursday morning, some observers concluded that, even if a House-Senate conference committee--which may not meet until after Labor Day--deletes an amendment inserted by Helms in Senate floor debate Wednesday, the venomous nature of the turmoil may lead to a long-term chill in arts subject matter in a variety of media.
Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), the best-known arts advocate in the House, branded the Helms measure “clearly unconstitutional.”
“The Communists tell their artists how they must think and what they must perform,” Yates said in a statement released Thursday morning. “Is that what we want too? I don’t think so. For almost 25 years, since the endowment was first established, Congress has not directed what art grants must contain and not contain.
“We have studiously avoided any congressional interference or direction of telling artists, playwrights or any creative effort how they must think and what they must do.”
At issue is an amendment Helms introduced at the end of debate on the Senate floor on the national endowment’s 1990 appropriation, which would provide $171.4 million for the agency.
In language observers universally characterized as extraordinary, the amendment, which would take effect one day after the appropriation bill is signed into law, prohibits the NEA from providing funds “to promote, disseminate or produce” any artwork that includes “obscene or indecent materials,” “material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion” and any work that “denigrates, debases or reviles a person, group or class of citizens.”
“It’s completely unworkable,” said John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu and president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, a national group representing the heads of the nation’s 140 largest mainstream institutions. “Worse than that, it will result in a climate of intimidation, and you might as well call it repression. Who’s doing to decide what’s ‘indecent’ or what ‘denigrates the beliefs of a particular religion or nonreligion?’ ”
Earlier in the week, a Senate committee and subcommittee had approved added language that effectively blacklists two private arts institutions by making them ineligible for NEA grants for five years. The centers had roused the ire of conservative congressmen and fundamentalist Christians.
The Institute for Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia was targeted because it organized an exhibit of work by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose images include homoerotic themes, the catalogue for which was NEA-financed. The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C., was hit because it included, in an NEA-funded exhibit, an image by photographer Andres Serrano titled “Piss Christ” that depicts a crucifix immersed in urine.
But to the surprise of many, Helms introduced an amendment that added substantially to the five-year funding bans--which had already raised questions of constitutional propriety.
Helms took the action, he said, to assure that federal money would not be used to finance art many Americans might find offensive--either on religious grounds or because of its sexual content.
There was widespread belief in Washington, congressional and other sources agreed, that the Senate-House conference committee that will ultimately fashion the final version of the NEA appropriation bill will likely delete or water down the Helms language and may get rid of the blacklisting provisions as well.
But Yates, the ranking House member of the conference committee, said no such deal had been struck. Through a spokeswoman, he insisted that the committee will have to slog back through issues of censorship and government control of the content of artworks that have permeated the debate ever since a fundamentalist Christian group in Mississippi objected to the Serrano photograph earlier this year.
James Fitzpatrick, a prominent Washington lawyer, said the passel of restrictions raises constitutional questions of several types. The blacklisting provisions, said Fitzpatrick, run afoul of arcane prohibitions in constitutional law against “bills of attainder,” or penalties exacted of specific individuals directly by Congress, instead of through the courts. The Helms provisions, said Fitzpatrick, are unconstitutionally vague--and difficult to interpret, regardless of the Constitution.
“God knows what material is that deals with the exploitation of children,” for example, Fitzpatrick said. “Politically, everyone has the sense that these measures are so extreme they are going to be stricken in conference. The problem is one doesn’t know what the compromise might be.”
“I think the ramifications are fairly clear,” said Anne Murphy, executive director of the American Arts Alliance, a key advocacy group. “If you succeed in doing what Mr. Helms wants done, you do not have an arts endowment.
“If you look at his language and go through it, you can’t have most operas. You certainly couldn’t do Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the Ninth, because they are about war and might offend Quakers. You can’t have an exhibition including work by Frederic
Remington, because it might be offensive to American Indians.
“You couldn’t publish material that denigrates satanism or witchcraft. If you can’t disseminate sex acts, does that mean Rodin? I can think of hundreds of paintings that denigrate objects or beliefs of a religion. You could not do most Shakespeare.”
But in the context of the pragmatic politics of Washington, Murphy and other observers there agreed, stopping the momentum of the right-led rush to control content of federally funded arts endeavors may be difficult.
Jack Duncan, special counsel for national policy for the American Council for the Arts, a New York-based group, said that an almost impossible dilemma is created for arts supporters in Congress by the subject matter of the two artists whose work touched off the firestorm.
Mapplethorpe’s work includes images of erections and at least one picture of the photographer with a bull whip protruding from his buttocks. Another image shows a man urinating or ejaculating into another man’s mouth. Serrano has produced an entire series of photos involving urine and has completed another series of images that include semen.
Attempts to avert the sequence of events that culminated in the Helms amendment failed, said Duncan, “because of the nature of the two works of art that we’re dealing with.
“People (congressmen) don’t want to be put in a position, as Mr. Helms tried to put them last night, of being accused by certain elements of our society of endorsing that particular kind of art.”
Duncan noted that, after a House vote on a bill to strip a symbolic $45,000 from the NEA’s budget in response to the endowment’s funding shows with the Mapplethorpe and Serrano works, National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Ed Rollins distributed press releases in the districts of congressmen who voted against tampering with the endowment’s funding.
In the press releases, Rollins charged that each targeted congressman “voted to have Congess support sexually explicit and anti-religious works of art that are offensive to millions of Americans.”
Senators, Duncan said, may have seen--and may still see--no political gain in voting to preserve traditional American values of freedom of expression if the freedom is tied to two works that are doubtless perceived as offensive by many people.
“I’ve been disappointed at the debate thus far,” said Duncan. “At this point, I don’t know whether members of Congress are going to be cowed, whether we’re entering a new McCarthy era or whether people will be willing to stand up and challenge this kind of demagoguery.
“I find it very predictable of human beings. We have to be careful and protect these valued rights that Mr. Helms and I agree should be protected. The irony is that Mr. Helms is doing exactly what Congress (has historically) feared the national endowment would do: Impose its will on what is art and what is to be supported.
“Even if we’re able to get this language removed, is the mind-set (of intimidation) already there? Are people scared to make choices? Have we created an atmosphere where people are going to be cowed into doing what these people (Helms and other conservatives) want? That’s the scary part.”
Jonathan Katz, executive director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, said the crisis brought on by the long censorship debate in the House and Senate and climaxed by Helms may be the most serious arts crisis in the United States in recent memory.
“It’s a very serious threat,” Katz said. “It just must be understood that, to examine an image or an idea, to criticize an image or idea or represent an image or idea is not the same thing as inciting people to a behavior.
“We go and look at the Venus de Milo, but when we’re presented with that, it doesn’t make us go out on the street and motivate us to rip the clothes off someone and tear their arm off.”