Taking Sides in the Funding Flap : O.C. Politicians Square Off With Arts Leaders Over Cutoff for ‘Obscene’ Art

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Senate’s decision last week to bar the National Endowment for the Arts from funding any “obscene” works, coming on top of the House’s symbolic cut in the NEA’s budget, has quickly spawned two camps in Orange County that are vociferously, if predictably, polarized.

On one side are the county’s representatives in the House who, in varying degrees of enthusiasm, support the Senate’s action, which was engineered by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in response to a pair of NEA-funded projects. One was a $15,000 grant to Andres Serrano for his “Piss Christ” photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine; the other was a $30,000 grant for a touring photography exhibition that included works by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, some of which are homoerotic.

On the other side are officials at the county’s leading arts institutions and arts advocates who unanimously condemn congressional attempts to reduce, restrict or, in some cases, eliminate federal money for the arts.

In the last decade, county arts groups have received more than $2 million in grants for varied projects. South Coast Repertory alone has received nearly $1 million from NEA since 1981, in grants for general operating expenses and endowment, according to SCR general manager Paula Tomei.


The fight is also emerging as one of class, not political party affiliation, separating wealthy arts supporters from most taxpayers. At least that is the view of some local representatives and their staff members.

“There’s no indication that Republican elitists are any better than Democratic elitists,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita), whose district includes parts of northwestern Orange County.

Rohrabacher called those who strongly support federal support for the arts “a bunch of snobs. I don’t care if they are Republicans or Democrats. To spend money on trashy art is an obscenity.”

But to some county arts officials who have regular dealings with NEA, congressmen who are attacking the agency may be setting themselves up for more trouble than they realize.


“Congress is violating its own mandate and its own law,” said Kevin Consey, director of Newport Harbor Art Museum. “They set up an agency to insulate the academic mission of (arts) institutions from political (control). But then they turn around and say, ‘Well, when it comes to protecting the nation’s morals, academic freedom doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t suit our purpose at this point in time.”

County representatives in the House have been in the forefront of the fight over federal funding, participating in heated floor debate and appearing on national TV to support their position. Earlier this month, the House approved a $45,000 cut in NEA funding in a gesture that was more symbolic than substantive.

Rohrabacher recently proposed an amendment to the Department of the Interior appropriations bill, which was defeated, that would have eliminated the entire $171.4-million appropriation for the arts for the coming fiscal year.

Speaking in support of his amendment, Rohrabacher said: “In an age when government is piling up a mountain of debt and is struggling to fund critical programs that affect human health and save lives--like prenatal care, school lunches and Medicare--the time has finally come for us to recognize the difference in programs that are essential and programs that are not necessary and, in this time of budget crisis, should be zeroed out.”


Rohrabacher, some of whose remarks on the floor were broadcast on PBS’s “McNeil-Lehrer News Hour,” acknowledged that “some of my colleagues with equal concern about these outrageous wastes of taxpayer funds will advocate tighter (government) control . . . in the arts. I believe that censorship is not the solution. The answer is getting government out of the arts. . . . There is no shortage of private financial support for the arts.”

Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) spoke several times for Rohrabacher’s amendment, calling it “tragic that taxpayers’ money is funding this kind of trash,” and pointing out during a spirited floor debate that Mapplethorpe, whom he described as a “homosexual activist,” died of AIDS in March.

Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), who appeared on several Cable News Network shows to denounce the two grants, has mailed a questionnaire on the subject to 10,000 constituents, according to chief of staff Brian O’Leary Bennett.

The survey asks three questions (italics and quote marks are Dornan’s):


“1. Do you believe that a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine could ever under any circumstances be considered art? (yes or no)

“2. Do you support Congressman Dornan’s position that the federal government should not fund “artists” who produce pornographic or sacrilegious art? (yes or no)

“3. Do you believe that your tax dollars should be subsidizing any type of legitimate art (music, dancing, etc.)? (yes or no)

Bennett said Dornan did not support Rohrabacher’s amendment because Dornan believes that “there are some legitimate federal expenditures for the arts,” particularly as seed money for such groups as the Grove Theatre in Garden Grove, which applied twice for NEA grants last year. Dornan did support another unsuccessful proposal to cut 10% of the NEA’s appropriation across the board. This move was designed to express displeasure with the Serrano-Mapplethorpe grants even more strongly than the $45,000 combined cuts that were passed.


Bennett also said Dornan supports the Helms amendment.

Ultimately, a Senate committee accepted the symbolic action of Congress against the NEA and added a five-year ban on grants to the groups that sponsored the two exhibits. On a voice vote, the full Senate passed an amendment by Helms that would restrict grants that “promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent material, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion . . . (or artwork which) denigrates, debases or reviles a person, group or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin.”

Rep. C. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) also denounced the two grants and supported the 10% cut, but did not support a complete cutoff of federal arts money.

“I think that government control is to be avoided,” he said last week, “that government assistance without control is permissible. . . . (But) this is a legitimate subject of congressional oversight.”


Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad), whose district includes parts of south Orange County, could not be reached for comment.

In the visual-arts community, opinion was vehemently against the Helms amendment and strongly in defense of the need for continued government money for the arts.

Newport Harbor’s Consey said: “The organizations in question . . . followed explicit federal guidelines. They acted in good faith. They engaged in a reasonable discourse, put together a proposal, had peer review through the system, were awarded the grants and entered into legally binding contracts with the NEA to carry out their projects. To retroactively punish these institutions, as Sen. Helms is suggesting, brings up serious questions related to constitutional law.”

Having served on four NEA panels in the last three years, Consey said he is troubled at the implication that “in some way NEA panel reviewers do not represent the mainstream of American life--that they are people who are disinterested in the basic moral values of American society. My peers and colleagues on the panels were for the most part good citizens, well-educated people, family members . . . and quite dedicated to the preservation of American culture.”


Consey said his museum, which receives about 12% to 14% of its exhibition funding from the NEA, is on the whole “not particularly dependent on government support,” as a result of “very generous private-sector donations for underwriting exhibitions.”

He added, however, that “in our case, the NEA has been very, very important in allowing us to produce projects of national significance,” such as exhibitions of important U.S. painting from the 1950s and a retrospective of work by California conceptual artist Chris Burden.

Consey said that the museum will continue to show work that may be controversial and that it will continue to seek money for exhibitions from government agencies. “Our sense is that aesthetic quality and academic content comes first,” he said.

At the Laguna Art Museum, the executive committee of the board of trustees recently passed a resolution in response to the NEA crisis stating that the museum recognizes “the legitimate right of an artist to a free expression of ideas and emotions,” the right of curators and other scholars employed by the museum to “unhampered research and expression,” and “the greatest degree of intellectual and artistic freedom,” consistent with “the moral and ethical standards” of the community.


Museum director Charles Desmarais said that in past years his institution has “not relied that heavily on federal funding for exhibitions.” But the Laguna museum received a $20,000 NEA award this year and hopes to receive about $200,000 in pending NEA applications for various projects.

As worded in the Helms amendment, the Senate’s action could reverberate beyond the visual arts world to encompass works of theater, poetry, opera and dance that include expressions that might offend some viewers.

“There are thousands of national arts grants in all the disciplines, and out of that, two instances have offended someone,” said Martin Benson, artistic director at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. “So Sen. Helms sets up a mechanism what will be deemed suitable for what can be seen.

“It certainly is a strong influence on an arts organization to play it as safe as humanly possible for fear that someone may be offended, however innocuous it may appear to the producing organization itself.


“Personally, I don’t think any project we’ve done over our history has been morally reprehensible, or we wouldn’t have done it. However, what is morally reprehensible is in the eye of the perceiver. One four-letter word in a play may define obscenity to someone, while it is entirely appropriate to the author.”

Several county music organizations have received or applied for NEA grants in recent years. While officials see themselves as less affected immediately, many worry about the future.

“I don’t see how it would affect me in any way in the choice of (choral) literature,” said William Hall, music director of the Master Chorale of Orange County, which received $2,000 from the NEA for the 1988-89 season and has applied for $20,000 for the 1990-91 season. Hall was on an NEA panel last year to review proposals for challenge grants.

Hall said: “In the long term, it would affect all the arts. . . . These kinds of things, like cancer tend to grow rather than go away.”


Martin Weil, former managing director of Opera Pacific and an Orange County arts advocate, called Helms’ move “the biggest issue to come along in the arts on a national level for some time.”

Weil said he worried about what he considered the failure to follow “due process” regarding the “punitive elements of the amendment, which bans the two institutions from receiving any funds for five years.

“You cannot impose a law and punish someone on the basis of that law for doing something before that law existed,” he said. “I’m sure if this were law, it would be found unconstitutional.”

Times staff writers Cathy Curtis, Jan Herman, Randy Lewis and Chris Pasles contributed to this story.