NEA Issues Compromise Guidelines on Obscenity


The National Endowment for the Arts issued formal obscenity-control guidelines today that indicated the arts agency intends to ignore the most controversial phrase in a law passed last year that has provoked a furor in the arts community.

The NEA announcement appeared intended to both placate artists and arts groups that have rejected NEA funds, filed court challenges against the obscenity restrictions and launched other protests and to create the appearance for endowment political critics that the NEA acted decisively to define what constitutes obscene art it will refuse to fund.

But early reviews of the new guidelines were mixed, either from arts organizations or congressmen attempting to fashion language to control the content of federally supported artworks for a pending NEA reauthorization bill.

The endowment said it would employ only the new definition in determining if a grant has been illegally employed to create obscene work, but will retain a requirement that grantees sign a written certification that anything created under NEA grants will not be obscene.

In New York, the New School for Social Research, which has sued the endowment seeking to invalidate an NEA requirement that grantees sign an acknowledgement that they will not produce obscene work, said the new guidelines appeared to raise more questions than they resolved. The university's attorney, New York First Amendment specialist Floyd Abrams, filed court papers indicating the New School will seek to take a deposition from NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer next week in an attempt to clarify the effects of the new guidelines.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) failed to respond to requests for comment on the new NEA guidelines, but Helms earlier had condemned the GAO recommendations as a "whitewash" of the NEA. Helms, the NEA's nemesis in Congress, originally demanded the GAO inquiry. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita), another key NEA critic, was reportedly attending a funeral in California today and was not available.

Issuance of the new guidelines was widely perceived as an attempt by the endowment to persuade critics to abandon litigation that seeks to invalidate the controversial 1990 appropriation bill wording. The New School lawsuit is the only pending court action, but a separate suit is thought to be imminent from Los Angeles choreographer Bella Lewitzky, who turned down $72,000 in NEA funds on June 14 and said she would sue over the wording.

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