Ministers Square Off Over Provocative Art Exhibit, Role of NEA : Censorship: They concur that a "struggle for the soul of America" is under way but disagree about where the "evil" lies.


Aside from their status as Protestant clerics, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon and the Rev. James Conn have little in common, but on one thing they agree: Santa Monica may soon become the latest battleground in a struggle for the soul of America.

At issue is an exhibit of the works of artist David Wojnarowicz, and in a broader context, whether the federal government's National Endowment for the Arts should be allowed to fund such controversial projects.

The Wojnarowicz exhibit, titled "Tongues of Flame," opened uneventfully last week at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, despite an apparent effort by Sheldon, an Orange County-based conservative firebrand, to organize a protest among local church leaders.

The show, which touches on themes of sexuality--particularly homosexuality--was initially put together with $15,000 from the NEA.

It is, says Sheldon, an example of "government sponsorship of hostility toward religion."

Sheldon, the leader of the Traditional Values Coalition of conservative church leaders, says he is marshaling Westside church groups and expects to hold a news conference within two weeks to make a pronouncement regarding the exhibit. He will not say what is being planned, but he has plenty of time to cause a stir--the show runs through Sept. 5.

Conn, a former Santa Monica mayor and now a United Methodist minister at the Church in Ocean Park, is among those opposed to any effort by Sheldon and others to limit the rights of Westside residents to view art or limit the government's role in funding controversial artists.

Like Conn, some Santa Monica Museum of Art officials and local activists say Sheldon has no right sticking his nose into their business. Frankly, they say, they resent his attempts to drum up conflict where there is none, thank you very much.

To those on both sides, the controversy goes much deeper than the conflicting mores of Westside liberals and Orange County conservatives.

Sheldon, known throughout Orange County, in Sacramento and even in Washington as "Reverend Lou," claims thousands of conservative churches among his support base. As coalition leader, he spends much of his time shuttling across the state and nation opposing gay rights and urging churchgoers to oppose homosexuality, abortion and other modern-day "evils."

In a confidential letter to Westside church leaders, Sheldon wrote recently that the NEA furor is all-important because it determines whether the government plays a role in the "struggle for the soul of America."

Conn agrees that such a struggle is under way, but he defines it differently. "The people who do not want you to look at art," he says, "do not want you to look into the depths of America's soul, or they want to erase it."

At the heart of the controversy over the Wojnarowicz exhibit is the fact that it received NEA funding when on display earlier this year at State University of Illinois. By displaying it, the private, nonprofit Santa Monica museum "in essence seems to be displaying government sponsorship of hostility toward religion," Sheldon told church leaders in his July 17 letter.

To be sure, it is not your run-of-the-mill family style art exhibit.

Wojnarowicz's work addresses issues of the diminishing natural environment, the AIDS epidemic, unfair economics, mortality, government gone awry and social stratification.

Like Robert Mapplethorpe, Wojnarowicz (pronounced Wahn-uh-ROW-vich) has become a lightning rod for criticism among those opposed to NEA funding of controversial art. Already, he is in the middle of a legal battle with Mississippi-based Rev. Donald Wildmon over his work and has clashed with NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer as well.

The exhibit is billed as the first comprehensive showing of his paintings, sculptures, photography and collage. Wojnarowicz, a self-styled bad-boy artist from New York, is a former abused child, street hustler and prostitute whose gay activism and personal battle against acquired immune deficiency syndrome appear as themes throughout his work.

The work, the artist said in an interview, is graphic. "That keeps the blood in it," he said. "I like the energy of raw things."

Such rawness upsets Sheldon. "I am told," he wrote church leaders, "the exhibit includes photos of men having sex with men and animals."

Museum Executive Director Thomas Rhoads confirmed what a review of the exhibit indicates: that, although sex scenes are present, there are "no images of bestiality."

When Sheldon got wind that the exhibit was being planned, he organized a gathering of local conservative ministers. The July 20 meeting at the Santa Monica Church of the Nazarene, held to "discuss options," drew a large turnout, he said. Among the possible courses of action discussed, he said, were filing a class-action lawsuit or engaging in other means of protest.

Whatever Sheldon is planning, he claims to have lots of company. "We have an enormous amount of chapters, groups and individuals in the West part of Los Angeles and Santa Monica," he said. "There are a lot of things in (the exhibit) that are offensive to many, many people for a number of reasons."

Museum Director Rhoads, meanwhile, said many people have rallied behind the museum for showing the exhibit, which is partially supported by private contributions in conjunction with the 1990 LA Festival.

Some museum insiders and supporters said what bothered them most about the controversy was Sheldon's attempt to export his brand of Orange County conservative activism to the Westside, a place long known for embracing diversity.

"They're saying, 'How dare these people come into our community and tell us what we should see,' " said museum official Frances Balcomb. She said the exhibit opened to large crowds and no visible protests.

Due to the graphic nature of the work, the museum put up a notice advising patrons that viewing the exhibit "is a personal and private choice."

To some, Sheldon's intervention has been a rallying point.

The Ocean Park Community Organization, which draws its members from the neighborhood surrounding the museum, circulated a statement saying: "We are concerned that individuals from outside our community would attempt to dictate what may be exhibited in our neighborhood. If the Rev. Lou Sheldon is offended . . . we recommend he skip this engagement."

In response to Sheldon and his allies, Conn said he is planning a performance art exhibit at his church to celebrate the tolerant attitude among local religious organizations toward art.

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