Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Tempest Over Tax Dollars for Controversial Art

FUTURE federal funding for the arts hangs in jeopardy this summer because of two controversial photography exhibitions - one involving sex, the other religion - which have offended a large and vocal segment of both Congress and the public. The outcry has resulted in threats that proposed funding of $171.4 million for the fiscal 1990 budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) may be held up, cut substantially, or even reduced to nothing.

One of the sparks that has lit the bonfire over dollars is a retrospective of the work of the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The show, ``Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,'' contains some prints of an explicitly homosexual and sadomasochistic nature and photos of children in erotic poses, along with other photos that aren't controversial. Although the exhibit has toured several cities, the Corcoran Gallery here cancelled its appearance in mid-June, citing concern that it might endanger funding for the NEA. The second controversy swirled around an exhibit containing an Andres Serrano photograph of a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine. Critics called it obscene and blasphemous. Both shows, funded by ``sub-grants,'' or money given by the NEA to state or local arts groups for projects those groups approved, resulted in fiery debates in Congress over NEA appropriations.

About these ads

The Corcoran cancellation raised a furor in and out of the arts world involving grave questions about freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. The dirty word ``censorship'' is in the air here. The Washington Project for the Arts, a multimedia nonprofit organization for artists, says it will present the Mapplethorpe show here July 21-Aug. 13.

Members of the arts community point out that of equal importance to questions about the use of tax dollars are the First Amendment issues at stake. J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art, told the National Press Club recently, ``I think there's a principle involved here which is at the heart of what it means to be an American. ... As we watch the other [governmental] systems ... we come to recognize how fragile our freedoms are and how important it is to defend the process and to keep a sense of our First Amendment and our ideals apart from any specific incident that may develop....''

Anne Murphy, executive director of the American Arts Alliance, a 350-member advocacy organization for nonprofit arts groups, says she sees the threat to funding over controversial art as ``a real and present danger to the arts. There is a risk to the Endowment from the censorship question.'' She points out that, when the NEA was created, it was stipulated that ``in no case shall Congress decide what is or is not art,'' that Congress was to control only the terms and conditions for release of its funds.

Ms. Murphy also points to the works of art through the ages, from Beethoven symphonies to Picasso's ``Guernica,'' that have aroused controversies. ``To say it offends some people is not a good enough reason not to fund it,'' she says. Speaking of the moral issues congressmen cite for budget cuts, she adds, ``In my opinion, the larger moral question is defending the Constitution, and saying that mistakes will happen, but the freedom to express thought is, in the long term, of greater consequence to America ..., and abolishing leadership in that direction is more immoral.''

Thousands of Letters

Senators Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York have led the charge against the NEA in the Senate, Rep. Dick Armey (R) of Texas in the House. Two-hundred members of Congress have called for a review of the NEA grant process. Meanwhile the NEA appropriation is hostage to the Serrano-Mapplethorpe tumult. Rep. Armey has threatened to exhibit the offensive Mapplethorpe prints on the House floor; Senator D'Amato tore up the Serrano catalog on the Senate floor.

Thousands of letters from the public have rained down on Congress, some of them prompted by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, director of the American Family Association, demanding that NEA officials involved be fired, and by Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, who demanded that NEA funding be cut off until the agency pledges no more ``blasphemy or pornography.''

About these ads

The Alliance's Murphy suggests that some of the congressional fireworks may spring from political concerns. ``There's an ethics problem in Congress; people in Congress want to be seen as being moral. Now most members of Congress are, indeed, very moral people. But society wants things in 30-second sound clips, and it [the fireworks over the NEA grants] is a good 30-second sound clip. Some will take ``any action they can take that makes them appear to be moral.''

The issue is further complicated by the Congress's acute awareness of the outrage kindled by the American flag issue. Congress had a burning issue of its own in flag art even before protest was ignited by the recent Supreme Court ruling that the burning of the flag was not a federal offense. Prior to that ruling, the Senate passed a bill making it a federal crime to ``knowingly display'' the flag on the ground. That bill grew out of rage over an exhibit at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago which did just that.

Protests, including bomb threats, resulted in a threat by the Illinois legislature to cut the school's $65,000 in state grants, a threat which has not yet been carried out. The legislators, however, have limited funding to $1 each for the Illinois State Arts Council and the private Illinois Arts Alliance, which receives money from the council, in apparent retaliation for both groups' support of the school.

That sort of fiscal retribution set a precedent that national legislators and arts groups are vividly aware of. What outraged some congressmen was the fact that the NEA gave $15,000 of taxpayers' money to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C., which the center then spent on the Serrano exhibit. Of equal concern was that the NEA gave a $30,000 federal grant to the University of Pennsylvania Institute of Contemporary Art, which then spent it on the Mapplethorpe show.

Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D) of Illinois is chairman of the Subcommittee on the Interior of the House Appropriations Committee. The subcommittee exerts a strong influence over NEA funding. Yates has a long-standing reputation as a white knight for appropriating multi-millions more to the NEA than the Reagan administration asked for in the darkest days of budget cuts.

Last month, even with the bonfire over arts funding burning, Yates and his subcommittee championed a $171.4 million appropriation, which has just passed the full committee and now goes to the House floor. That figure represents a modest increase over last year's $169 million figure.

Yates says he hopes the current controversy won't have a chilling effect on the NEA in the long run. ``In my report I point out that, of the approximately 85,000 grants the NEA has made over the last 24 years, less than 20 have been found to be controversial for reasons of obscenity or pornography or racial degradation or frivolity. That's one-quarter of one-tenth of one percent of all grants.''

Yates has proposed a way to closethe gap that allowed sub-grantors, like those involved with the Mapplethorpe and Serrano shows, to decide what the grants were used for, rather than the NEA. Yates's changes would return to the Endowment or its chairman the right of fiscal approval for all sub-grants. ``In other words,'' says Yates, ``the sub-grantors will recommend to NEA ... what the grants should be, as panels do now.'' But the NEA will make the final decision on those grants.

Is there anything that could still endanger the Yates subcommittee's appropriation on the floor of the House?

Yates says, ``I don't know the answer to that. I've discussed what I've done with Mr. Armey, and he said my suggestions were constructive. But whether or not that will be adequate for his purposes, I don't know. I leave that to him.''

Not Enough to Satisfy Armey

Rep. Armey, reached by phone in Texas, said Yates had done a very good job of complying with legislative expectations. But that wasn't enough to satisfy him. ``If there's a floor fight over NEA appropriations ... we expect them to maintain fiduciary responsibility and accountability over their subcontractors. Now what we need, before the bill comes to the floor, is language by the agency that their operating guideliness, their operating documents'' make them responsible for sub-grants. ``What I want to see is behavioral change written by the agency into the granting process.''

Rep. Armey was asked how he balances his stand that it is necessary to rule out funding for any work of art deemed profane, vulgar, offensive, or sacreligious against First Amendment rights.

``We're not talking about any limitation on what artists could create if they want to,'' he said. ``We're talking about limitations on what grants should be made for the purchase of that work or for that work. That's the problem.'' Armey says he wants ``any reasonable panel that could reasonably be assured to be held accountable'' when considering art like Serrano's photo. He would expect that panel to say, ```If we fund this work, we're going to have problems, public-relations problems, on our hands. This work could be reasonably predicted to be outrageous, both to the American taxpayer and the vast majority of American people. ... You can do it on your own money.'''

Armey says now that when he suggested showing seven explicit Mapplethorpe photos on the House floor, ``I did not mean that as a threat.'' He notes that ``by and large Mapplethorpe's work is within certain bounds of taste.'' In his view, just those seven prints should have been cut from the show. He graphically describes a shot of a homosexual act involving a bullwhip. If that sort of thing had been omitted, he says, the point could have been made of Mapplethorpe's talent and of ``a tendency toward homosexuality, and that it is [as] possible to tastefully celebrate homosexuality as it is heterosexuality. The artistic community does not grasp the fact that we're not talking about artistic expression - we're talking about the expenditure of public funds,'' he adds. ``We can no more accept the expenditure of public funds in a manner that offends the vast majority of people in art than we can in defense.

``I have seen, for example, any number of people raise up a toilet seat or a coffee pot on the floor of the House and say, `This is an obscene expenditure of the taxpayers' dollars for defense.' I could hold up those seven [Mapplethorpe] prints and have the vast majority of the American public press for energetic agreement with me and those who do not [agree] keep their mouths shut.''

Is he planning to do that on the House floor? No, says Armey, explaining that he prefers to work with the NEA to change the language in its grant regulations. ``And I hope that we make enough progress,'' he adds, ``so that we don't have to do that.''

The situation remains volatile, however. It is complicated by the fact that the NEA has been without a chairman since early this year, when Frank Hodsoll resigned to join the Office of Management and Budget. John E. Frohnmayer, an Oregon lawyer, art collector, and former chairman of the Oregon Arts Commission, was named last week by the President as his choice to head the NEA.

Acting chairman Hugh Southern has strapped on his armor to defend the NEA in its current siege. He notes that the Yates subcommittee has come up with ``new ways of reviewing grants to organizations that are sub-granting federal funds. This should deal with many of the concerns that have been raised in Congress.''

Southern adds, ``I really can't forecast what will happen down the line [on the floor]. I hope that we will come through it. I believe that the review process is important, and we will do it in a responsible way. And I hope to convince Congress that our procedures and processes are valid and have integrity.'' But he admits that the controversy could cast a shadow over the reauthorization for the NEA in 1990.

A Rosier Picture

Southern paints a rosier picture of the general arts funding situation than arts advocacy groups do. He refers to a controversial, in-depth article by William Honan in the New York Times (May 28) headlined ``Arts Dollars: Pinched as Never Before.'' ``I think it's misleading to paint an overall picture as bleak as that one was,'' says Southern. ``We see great difficulties in some areas and great success in others.

``Although I think all arts organizations are having trouble raising funds, I think the picture in many areas is of the arts and arts organizations flourishing.'' And he notes that ``there has been an extraordinary growth in the state arts appropriations. ... Since 1984, they have exceeded the federal government direct appropriations for the arts'' and are now at $270 million. ``The local appropriations are growing even faster,'' he says, indicating that appropriations from the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, which represents some 3,000 agencies and associations, currently exceed $500 million a year.

But Ms. Murphy of the American Arts Alliance says that it's up to the federal government to lead in funding the arts, that if Washington fails to do this there will be a domino effect. Murphy points out that the last Carter administration request for NEA funding amounted to $175 million a decade ago; the actual appropriation was $159 million.

Speaking of figures her organization, together with a consortium of arts advocacy groups, presented to the Yates subcommittee, Ms. Murphy says, ``We would need $223 million just to hold even with the value of the dollars in the last year of the Carter administration.'' That figure omits funding of the programs which have become eligible since then, she adds.

Murphy is concerned not just that the Yates subcommittee's appropriation falls nearly $50 million short of that ``break-even'' $223 million they requested. But she's also worried that the congressional uproar over what art should be funded will have a chilling effect on artists, museums, grants panels, and even donors.

She fears that, if the present controversy results in stifling artistic expression, ``we will wind up having only sources of funds for `safe art.''' And she cautions, ``The value of art is never determined by the generation that creates it. The permanent value of art is determined by succeeding generations, who vote to keep it in the human repertoire, who say, `This is worth passing on to the next generation.'''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.