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Limiting Funding for the Arts:
Censorship or Good Sense?

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

The Supreme Court has recently decided to enter the widely debated and generally controversial National Endowment for the Arts funding fray. The High Court has agreed to hear a case involving an appeal of the implementation of a 1990 law that attempts to bring a semblance of sanity to the disreputable process of subsidizing the NEA.

Congress has had the audacity to insist that the NEA evaluate prospective grants with more than the traditional "artistic excellence and merit" requirements. The agency must add "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" as additional criteria to determine whether funding is warranted.

Four artists, whose requests for federal grants had been denied while Congress was considering the measure, filed a lawsuit arguing that the decency standard was too vague and it violated free speech. Included in this group of budding Picassos was Karen Finley, an individual who had previously received a coveted NEA grant for smearing her naked body with chocolate.

The primary issue facing the U.S. Supreme Court is whether limiting criteria for funding artistic activities constitutes censorship. After a federal judge in California in 1992 declared the decency provision unconstitutional, a U.S. appeals court last year affirmed the judge's decision agreeing with the contention of the artists/plaintiffs that the law was unconstitutionally vague.

It is somewhat ironic that the appellate court in this case relied on the supposed vagueness of this legislation. After all, what could be more nebulous than the determination of artistic merit of some of our so-called modern practitioners of art?

The National Endowment for the Arts has been giving away our tax dollars for the following projects involving dubious "artistic merit and excellence":

An exhibit consisting of menstrual blood;

Clothing fashioned out of condoms;

A depiction of Jesus Christ as a drug addict and sex object;

A career retrospective exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's works, including homo-erotic photography;

A photograph of a crucifix immersed in the artist's urine, Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ."

Delighting in the public's disgust with their choices for funding, the NEA has added insult to injury by continuing to fund similar projects, including a sculpture of a dozen male sex organs.

Apparently the NEA has always used completely subjective criteria when deciding which offensive project the American people should underwrite. As our duly elected representatives, members of Congress passed this law in order to fulfill their responsibility to their constituents and insure the appropriate use of tax revenue. After all, the misuse of tax revenue without representation is what motivated the establishment of our nation in the first place.

Current legal interpretation of the Constitution may bar censorship of indecent expression, but does this particular law involve censorship? The statute does not restrict the artist's expression in any manner. It merely limits criteria that the NEA can utilize in endowing artists with tax dollars. Artists are free to create obscene and sacrilegious objects to their hearts' content as long as they find a way to pay for it.

The Constitution does not require the government to subsidize indecent, offensive and blasphemous displays just because a few pretentious elitists label them as art.

When the Supreme Court hears arguments for this case early next year they should uphold the law, thereby not only exercising sound constitutional judgment, but also elevating, if only slightly, the level of decency in America.

Copyright © 1999 -
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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