The National Endowment for the Arts intends to release by July 13 guidelines interpreting controversial legislation that forbids federal funding of "obscene" art, according to papers filed recently in federal court in New York. The wording of those guidelines is unknown, but the endowment advised the Rockefeller Foundation in late May that it believes the law prohibits funding only of materials that fail the obscenity test advanced by the Supreme Court.

Leading constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, who is representing the New School for Social Research in a suit challenging the constitutionality of the current obscenity restrictions, says he agreed to postpone a June 27 hearing in the case because of the possibility that the guidelines may address his client's concerns.

But Joseph Papp, the producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who is leading protests of the restrictive language, said he is skeptical that the NEA will be able to issue any guidelines that will appease the the arts community.

"What do they expect Jesse Helms and his cohorts to do with this interpretation?" he asked. "What makes them think that this interpretation will be acceptable to the extreme right?" He said he was disappointed that the New School might consider accepting NEA money as long as content restrictions are on the books. "They should be adamant in their position," he said.

In a separate development, NEA Advisory Council member Jacob Neusner said NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer has asked the 26 council members to immediately submit their views on 18 performing arts grants that were recommended by the staff for approval. The council had voted to defer consideration on those grant applications until its August meeting, but Neusner said Frohnmayer has advised council members that he wants to act quickly.

Frohnmayer could veto several of the 18 grants to appease NEA critics who have targeted them because the grant applicants deal with sexuality in their performances.

Language in the NEA's fiscal 1990 appropriation forbids funding of work that the endowment deems "obscene, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." All grant recipients have been asked to sign forms promising compliance with that law.

The New School sued on May 23, asking a federal court in New York to rule that the NEA must stop requiring grant recipients to sign the forms. The endowment had approved a $45,000 grant for a sculpture garden at the New School, but the university argued that it could not accept the money if it had to sign the pledge. The suit contends that the ban appears to go beyond the Supreme Court's obscenity test and that it is too vague.

Abrams said his client agreed to postpone a hearing because the government has stipulated that it will produce guidelines by mid-July. "We hope and expect the guidelines will say that all references to obscenity mean {the Supreme Court's interpretation of obscenity} only," he said.

The Supreme Court has held that material is obscene only if it depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive manner, appeals to a prurient interest, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Abrams said he hoped the guidelines would clarify several points -- for example, that the New School will not be held liable for artwork displayed in a space constructed with NEA money. "I have asked for a chance to be heard by individuals who are going to be engaged in the drafting process," he said. Simply applying the Supreme Court interpretation would probably not be enough to resolve the lawsuit, he said, "but it's a major step forward."

NEA officials could not be reached for comment on the guidelines, but they have stated publicly that they believe the current restriction may be unconstitutional. In response to letters from Papp and the New School seeking interpretation of the ban, the endowment initially merely said grant recipients should consult their attorneys for help. But Abrams said the endowment went further in its letter to the Rockefeller Foundation, stating the restriction does not exceed the parameters of current obscenity law.

The pledge has been the focus of growing protests by arts institutions. Papp has refused to accept NEA grants as long as recipients are required to sign. Noted choreography Bella Lewitzsky also turned down a grant and said she intends to sue.

While a growing number of institutions have protested the current obscenity restriction, an emotional battle is underway on Capitol Hill over the NEA's reauthorization and a number of proposals have been floated to restrict the type of art that may be funded. The White House initially backed five-year reauthorization of the endowment with no content restrictions, but the administration has backed away from that position.

The mildest proposed restriction on the Hill would authorize the endowment to penalize grant recipients whose work leads to a conviction on obscenity charges. Rep. Paul Henry (R-Mich.) is circulating a plan to ban funding of art that would "deliberately denigrate the cultural heritage of the United States, its religious tradition or ethnic groups" while also forbidding funding of obscene art. And Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has a plan to impose broad restrictions on art that denigrates individuals "on the basis of race, sex, handicap, or national origin," while also forbidding funding of art that depicts sex acts or "includes any part of an actual human embryo or fetus."