In a meeting that rolled from one emotional swell to another, the National Endowment for the Arts' advisory council voted 17 to 2 yesterday to urge Chairman John Frohnmayer to rescind a controversial requirement that grant recipients sign a pledge that they will not use federal funds to create "obscene" art.

The council voted more narrowly -- 12 to 7 -- to give a deferential nod to Congress by noting that its resolution was not intended to encourage grantees to violate the law. Asked during a break in the meeting whether he intends to act on the vote, Frohnmayer said, "I'm going to consider it and make my decision in due course." He declined any further comment.

Frohnmayer abruptly cut off another flare-up when council member Harvey Lichtenstein, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, attempted to raise the volatile issue of Frohnmayer's rejection of four performance-art grants. Lichtenstein was adamantly ruled out of order by the chairman.

Frohnmayer caught council members off guard by saying that discussion was inappropriate because he is considering appeals by the rejected artists. NEA rules explaining appeal procedures explicitly state that they do not apply to the type of grant sought by the four rejected artists. Frohnmayer insisted later that those procedures would apply. But an NEA spokesman said he consulted the counsel's office and was told, "There is no formal appeals process" for the type of grant in question. He said the chairman may have some "latitude" to consider an appeal of the rejections.

Other difficult issues are likely to arise as the council, gathered in Washington for a quarterly meeting, resumes its session today. First on the agenda will be proposed grants to encourage experimental art -- two of which would go to support the work of rejected performance artists Karen Finley and Holly Hughes.

Also to come is the council's reconsideration of its decision last May to recommend rejection of two grants to Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art, which assembled the famous Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit with the help of NEA money. And some council members will want to discuss NEA's formal guidelines, issued last month, that interpret the congressionally imposed obscenity ban.

The meeting opened with a legislative update in which Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), a member of the Appropriations subcommittee handling the endowment, warned that language restricting the content of art funded by the endowment will be inevitable in legislation reauthorizing the NEA as well as in the agency's appropriation.

Regula said the NEA should find a "harbinger" in the 297 to 123 House vote last week to delete $1.6 million from the University of the District of Columbia's budget in protest of a plan to renovate the Carnegie Library to house "The Dinner Party," a work by artist Judy Chicago that some members of Congress found pornographic.

Lichtenstein defended Chicago's work, angrily arguing that it is not pornographic and asserting, "The only way that money could be deleted is because of homophobia." He continued, "I can't believe the American people would stand for that kind of persecution. It is out of our character. ... It is unfair and this country was built on fairness."

"You've asked me to give you reality," Regula replied. "I'm just sharing with you what I perceive. The facts of life."

Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), chairman of the House subcommittee that launched the NEA reauthorization process, warned that "there is no chance" that Congress will reauthorize the endowment without content restrictions and signaled that he will be forced to compromise on that. "It's not an easy resolution that we are seeking, and we ask you for your understanding as we try to do our job in an atmosphere that has not made it any easier," he said.

But council member Ray Kingston, an architect from Utah, protested that Congress should not expect the advisory council to determine what might be considered obscene when it reviews grants. "I cannot ever imagine how I could ensure that {the endowment won't fund} what most people can't even describe," he said.

As his term is about to expire, Kingston added, "I find it impossible to leave this council having been a participant in ... the destruction of American culture at the federal level without saying this is an anti-American thing... . I find this period of time in American history to be one of the most difficult and depressing that I can ever imagine."

Williams stirred a packed conference room when he condemned "a howling mob of people hurling verbal epithets at a dead gay male artist" -- a reference to Mapplethorpe. "It's unfair, it shouldn't continue, people should cease and desist," Williams said. "Not just with regard to Mapplethorpe, but with regard to all {rejected} artists. Being turned down is difficult enough. We don't need to pillory them as well." Council members and a packed room of observers applauded -- some standing -- for several minutes after Williams finished speaking.

The council then turned to the controversial pledge of compliance with obscenity language attached to the endowment's fiscal 1990 appropriation. Several major arts institutions, including the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Paris Review and the Lewitzky Dance Company, have refused NEA grants in protest and two suits challenging the requirement are pending.

Council member Roy Goodman, a New York state senator, said the chilling effect produced by the pledge "has been almost incalculable." The requirement, he continued, is a "loyalty oath" that is "reminiscent of the McCarthy era."

"I do take issue with the loaded words 'loyalty oath,' " Frohnmayer interjected, accusing Goodman of "epithet throwing." He said he did not intend the certification to be "anti-artist" or "anti-American."

Noted artist Helen Frankenthaler said she feared the council was "being cowed and watered down and getting more and more on a road to censorship. It all still looks very benign but this can lead to something very dangerous." And Lloyd Richards, a council member, Broadway director and dean of the Yale School of Drama, said "fear has been injected into the arts community" by the pledge. "We could end up with the National Endowment of the Agreeable," he said.

The council spent time soul-searching over the most basic grant review procedures -- everything from composition of peer review panels to preventing conflict of interest on those panels. And the group engaged in long discussions of noncontroversial grants that ended up with unanimous council approval. After each favorable vote, Frohnmayer highlighted a grant that he considered to be representative of the positive work done by the endowment. One example: a calligraphy exhibit of biblical verses.

In the past, council policy sessions have been conducted in public but grant reviews were behind closed doors. This time, the endowment -- faced with a lawsuit brought by four newspapers -- decided to open the meeting.

The atmosphere was more charged than at previous council meetings. Not only was the room filled to capacity, but this meeting was probably the first to attract network television cameras. As the room got warmer, a council member asked a television crew whether it needed to keep its lights on. "Only if you're doing something controversial," came the response.