Contrary to a Style article yesterday, the 1991 New York Shakespeare Festival did not receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Since Nov. 1, 1990, the festival has turned down all NEA money. (Published 9/21/91)
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), insisting that the National Endowment for the Arts still isn't doing enough to crack down on obscene art and "perverted artists," pushed through an amendment yesterday prohibiting the NEA from using any of its funds to promote "patently offensive" and sexually explicit works.
"From burning the American flag to desecrating one another's bodies, the depravity of these artists knows no bounds," Helms said during debate on a 1992 spending bill that includes $174 million for the NEA. "Shame, shame on the United States Senate. These so-called artists are leading senators around by their noses."
Seemingly unimpressed by the NEA's recent get-tough policy in denying grants to artists who, for instance, smear chocolate on their nude bodies or urinate onstage, the Senate voted 68 to 28 to adopt the amendment.
It prohibits the endowment from using any of its funds to promote or disseminate materials "that depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual or excretory activities or organs."
Helms's amendment to next year's appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior and related agencies is similar to one the Senate adopted last year, but it was dropped in conference with the House. Some senators indicated yesterday that they assumed this year's prohibition would meet a similar fate.
Of more urgent concern to the NEA was another Helms amendment introduced late yesterday that would have radically altered the formula for distributing the endowment's funds and sharply reduced funding for major arts and performing programs in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco.
Helms, the NEA's biggest nemesis on Capitol Hill, contends that the endowment's "elitist" policies have shortchanged states that don't boast major arts centers. If approved, the amendment would have shifted $64.6 million earmarked for such nationally prominent institutions as Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera to state arts councils throughout the country.
However, Helms withdrew the amendment last night when it became apparent he lacked the votes to cut off debate. He said he might offer the amendment again this fall as part of a budgetary continuing resolution.
Earlier in the day, the Senate voted 67 to 27 to reject an amendment offered by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) that would have reduced spending for the endowment by $17.4 million next year. Kassebaum said she is still unhappy with the NEA's handling of grant requests despite demands by Congress last year that the agency reform its procedures for deciding which projects to fund.
"Many Americans have legitimate concerns about the way in which their tax dollars are being used with respect to arts funding," she said. "... With respect to the NEA, there seems to be an atmosphere that anything presented as art deserves public support."
NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer warned in a statement yesterday evening that shifting the way the endowment allocates funds "would drastically cut funds for important programs in every arts discipline -- from this nation's major arts institutions to community arts programs and arts education for children."
"Through national arts organizations based in major cities, the arts endowment offers opportunities for the widest possible audience in every part of this country to enjoy the best the arts in America have to offer," he said. "These organizations bring quality arts programs to millions of Americans in communities -- from Appalachia to Alaska -- via arts programming on television, and touring and presenting of live professional dance, theater, opera companies."
Frohnmayer also said the NEA does not fund art that is "patently offensive" and never will. He added that Congress wisely decided last year that legal issues should be determined by the courts and said he hoped "this fidelity to the principle of separation of powers will be maintained."
Four performance artists whose grants were rejected last year have filed suit against the NEA, claiming that they were the victims of political decision making. They include Karen Finley, known for stripping and smearing herself with chocolate, and John Fleck, a homosexual whose work became noteworthy because he urinated onstage during a performance about homelessness.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.) were among a number of senators who criticized Helms's anti-obscenity amendment as an unwarranted and mindless attack on artistic freedom. Jeffords said Frohnmayer had done "all that is humanly possible" to reject grant requests from artists whose work is deemed highly objectionable. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) said the endowment should be given more time to let the reforms take effect.
But Helms and other critics complained that the endowment continues to award grants to what he said were dubious endeavors, including $323,000 to the New York Shakespeare Festival, which presented a version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" performed by a Portuguese-speaking cast that was nude, topless or in G-strings.
The Senate approved the $12.7 billion Interior spending bill on a roll call vote.