AS DEBATE rages onward over the National Endowment for the Arts, growing more divisive and disjointed every day, one sensible suggestion keeps appearing and then disappearing again in the clamor: back off and wait for the recommendations of a commission appointed last year to analyze the endowment's structure. This would mean reauthorizing the endowment basically as it stands for a shorter time, whether for only a year (an idea that has drawn little enthusiasm on the Hill) or for three years. The commission, with four members each appointed by the House, Senate and White House, has been slow getting started, but it is now in gear and could even produce reasoned conclusions. Why discard them? A delay would give everyone a chance to breathe and back off.
Making major changes right now is a particularly bad idea given the increasingly acrimonious and often mindless debate, in which, despite its length and vigor, the discussion continues to be marked by a depressing amount of misinformation, lack of communication and sheer bad faith. Arts endowment chairman John Frohnmayer and direct-mail crusader Donald Wildmon have essentially accused each other of lying on the matter of whether the endowment funded a salacious performance artist. Congressmen say openly that they don't dare vote their true opinions for fear of a "pro-pornography" label. Then there's ignorance: a radical restructuring proposal by Republican Reps. Thomas Coleman and Steve Gunderson calls for more "non-artists" on the endowment's peer review panels and for shorter terms, but spokesmen for the legislation can't locate information on how it differs from present practices or what kinds of "non-artists" serve now. (Mr. Frohnmayer, a lawyer, was a lay panel member in Oregon.) Some argue that government funding for art is an unnecessary expenditure, that the free market supports art or that -- as Phyllis Schlafly put it in USA Today -- "No one was giving William Shakespeare any government grants." (Shakespeare's original troupe was called "the Lord Chamberlain's Men" after its government patron.) Some insist there is so much art around already that the NEA wouldn't be missed. (Roughly 80 percent of current American professional music, theater and dance groups have come into existence since the NEA began providing seed money for such things in 1965.)
Why the confusion and agony? Part of the uproar is because of the subject's emotional combustibility -- what else can be expected of debates on art, religion and sexuality? -- and part because it is being fanned transparently in some quarters for fund-raising purposes. But the state of debate also reflects the sheer conceptual distance between the two warring parties, the languages they speak and the issues by which they are normally preoccupied. Those who insist on content restrictions -- like the ones now in force -- give no public indication of taking seriously the practical and legal problems these restrictions pose for artists, or the types of issues the panels currently weigh (for instance, the notion that serious art might involve borderline material but not be "pornographic"). Many artists, for their part, while eagerly promoting the value of "shocking" and "provocative" art, have been slow to consider the possibility that such art might, in fact, "shock" some observers -- and that this might "provoke" counterattack by those who find it painful.
The endowment itself and the hapless peer panels, by contrast, seem to have gotten this message all too well. But the difficulty of communication here should reinforce the inadvisability, and the danger, of imposing on artists an across-the-board rule devised by politicians. Case-by-case evaluation by the jury-like panels is a better way. If that case can't be made now, it's time to back off and wait for the commission's presumably more measured and reasoned opinion.