Fine Art Or Foul?

The Rev. Donald Wildmon stood one day in the Galleria dell' Accademia in Florence contemplating Michelangelo's "David." What he saw was a figure in white marble, towering 14 feet above him. What he felt was awe. He felt different the day he saw Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photo of a plastic crucifix immersed in urine--and learned that the National Endowment for the Arts had indirectly supported the artist. "Congress has enough sense to give money to fund art, but they don't have enough sense to know what kind of art they are funding," he thought. "That's weirdo."

Andres Serrano, dressed in black, stood in The BlumHelman Gallery in Santa Monica contemplating the Reverend Wildmon's American Family Association. Six months after the minister and his followers began attacking "Piss Christ," Serrano got out his camera, dunked a bust of Jesus in milk and water and shot "White Christ." He thought the people who were upset with him wanted a pure Christ they could call their own. So he gave them one. But no one around the AFA seemed to care. Now Serrano says the hell with them. "As an artist, I stand my ground."

And so the battle is joined--a furious uproar over art and obscenity. From pulpit and phone bank, with sulfurous ads, and evangelical sallies on TV, the side of rectitude wants to button up American culture. The other side, slow at first to sense the danger, is now scrambling from its museums and galleries, its studios, lofts and performance spaces to protect itself. At times the warring parties look no better than third-rate Savonarolas baying after second-rate daubers, scribblers and shutterbugs. But they are fighting over something extremely important: the place of the arts in society and what role government should assume in supporting them. When old-fashioned moralists and the avantgarde collide, who is to judge what art is worthy and what is not? How are conflicts between decency and free expression to be sorted out? What role should government assume in supporting the arts? Who works, who plays, who pays?

Most of the time almost no one worries about these questions; but the furor over the NEA and its grants to a handful of controversial artists has now become front page stuff. With the House and Senate veering toward a debate next month over the NEA's funds and future, disputes over morals and free expression, the First Amendment and the Ten Commandments are spilling onto a broad cultural terrain. Everything from rap lyrics to Robert Mapplethorpe and his homoerotic photos to Karen Finley, the "chocolate-smeared woman," painting her body in the angry hues of militant feminism, can bring out the morals squad.

In Cincinnati last week, a judge ordered Dennis Barrie, the museum curator who introduced Mapplethorpe's work to Ohio, to face a jury trial on misdemeanor obscenity charges. An obscenity ruling against music by 2 Live Crew, the rap group, had shopkeepers from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to San Antonio, Texas, pulling the album "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" from their shelves. Miramax Films, stuck with a pornographic X on two of its commercial foreign films, was deploying civil-liberties lawyer William Kunstler in court to fight the movie-rating system. In Seattle, an exhibition showing pictures of people with tattoos and ritual mutilations--more National Geographic than Hustler--came under attack, and in Richmond, Va., a gallery papered over a study of nude men in its window. Elsewhere, gallery owners were tucking that odd nude a little farther back in the shadows; patrons were looking harder at free spirits who needed money for off-the-wall performances. Museum directors and corporate barons kept one anxious eye on Soho and the other on Congress. "It's an eerie climate," said Alene Valkanas of the Illinois Arts Alliance. "Big Brother is watching."

The touch of paranoia was not surprising. The arts have never been a full partner in America. Business and politics, money and power are the country's real engines; art has always been a luxury, a marginal operation full of suspicious characters. Who could trust them? If they weren't drinking or drugging themselves silly between stints at the typewriter, piano or easel, they were probably out tearing down the country. During the '30s, the House Un-American Activities Committee closed the Federal Theater Project, charging it was riddled with subversives. They lost the services of John Houseman and Orson Welles. After World War II, Congress wanted no fellow-traveling artists going off to represent America overseas. "You've got a fight going on today that is just as emotional as the fight that took place then," says Rep. Sidney Yates, a 20-term House veteran and defender of the arts. "Except communism isn't the bogeyman. This time it's pornography and obscenity."

What the artbusters have been looking for is a hot issue and some quick victories. The Red menace is not what it used to be, Ronald Reagan is gone, ultraconservatives cannot rely upon George Bush to uphold their righter-than-thou social agenda. At the same time, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart have spoiled the image of right-wing evangelism. Under the circumstances, obscenity in the arts offers a political temptation that is hard to resist. By current legal standards the work of Mapplethorpe and Serrano is not obscene; but it disgusts a lot of ordinary Americans all the same. And artists who delight in shocking conventional people shouldn't really yell foul when the rubes kick back.

Even so, the righteous may be underestimating the art crowd. A Gallup poll commissioned by NEWSWEEK shows that while 71 percent of Americans believe obscenity has increased in the arts--and 78 percent think parents should do more to protect their children from it--75 percent don't want anyone imposing new laws on what they can see or hear. More people now go to arts events than live sports events. So if there is to be war, the arts should be able to put up a good fight.

Wildmon and his American Family Association are the most effective of a new breed of bluenoses. They won national attention two years ago with their protests over "The Last Temptation of Christ," a movie that made Jesus look all too human to them. From home base in Tupelo, Miss., Wildmon runs a first-rate direct-mail operation. His group and others, like the Traditional Values Coalition in California and]; Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, are out to dismember the NEA, restrict the content of television shows, censor movies, videos and books in libraries. In recent mailings Wildmon has attacked a San Francisco gay and lesbian film festival and two gay presses that have each received NEA funds. He denies being a homophobe. His range is not that narrow. "He isn't just objecting to Mapplethorpe," says Rep. Pat Williams, a Montana Democrat who is a strong defender of the NEA in Congress. "My God, he objects to Phil Donahue."

Wildmon's agents are everywhere. Last year an AFA member read of complaints about Serrano's "Piss Christ" in an exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and reported it to Tupelo. When Wildmon found that the NEA had funded part of a $15,000 grant that had helped put Serrano on display, he fired off a protest. In reply, he received "an elitist letter telling me where to get off." Then Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art exhibited Mapplethorpe's bare-buns masterworks. Intimidated by the outrage over Serrano, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington canceled plans to exhibit the Mapplethorpe show. Wildmon energized the AFA for an attack. Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher carried the fight to Congress and for the first time in its 25-year history the NEA was saddled with legislation restricting its grants. And the heat has never let up. By last week Pat Robertson and his gray-at-the-temples Christian Coalition was spending $200,000 on an ad campaign that dared Congress to "make my day" and vote for the NEA ("You may find that the working folks in your district want you to use their money to teach their sons how to sodomize one another").

Supreme Court rulings on obscenity present the artbusters with a problem in strategy and tactics. Under the 1973 Miller v. California decision, any work that has "substantial literary, artistic, political or scientific value" is not obscene. These vague qualities are relatively easy to establish with friendly expert witnesses. And while the right is fond of talking up the virtues of community standards, it faces an ironic perplexity in this area, too. The Supreme Court stipulates that anyone pressing an obscenity charge against a work of art must show that "an average person applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest." When practically every corner video parlor carries tapes far hotter than anything Serrano or Mapplethorpe had any intention of serving up, this has been hard to do.

The trick seems to be to win at the grass roots what can't be wrung from the Supreme Court. A watchdog group was after 2 Live Crew (box, page 52). When Sheriff Nick Navarro of Broward County, Fla., received a complaint about the group's "Nasty" album, he took a transcript of six lyrics to a local judge, who agreed they appeared obscene.

The rap group sued in federal court. During a three-day trial, Mark (Brother Marquis) Ross said the lyrics were meant to be funny, not dirty. To make his case he recited some lines from "Me So Horny." ("You can say I'm desperate/Even call me perverted But you say I'm a dog / when I leave you f--d and deserted.")

"You think that is knee-slapping stuff?" asked John Jolly, Navarro's attorney.

"I think it is funny," Brother Marquis replied.

The federal judge didn't. He ruled the music obscene. The San Antonio vice squad asked record stores across the city to remove the album. Most did. Dave Risher of Hogwild Records and Tapes refused, saying, "A small group of people and a small group of public officials are making political hay out of this."

Old standbys like books and movies and technological newcomers like videotapes and satellite TV transmissions are also under attack. A report from People for the American Way, a liberal group, lists 172 cases of book banning in 42 states. Classics like "Huckleberry Finn" and "The Catcher in the Rye" topped the hit lists. But Judy Blume's books for young adults and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue were also there along with a Caldecott Medal-winning version of "Little Red Riding Hood," banned because the grandmother has a glass of wine after escaping the wolf.

The X rating for movies is no longer a reliable guide to levels of sex and violence on film. The Motion Picture Association of America, which rates commercial films, never copyrighted the rating; so pornographers have adopted it to flog their wares. This creates a problem for conventional filmmakers when censors stick an X on movies that are sexy but not pornographic. In New York State Supreme Court, Kunstler argued that that was what the MPAA had done to two Miramax releases: "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" He offered clips from "Fatal Attraction" and other it-rated movies to show that his client had done nothing worse. He demanded a new rating between R and X. "I submit that the entire rating system is arbitrary and capricious," he said. "It has not created any rating to substitute for the loss of X to the skin flicks."

Within this hothouse climate, the NEA is sweltering miserably. "I used to think it would be great if we could get the arts on the front pages," John Frohnmayer, the agency's chairman, said in one bruised speech to the National Press Club. Now he says the job is "like trying to catch the grenades as they come over the wall and throw them back before they explode." In an election year, with all of the House and one third of the Senate facing voters who tend to look unkindly on "Piss Christ" and homoerotic photos, both Frohnmayer and the NEA are quiet vulnerable. "There aren't many issues left and the NEA is potentially a big one," Ed Rollins, a top GOP strategist, told the Washington Times, a right-wing daily that regularly runs inflammatory stories about the agency. "Crime and drugs have been big for the last two years, but they haven't gotten more intense. So anything that shows up that can't be defended rationally can become an issue."

If you are not for restricting the NEA, the hardball players say, you must be for obscenity. Last year the GOP's Congressional Committee sent mailings to the districts of 22 Democratic House members who voted against an amendment to cut $45,000 from the NEA budget. The AFA circulated the names, addresses and phone numbers of 262 representatives who moved to protect the NEA from a tough "pornography" amendment. Frohnmayer points out that the agency has distributed 85,000 grants and dealt with 1 million images in the visual arts. Fewer than 20 grants have been controversial. But his defense has impressed few members of Congress vulnerable to negative TV spots. Josh Dare, an NEA spokesman, says "Willie Horton ads have so seared the memories of politicians that they are unwilling to defend the endowment."

The NEA does have its faults: its coziness with big museums and the power brokers of the New York/Los Angeles art establishment; the cronyism that occasionally mars the peer-review panels authorizing grants. Frohnmayer concedes that the endowment has "let its relationships with Congress and the American people go fallow"; that it has failed to make itself such a popular fixture "that people simply wouldn't hear of attacks." He still hopes to turn that image around but he's going to need help. While President Bush at first supported no restrictions on the NEA, he has now edged back to see what Congress has to say. The likelihood is that politicians who have found it hard to account for the HUD scandals and the S&L mess will strike heroic postures demanding accountability from artists and their small agency.

After huffing and puffing Congress may agree to a compromise that will simply restructure elements of the peer-review panels and restate restrictions on grants in the language of the Supreme Court. The First Amendment will bar draconian restrictions, though there will be pressure for tougher limits even if they invite challenges in court. The prospects unsettle the NEA staff. One 10-year veteran says, "How many of us do you think will stick around if we have to be the art police?"

To make life even harder, the NEA is caught in a cross-fire between its opponents and its own grantees. The New School for Social Research in New York City has gone to court to test the constitutionality of existing NEA restrictions as they apply to a $45,000 grant given to redesign the school's main courtyard. President Jonathan F. Fanton says broadening the restrictions would turn the NEA into a censoring Obscenity Board, a conservative cat's-paw usurping the courts.

Joseph Papp of the Public Theater in New York turned down a $50,000 grant for a Latino festival because he rejected obscenity restrictions as an insult and a limit on his freedom of artistic choice as well as expression. He pointed out that while he was known for producing controversial works, even the "Tits and Ass" song and the reminiscences of a gay dancer in the musical "A Chorus Line" could offend the new moral watchdogs. And he attacked liberal and middle-of-the-road legislators for caving in to the new pressures. "It's a hell of a thing," he said, "when you have to tell your own representative that he has to stand up for your rights--and his."

To accept the current restrictions amounts to a cultural-loyalty oath. Everyone from The Paris Review to the University of Iowa Press has recently turned down NEA grants. The University of California, Los Angeles, has discussed rejecting them (last year it received $803,400) and will ask the other eight campuses of the University of California system to do the same.

Ordinarily, getting artists organized to defend themselves is like trying to put grasshoppers in a bottle. That is changing. David Wojnarowicz, a multimedia artist, is suing the AFA for copying his art work, then mutilating it to produce a distorted image, allegedly to defame him. An AFA broadside clipped some of the artist's images--including one showing Jesus shooting drugs--from a catalog and represented them as pornography. Other artists are angry, too. Early on, the mail of some representatives was running at 20 to 1 against the NEA; now some report it is 10 to 1 for the agency.

There is so much lousy art around these days that the country fairly groans with it. But bad art isn't necessarily wicked art. And the new intolerants don't know how to cope with either. One of the things they fail to understand is that to be ignored is more painful to an artist than to be banned. Consider the frenzy over the Mapplethorpe show. The Boston curator who will get the exhibition in August jokes that the demand for tickets is so hot he is going to have to move the whole works to Fenway Park.

If at times the antagonism between artists and stiff-necked moralists produces its antic moments, the conflict is bad for the country. "This is not a light or minor matter," says Schuyler Chapin, chairman of the Independent Committee of Arts Policy and a former general manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera. Chapin believes that it "is staggering to realize that America can be so careless with her poets, writers, composers, musicians, painters, sculptors, actors, choreographers and dancers." For the same reason the government supports health, education and science, it makes sense for it to support the arts. The total budget for the NEA last year ($171 million) was $22 million less than what the Pentagon spent to keep the oompah in the country's military bands ($193 million). It would be a pity if everyone got so lathered up about obscenity, real or in the eye of the beholder, that this pittance seemed too much.

Most Americans worry about increased obscenity and its effect on children, but they favor individual choice and parental supervision, not government restrictions.

Which is more important? 75 % That adults like yourself have the right to determine what they may see and hear 21% That society has laws to prohibit material that may be offensive to some segments of the community Should federal funds be used to encourage and support selected arts projects, or not? CURRENT 1989 Should 42% 35% Should not 50% 47% With federal funding of arts projects, should federal officials exercise more control to ensure that the works of art produced don't offend the public? Or should these judgments be left to independent panels of established arts experts in each field? CURRENT 1989 More official control 30% 22% Let experts judge 63% 58% For this NEWSWEEK Poll, The Gallup Organization interviewed a random national sample of 605 adults by telephone June 20-21, 1990. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points. Some "Don't know" and other responses not shown. The NEWSWEEK Poll Copyright 1990 by NEWSWEEK, Inc.