WASHINGTON -- The House approved a compromise plan Thursday that supporters hope will end a year-long controversy over government funding of art projects that may be considered obscene.
The bill, passed on a 349-76 vote and sent to the Senate, would reauthorize funds for the National Endowment for the Arts with the directive that the NEA may not fund obscene art.
The bill leaves it up to the courts, not the NEA, to determine if specific art projects are obscene. If a project is found to violate obscenity law the NEA could order the artist to return whatever federal funds were provided for the project.
The compromise plan offered as an amendment by Reps. Pat Williams D- Mont., and Thomas Coleman, R-Mo., also would shift more federal grant money to the states. Under present rules, 80 percent of the grant money is awarded by the federal agency and 20 percent by state arts agencies. That would be changed to a 65-35 percent ratio.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., the House's most outspoken critic of the NEA, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to include specific guidelines on the kind of art projects that could not be funded, including works that are sexually explicit or denigrate the flag or religion. His amendment was rejected on a 249-175 vote.
An amendment by Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., to abolish the NEA was defeated on a 361-64 vote.
The NEA came under fire in Congress last year for providing grants that were used in the production or exhibition of a few controversial art works, including an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Critics charged the material was obscene and said the federal government should not be funding such projects.
Officials of a Cincinnati art museum were charged with obscenity violations after showing the Mapplethorpe collection, but a jury just last week acquitted them and said the exhibition, while offensive in part, was not obscene.
During debate on the bill, Coleman said that in the 25 years the NEA has existed the agency 'has proved a worthy guardian and sponsor of our nation's cultural history.'
He noted the NEA recently sponsored the acclaimed television series on the Civil War and overall has provided some 41,000 grants totaling $2 billion and 'only a handful' have gained notoriety.
Williams said the compromise plan would 'make substantive changes in almost every phase of the NEA's grant application and approval funding process,' and places 'ultimate accountability' with the chairman of the NEA.
'On the issue of content, the subsitute makes clear that the constitutional prohibitions against obscenity shall apply to the National Endowment for the Arts.'
Rohrabacher said his amendment was intended to ensure that the government 'is not subsidizing obscenity, child pornography, attacks on religion, desecration of the American flag or any other of the outrages we have seen in the past.'
He described the rules in his amendment as 'common sense standards for NEA funding.'