WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted Wednesday to loosen restraints on government funding of art projects, adopting a bipartisan compromise which leaves to the courts the judgment of works that may be considered obscene.
The measure, approved 73-24, essentially mirrors a compromise adopted two weeks ago by the House to replace restrictions Congress imposed last year on grants made by the 25-year-old National Endowment for the Arts.
'None of us wants to spend hard-earned tax dollars on projects which are offensive to taxpayers,' said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chief sponsor of the amendment. Nevertheless, 'Congress can't micromanage matters that are inherently subjective.'
'We must resist the calls to censorship -- to return to our nation's regrettable periods of Comstock, McCarthyism and anti-intellectualism,' said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a co-sponsor. 'A nation which censors intellectual and creative activity does so at great risk to itself.'
The Senate earlier defeated, 70-29, an amendment by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., to tighten NEA restrictions by forbidding it from funding art projects that may be obscene whether or not the material is deemed to have artisitic or literary value.
But hours later, seeking to avoid prolonging the debate, weary senators accepted by voice vote a separate Helms-sponsored amendment prohibiting the NEA from sponsoring material that 'denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion.'
This amendment was likely to be eliminated or softened when Senate and House negotiators meet to reconcile their differing versions of the spending bill.NEWLN: ------
Helms denied he was seeking to censor artistic expression, arguing the issue was one of government sponsorship.
'These artists who have their minds in the gutter are free to do what they want to do on their own time and with their own money,' Helms said. 'I'm talking about the use of taxpayers' money to fund sleaze.'
The question of curtailing the NEA's discretion to support controversial artworks was debated as senators labored for a third day to complete an $11.7 billion spending bill for the Interior Department and related agencies.
Without Hatch's amendment, last year's restrictions on NEA would have remained in place for another year under a provision added to the bill by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Hatch amendment, like the House compromise, would leave it up to the courts, rather than the NEA, to determine if specific art projects are obscene. If a project is found to violate obscenity statutes or child pornography law, the NEA could order the artist to return whatever federal money was provided for the project.
The Byrd language instead would continue to forbid the endowment from funding projects that 'may be considered obscene, including but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts and which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary artistic, political or scientific value.'
Furthermore, grant recipients would be required to sign a pledge that they will comply with the restrictions. Artists currently are required by the NEA, but not by law, to sign a pledge.
Restrictions on NEA grew out of an uproar last year triggered by two photography exhibits indirectly funded by the endowment for a total of $45,000. One collection featured the works of Andres Serrano, the other works by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
Earlier this month, a Cincinnati jury acquitted an art museum and its director of criminal obscenity charges for displaying the Mapplethorpe collection, which included pictures of nude children. The Serrano exhibit featured a photograph of a Christ figure submerged in urine.
The defeated Helms amendment would have gone further than last year's restrictions by eliminating what Helms called a 'loophole' that allows NEA funding of art otherwise deemed obscene so long as it has 'serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.'
His measure aimed simply to prohibit NEA funding of 'materials that depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual or excretory activities or organs.'