September 23, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

WAVERLY, Tenn. -- It was in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly not far from Loretta Lynn's dude ranch that Tommy Turner recently concluded that the country had gone to h - - l.

Who but the devil could account for the lyrics the 48-year-old county Farm Bureau manager heard blaring from a car radio that day?

"What we are talking about is a song that promoted slapping your mother and spontaneous sex with a woman of the street, and this is a song that is washing over Main Street for all to hear," said Mr. Turner.

"This is not the American way, and I for one am outraged."

More and more, many Americans say they are being asked to accept the unacceptable on television, in museums, at the movies and over the radio. Even ardent defenders of freedom of expression say America is a nation that is dangerously close to losing its manners.

A Gallup Poll in June, for instance, noted that 71 percent of adults surveyed felt that obscenity in the arts and entertainment was on the rise. And, increasingly, they are fighting back.

In another survey, released a week ago, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression found that while Americans believe that their views should be protected under the First Amendment, they also feel that constitutional protection should not necessarily be applied to others, particularly to the arts and the media.

In the past few months, in cities across America, photographs, records, posters, even T-shirts have been banned or, in some cases, busted. Observers of the social scene -- futurists, sociologists, academics -- expect attacks on freedom of expression to escalate this decade.

The reasons, they say, are varied. Among others: anxiety about the nation's loss of global clout; insecurity about the faltering economy; fear over the country's social ills; prejudice; and the fragmentation of the American family.

As 69-year-old Sue Johnston of North Little Rock, Ark., noted: "We've raised a generation of children who think the Ten Commandments are the 10 suggestions."

Overall, people seem to long for a time when life was simpler, rejecting the enshrinement of the individual in favor of a return to the good of the community -- only no one can seem to agree on what "community," or for that matter "good," means anymore.

"There is no concrete social reality we all agree about," said Tom Mandel, a futurist with Stanford Research International, a think tank in Menlo Park, Calif.

"It's a confusing, threatening world, and we don't know what to do about it. We tend to pick on easy targets, and art is an easy target. And what we've seen occur in past months is just the beginning."

In interviews on an auto trip across the country -- at the Grand Canyon, along Route 66 in the Texas Panhandle, at Elvis Presley's Graceland home in Memphis, at a university in North Carolina and in a bookstore in Martinsburg, W.Va., among other places -- there was plenty of evidence that Americans have a high awareness of the national debate over obscenity and the arts.

Moreover, they are interested in the debate because they view it as something that affects their everyday lives: what they watch on TV, what music their children listen to, what advertising messages confront them when they walk out the front door.

"In my mind, obscenity is coming out of the closet," said Ellis Richard, a ranger with the National Park Service at the Grand Canyon. "It reminds me of something out of a Tolstoy novel.

"In 'Anna Karenina,' everyone in the culture violated the marriage vows. Yet when Anna openly lives with her lover, she's crushed )) by the culture around her. People tend to pretend that such things don't exist. Perhaps people want more wholesome values, but they are also creating a double standard."

In Los Angeles, the Rev. Louis Sheldon, director of the Traditional Values Coalition, said: "There is no question there is a cultural war going on for the values, beliefs and very soul of

America. Artists may have a right to do it, but we also have a right to protest it. Things are brewing now, and they are going to reach a boil."

Tomorrow, the director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati will go on trial on charges of obscenity as a result of an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs that included homoerotic images and nudes of children.

The exhibit, which has been displayed in museums from Boston to Berkeley, so provoked Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., that Congress limited grants awarded by the National En

dowment for the Arts. The Mapplethorpe tour had received about $30,000 from the NEA.

Now, artists must sign a pledge that their federally financed work will not include "depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children or individuals engaged in sex acts." Congress is about to consider the reauthorization of the NEA.

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