Lively debate leads to procedural reform


October 12, 1990|By Eric Siegel

Washington - The House voted overwhelmingly last night to extend the life of the National Endowment for the Arts for three years with no restrictions on the content of the art it funds.

The 382-42 vote on a bipartisan compromise bill came after several hours of often impassioned debate laced with references to artists ranging from William Shakespeare to William Faulkner and from Michelangelo to Thomas Hart Benton.

The legislation, backed by Representatives Pat Williams, D-Mont., and E. Thomas Coleman, R-Mo., leaves the determination of what constitutes obscenity to the courts but allows the NEA to recoup money from artists whose funded work is found to be obscene.

The bill also mandates several reforms in the endowment's grant-making procedures and would increase from 20 percent to 35 percent the amount of NEA's funds that would go directly to the states.

"We believe with the changes we've made the endowment will be even better able to fulfill its mission," said Mr. Williams.

All eight Maryland representatives voted for the bill.

Similar legislation is pending before the Senate, but a floor vote has not yet been scheduled.

Following the adoption of the Williams-Coleman proposal, the house adopted by voice vote an amendment by Representative Fred Grandy, R-Iowa, to allow artists whose funded work is found to be obscene by a court to be eligible to receive a new NEA grant once the money for the original grant has been repaid.

The Williams-Coleman proposal would have required such artists to wait three years before being eligible for new grants.

Earlier yesterday, the House beat back attempts to abolish the federal arts agency and greatly restrict the kind of art it could fund.

The House defeated by a vote of 364-61 an amendment offered by Representative Philip M. Crane, R-Ill., to do away with the NEA. It then defeated by a vote of 250-174 an amendment sponsored by Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., that would have prevented the NEA from funding works of art deemed to be indecent or that denigrate religious beliefs or desecrate the flag.

Those in favor of defunding the NEA or restricting the kind of art it could fund argued that Congress could not afford to spend money on any art or works that many people might find objectionable at a time when the government was cutting such basic services as Medicare in an effort to cut the budget deficit.

But supporters of the NEA, which has been embroiled in an 18-month debate over the federal funding of art some consider to be objectionable, said the agency, with few exceptions, was doing a good job of funding worthy projects.

"How many outrages are there?" asked Representative Sidney R. Yates, D-Ill. "You'd think [from the debate] there are as many as there are trees in our national forests. That's not true."

Supporters also argued that the Rohrabacher amendment would have prevented the funding of many famous works of art and literature.

Noting that Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" is considered to be anti-Semitic and Faulkner's "The Sound and The Fury" contained scenes of incest, Representative Peter Kostmayer, D-Pa., said: "These people would have turned down William Shakespeare and William Faulkner.

Others picked up on the theme, portraying those who wanted to restrict the kind of art funded by the NEA as supporting censorship and opposing freedom of expression.

"The thought police of America are represented in Congress and want to restrict freedom of expression," said Representative Bob Carr, D-Mich.

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