The ironies that flow from the intersection of art, law and politics were underscored again when a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles recently ruled that the government not only has no right to control the political content of federally funded art but may not even consider "general standards of decency" when awarding grants.
The decision grew out of a lawsuit filed by four performance artists -- the so-called "NEA Four." They claimed the National Endowment for the Arts improperly rejected their grant applications on political grounds. One of the artists, Karen Finley, became widely known for a performance in which she smeared chocolate on her breasts. The other three -- Holly Hughes, Tim Miller and John Fleck -- deal with gay themes in their work. All argued that the NEA rejected their grant applications in order to protect President Bush from political embarrassment in an election year.
The NEA insists its decision was based purely on "artistic merit," not politics. Earlier this year, the agency became embroiled in controversy when GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan threatened to make federal funding of "dirty art" an issue in the primaries. President Bush responded by firing then-NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer and appointing Anne-Imelda Radice as acting chairwoman. Ms. Radice has said she opposes funding sexually explicit art. But the agency denies that was a consideration in the case of the NEA Four.