Taking censorship for granted Art: Photographer Jose Villarrubia knows what NEA money costs. He won't trade freedom for funding.

June 29, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF Sun film critic Ann Hornaday and Sun news services contributed to this story.

If any Baltimore artist might have reason to be irked by congressional meddling in government funding for the arts, it would be Jose Villarrubia.

"My work is homo-erotic, symbolist, dreamlike and surreal," says the 36-year-old photographer. "Nude bodies make some people nervous, and nude male bodies make them even more nervous."

But Villarrubia, who is openly gay and whose work includes male nudes, says he's neither surprised nor intimidated by Thursday's Supreme Court ruling that Congress can mandate the withholding of government grants to artists whose work is considered "indecent."

He says he realized long ago that it would be a waste of time for him to apply for such grants.

"I have never applied for a grant because I know it would be an uphill battle, not just because of the sexual content of my work but because of the bureaucratic hassle," Villarrubia says. "It just didn't seem worth the investment of my time and energy."

Villarrubia, who teaches at the Maryland Institute, Towson University and the Baltimore School for the Arts, and whose work represented by galleries here and in New York, thinks the latest uproar over government funding of the arts has more to do with politics than art.

And like several artists and gallery owners interviewed Friday, he believes whatever chilling effect the running controversy over government funding of the arts might have has already occurred.

"This whole debate is very strange because it assumes Congress is in a position to determine levels of indecency as opposed to taking the viewpoint of experts in the field," says Contemporary Museum director Gary Sangster.

"I support the right of government to withhold support for indecency, but the issue is, who decides?" Sangster says. "What the conservative lobby has attempted to do is to shift power to make those decisions from people trained in the arts to Congress. And my question is: How is Congress supposed to make that determination? Because politicians are experts at politics, not art."

The case decided last week involved several artists who had challenged the National Endowment of the Arts for using decency restrictions to withhold funding for their work. They contended the policy amounted to censorship.

The court ruled that judging a work's decency, as long as it was only one of several factors considered, did not did not violate artists' free speech.

The issue arose during the late 1980s after NEA funded controversial works by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano and performance artist Karen Finley.

In response to the uproar that followed, Congress demanded the agency consider "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American people" as one criteria for awarding grants. That requirement was added to the agency's existing criteria of "artistic excellence and artistic merit."

While some artists are up in arms, endowment officials suggested the ruling will have no practical effect on daily operations. The NEA has been largely prohibited in recent years from giving grants to individual artists except in music. It was allotted $81 million this year to use as grants for projects and organizations.

Villarrubia, who came to Baltimore in 1980 from his native Spain to study art at the Maryland Institute, College of Art says aesthetics have always been his primary concern as an artist.

As a child, his father owned an advertising agency and his mother ran an art gallery.

"I practically grew up in the Prado," he says, referring to Madrid's world-famous art museum. "My country is permeated by classical art, and Spain prides itself on having produced the best painters in the world.

"My first attraction to art was for making images I thought were aesthetic and the search for what was meaningful to me -- my personal vision and style. It's a constant challenge to do images that are not only pleasing but that challenge the viewer. The touchstones of my work involve issues of sexuality and gender, the emotional life and socio-political reality, as well as humor and irony."

Regarding the pitfalls of NEA funding, Chris Lines, a local filmmaker who produced Baltimore's Queer Film and Video Film Festival earlier this month, points out that none of the films in his festival were produced with money from any NEA-funded agencies.

"Most of the films that we had, with the exception of maybe a few that were made just with their own production money, got money from the Canadian Film Board," Lines says.

Lines says he funded his own film, "Acceptance," about a gay man who comes to terms with his alcoholism when he contracts the HIV virus, with personal money and small private foundation grants.

But getting money from government entities of any kind, even the most artist-friendly, can force too many compromises, says Martha Colburn, a Baltimore filmmaker whose animated Super-8 films often feature sexually explicit imagery.

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