Censorship and Obscenity in the Arts
Is the Cutting Edge Too Sharp?
By M. Ray Kingston FAIAMember
National Council on the Arts
“Any music banned by the Church is bound to be a lot of fun”
Occasionally, a piece of music comes along that is so outrageous it is banned from the airwaves. Back before radio, a young composer by the name of Bach, played music so unconventional it earned him severe reprimands from the Protestant Church. Today we call it Classical Music. Experience it for yourself, live at Symphony Hall.”
This tame and slightly humorous quotation from the inside cover of a program of the Utah Symphony, written to entice a new, younger audience to symphonic music, is quietly symbolic of a debate currently raging in America about what constitutes art, what constitutes “acceptable” art, whether our uniquely American form of government should concern itself with art and if so, what kind of art is to be deemed appropriate for government funding. This debate had reached a shrieking crescendo, its noisy volume battering the walls of Congress and the American sensibility with the dark and dangerous politics of intolerance and fear, and with counter-charges of censorship. The combatants in the debate had drawn their battle-lines at the doors of the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency whose mission is to support, foster and provide wide access to the arts in America.
The following is in the code of the Declaration of Purpose written into the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965.
“The Congress hereby finds and declares:
- that the encouragement and support of national progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts, while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, is also an appropriate matter of concern to the Federal Government;
- that a high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future;
- that democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens and that it must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located, masters of their technology and not its unthinking servant;
- that is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist and add to programs for the advancement of the humanities and the arts by local, State, regional, and private agencies and their organizations;
- that the practice of art and the study of the humanities requires constant dedication and devotion and that, while no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent;
- that museums are vital to the preservation of our cultural heritage and should be supported in their role as curator of our national consciousness;
- that the world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit;
- that Americans should receive in school, background and preparation in the arts and humanities, to enable them to recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic and scholarly expression; and
- that, in order to implement these findings, it is desirable to establish a National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities.
The Act further states that:
“In the administration of this act, no department, agency officer, or employee of the United States government shall exercise any direction, supervision or control over the policy determination, personnel or curriculum, the administration or operation of any school or other non-federal agency, institution, organization or association. In implementing its mission, the Endowment must exercise care to preserve and improve the environment in which the arts have flourished. It must not, under any circumstances, impose a single aesthetic standard or attempt to direct artistic content.”
Programs in the Endowment include support to the fields of: Dance, Design Arts, Expansion Arts, Folk Arts, Literature, Media Arts, Museums, Music, Opera-Musical Theater, Theater, Visual Arts, Arts in Education, State and local partnerships.
To accomplish its work, the Endowment utilizes a peer panel review system in which ‘peers’ in each field meet and determine which applications or proposals they deem to have substantial artistic and cultural significance, and which recommends their approval and a funding level to the National Council on the Arts, a group of 26 presidentially-appointed artists, patrons, and citizens. This Council reviews the panel recommendations and after discussion and debate, makes their own recommendations to the Chairman of the Endowment, who makes the final determination.
The budget of the Endowment in l990-91 was $174 million, or approximately 65 cents per American citizen.
When the Endowment was established in 1965, there were very few state arts agencies. Through the catalyst of direct state block grants, there is now an arts agency or council in every state and territory in America. This encouragement of state and local arts agencies has been instrumental in the encouragement of state governmental support of the arts totaling over $220 million dollars in 1989, a figure which, at the time, exceeded the federal arts budget by 50 million dollars.
Taken as a whole, the leveraging effect of NEA support was 10 to 1 in economic impact.
What was the cultural result of the Endowment’s efforts in numerical terms?
- Theaters: In l965, there were 56 nonprofit theaters in the U.S. In l988, there were over 400.
- Dance: In l965, there were 57 companies, generally located in New York City. In 1988, there were 250 nationwide.
- Museums: More than 1/3 of the national sample of art museums in l988, had been founded since l960.
- Orchestras: In 1965, there were 60 professional orchestras. By 1988, 163 orchestras received funding out of the 212 orchestras which applied.
- Opera: From l965, to 1988, professional opera companies had doubled from 45 to over 100.
- Choruses: In l965, there was only one professional chorus. By l988, there were 57.
- Artists-in-Schools: The NEA, through its programming and advocacy, was the re-birth of interest in establishing arts education as basic requirements in our public schools.
- Local Arts Councils: By l988, there were 3000, created as a direct result of the Endowment’s catalytic financial support.
During its history of the first 25 years, (to FY ‘89-‘90), the Endowment had awarded over 83,000 grants, approximately 3000 per year.
Of this total, 20 grants had raised some form of controversy. However, with the public exhibitions of the work of Andre Serranno, in 1987, and Robert Maplethorpe, in 1989, what had been a minor issue, exploded into major cultural warfare. The issues of government censorship of the arts and what comprises obscenity in the arts became front-page fodder.
Andres Serrano, Artist/Photographer, created “Piss Christ” in l987, which was shown in a competition called “Awards in the Visual Arts”, sponsored and managed by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, in Winston Salem, North Carolina. The competition was funded by Equitable Life Assurance, the Rockefeller Foundation, (a nonprofit philanthropy), and through a general grant from the NEA.
Robert Maplethorpe, Photographer’s work was shown at the “Institute of the Contemporary Art”, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The “Institute” was funded through a general grant from the NEA.
North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, California Representative Dana Rohrabacher and the “Reverend” Donald Wildmon, founder of the conservative “American Family Association”, in Tupelo, Mississippi, began firing fusillades of invective against the NEA. It is no secret to anyone familiar with this history, that the real agenda of these politicians and their allies was to gain more political and economic power through the destruction and abolition of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the perceived ‘soft underbellies’ of Federal Government.
During my seven years of service, beginning in l985, on the National Council, I was witness to efforts of a few congressmen, led by Texas Representative Richard Army to find any scrap of material which they could use as the focus of a campaign against the Endowment. They demanded that their respective staffs be allowed to rummage for months on end through the Grant’s files of the Endowment. To their own enormous disappointment, they were unable to locate the piece of “rotting meat” around which to frame their earlier attack – until Serrano and Maplethorpe. One had to question the ETHICS of these pork-barrel politicians, who, while vilifying the National Endowment for the Arts, had, for years, forced down the throats of American taxpayer’s the subsidization of the growing of tobacco, long after it was proved to be one of the great killers of men, women and children throughout the world.
Rev. Wildmon’s behavior also begged credulity. Here was a man who, in the name of Christ and the American family, claims a moral position against obscenity, and at the same time supported full-page advertisements (in U.S.A. Today, and other major publications), filled with inaccuracies, distortions, “Fake News”, and falsehoods depicting a total ignorance of the history and value of the Endowment, and which made statements expressing a maniacal, raging intolerance. He also asked for a $15.00 per person contribution to the “American Family Association” war-chest.
Again, one has to wonder if this is not simply a way for some people to gain notoriety and fortune at the rest of America’s expense. Perhaps this was the evangelist’s and the Christian Broadcasts Network’s way of regaining an income-source to replace possible losses to their cause as a result of the “Great Fall” of Jimmy and Tammy Faye Baker.
These behaviors are the real obscenities, their perpetrators using cold-blooded and calculated deception to advance a personal political and monetary agenda, while at the same time proposing selected censorship and an attendant abrogation of the principles of our Bill of Rights.
These “intellectual terrorists” advocated holding the artists of America hostage as sacrificial offerings to the “pork-barrel gods” of political ineptitude, and to the double standard of political leadership, which has created a climate in America of raging, self-serving intolerance and greed.
Art, as distinguished from the popular culture of entertainment, is nearly always a reflection of the human condition. Artists peer deeply into our world and make observations of what they see. Some artists do their work well, others may miss. But, generally, their work is a series of mirror images of our culture, our value systems, our political, economic, social and environmental agendas. If we don’t like what we see in these reflections, we should take steps to alter the source of their images, our own course and culture as a nation.
These “terrorists of the mind” are telling Americans that art, created in part through support of the National Endowment for the Arts, does not enjoy the protection from censorship provided under the Constitution and Bill of Rights, simply because this support involves “tax-payer’s dollars”. Does this mean that all governmental agencies are free to act outside the limits of these documents? Is this contradiction of law and values what we, as Americans are willing to accept? NO must be our answer to this question.
What can we do? First, we can inform ourselves and others about this debate. We can demand that our elected representatives clear away the intolerant rubbish of this debate and look to long-term values in their votes. Second, we must infuse back into our institutions of higher learning and into our public schools the proper balance of learning in the arts and humanities, a proper balance to the current love affair with scientific research. If the nuclear age has taught us anything, if Hiroshima, the Holocaust and the Joseph Stalins of the world have opened our eyes a little, if Chernobyl has shown us the “black hole’ of the policy of unlimited growth and unbridled energy consumption, if the Savings and Loan’s feeding-frenzy-of-greed has shown how we have robbed our treasury of the potential for education and the expression of human compassion, then, these catastrophic world-altering and crippling atrocities must point out the necessity for a change of course in our educational priorities. Paying cruelly, misleading lip-service to the value of the arts and humanities in our colleges, universities and public schools is no longer sufficient.
What is needed is a re-direction of financial and administrative support for these disciplines, for the re-introduction of required courses in history, philosophy, ethics (particularly ethics), and aesthetics for every student who expects to leave a university or college with a bachelor’s degree, or for students graduating from our secondary schools. It is these disciplines which stimulate creativity, teach basic principles of compassion, of civilized, tolerant human behavior and instill a basic habit in all of us of simple ethics in politics, business, in our professions and all levels of human interaction. Unless we do this, and soon, I fear that the ultimate ‘mirror-image’ depicted of our society by the “ultimate Artist” will reflect the crucifixion of our world on the world’s stage, with the blood of life running off its apron onto all of us who remain as silent spectators of these events.
This would be the ultimate obscenity, and no amount of censorship of this play will alter the finality of the final curtain.
This month I have three items to touch on, one humorous, at least to me, another serious and one about me.
I have mentioned before that for the last twenty-five to thirty years I have not had cable TV What little came over the air was enough for Amy and me. Now that I’m spending much of my time at my mother’s home, I have been watching a lot more TV and the commercials are something else. I think one of the most hilarious is the marketing of razors. I mean really, how many times and ways are there to improve the razor. Have they made one with five blades yet? Soon they’ll be laser guided. I know it’s stupid thing to write about, but I can’t help it.
Speaking of stupid things, I want to get to the serious thing I want to address, that being our new administration. I realize the as a 501c3 organization we must avoid using our resources for political reasons. But I don’t think I’m barred from giving my opinion. I can say what I have on my mind in a few sentences. We have a president who seems to only function in an adversarial mode. That along with the politics of fear and hatred appears to have brought us to a point where the whole world is angry and on edge. All this fear and hatred is not new or all his fault, but this president has added a lot of fuel to the flames. Is this a good way to govern? Where every issue is a battle to always give HIM a chance for a “victory.”
Moving on. Board member Sally Jo asked me help her put together a bio of myself for last month’s newsletter. That didn’t happen so this month I thought I would answer one of the questions she asked me to review. First on the list is where I have lived and my favorite place.
I have lived here in Salt Lake City all my life except for about a year when we moved to California just a mile and a half from Disneyland. I was eight years old then and met a kid who knew how to sneak into Disneyland. But that’s a whole story of its own. However, I did spend four years in the United States Air Force, where I was stationed in Texas, Colorado, Utah, Thailand, New Jersey, California and Oklahoma.
The second part of the question, “my favorite place,” has more than one answer, or at least two. When it comes to cities, there is no doubt it is San Francisco and the bay area. My other favorite place is far different from the highly compact and highly populated streets of San Francisco, and that is the Red Castle area of the High Uintah’s Wilderness Area here in Utah. It is a beautiful area where you will be camping about eight miles from the nearest dirt road at around 10,000 ft. and still be looking up at the top 2 to 3 thousand feet of mountain tops. I could go on and on about the beauty of this area, but there isn’t room.
But there is room for one little anecdote about being an experienced backpacker who meets up with friends who are not so experienced.
Soon after I began backpacking I determined that I was going to always go it alone as far as equipment and meals. Sharing was too problematic and I sometimes went in a day ahead of friends. So, I always packed rather heavy (seventy pounds) with extras like “real food” and a tape player for music and to record notes for my geomorphology studies. The real food I would bring along was a medium size potato, a small onion, a small can of mushrooms, some butter, salt and pepper. Plus, enough Aluminum foil for cooking in the fire. Plus, I also had a flask of B&B.
After setting up camp, I would go fishing first thing and usually catch a nice sized fish for supper. You can imagine the envious looks I got as I stuffed onions and mushrooms in the fish, surrounded it with the cut-up potato added salt pepper and the butter and wrapped it in a few layers of foil. Then after rolling it around in the coals of the fire for about a half hour you open up a real treat, especially welcome after hiking in eight to ten miles. I would share a taste but only a taste to those who came with light packs and nothing but freeze dried meals and granola as they tried to cook freeze dried chili (at 10,000 ft) long enough that the beans weren’t crunchy.
See you at our next meeting.