Supreme Court Art Censorship Decision

Revolutionary Worker #965, July 12, 1998

"...I am a member of the Black Sheep family --
We are sheep with no shepherd --
We are sheep with no straight & narrow
We are sheep with no meadow
We are sheep who take the dangerous pathway thru the mountain range to get to the other side of our soul...
Black sheep's destinies are not in necessarily having families
Having prescribed existences like the American dream
Black Sheep destinies are to give meaning in life..."

From "The Black Sheep" by Karen Finley

On June 25, nine years after the culture wars led by Senator Jesse Helms erupted in Congress, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling upholding a "Congressional decency test" for awarding federal grants to artists. The high court ruling requires the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to take into account "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" in awarding grants. The only dissenting opinion in the 8-1 decision came from Justice David H. Souter who said that this law violated the First Amendment. The Clinton Justice Department argued in favor of the censorship provision.

Once again, the "black sheep," the outlawed voices of the oppressed and all who choose to deviate from the straitjacket of fundamentalist Amerikkka--are the targets of the power structure. And this ruling could have a dangerous and chilling impact on artistic expression across the country.

The whole history of this case is a real exposé of how the U.S. power structure has increased censorship in the arts--and legitimized Christian fascist values in the culture.

In 1990 the National Council of the Arts--head honchos of the NEA-- denied funding to four of 18 performance artists who had received grants from the NEA. The four, Karen Finley, Jim Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller, are known for challenging the traditional morality of American white-bread male chauvinism in their work; and all but Finley are gay. The NEA claimed that the artists' work violated an anti-obscenity pledge which each grant applicant was required to sign in order to receive funds. But NEA head John Frohnmayer put the matter more plainly: "Certain political realities" made it necessary for him to veto certain controversial grants. So much for the "artistic criteria" which is supposed to dictate this so-called "impartial" funding process.

This was political persecution by the government, plain and simple. By going after people in the area of performance art, the authorities were trying to take out "the fringe" in order to set dangerous precedents for even broader attacks on the arts. Censorship battles at major museums quickly followed.

Many "artist warriors," as Karen Finley calls the resisters, protested the NEA's actions--refusing grants, holding press conferences, and crossing out the anti-"obscenity" pledge on their grant applications. The "NEA Four"--as the performance artists are called--filed a lawsuit to regain their grants.

In 1990, Congress passed the "decency law" for federal grants in the arts. The NEA Four amended their lawsuit--taking on the legal battle for all the artists against the censorship law and adding more plaintiffs to their case. They won their case in the Federal District Court in Los Angeles and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. And in 1992 their grant was reinstated and a court injunction made the censorship law unenforceable.

But the Clinton administration defended the censorship law and appealed the case twice--up to the Supreme Court. In oral arguments at the Supreme Court in March, the Clinton Justice Department put forward an "advisory" interpretation of the censorship law. The administration argued that the Congressional law would not violate the political rights of the artists because it left the interpretation of the law up to the NEA. On the artists' side David Cole argued that the law would have a far reaching and chilling impact on artistic expression; the decency rule, he said, "singles out art which has a nonconforming or disrespectful viewpoint. Government can't impose an ideological screen" without abridging the First Amendment. But the Court upheld the Clinton interpretation of the law.

The whole business was textbook Clinton: this reactionary law--which promises to give a green light to the Christian fascist art police all across the country--was upheld under the excuse that it was just a recommendation and didn't really mean that artists would be penalized for their viewpoint. Speaking for the majority of the Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that when the government is acting as "patron" rather than as "sovereign" the consequences of imprecision are not constitutionally severe.

In other words the Court ruled that if the NEA doesn't like an artist's politics, they can deny funds. The Court failed to mention that the political reality of this ruling means that anyone who does give these artists money is now also in danger of losing their funding. And even if the NEA does not deny funding, the ruling also provides a weapon for reactionaries in libraries, museums and cultural institutions all over the country to cancel controversial work. To top it off, there are now three senators and three representatives sitting as nonvoting members on the National Council of the Arts--the NEA advisory board that meets quarterly to approve grants made by peer panels. One does not have to be a student of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to think that this whole affair is a perfect example of bourgeois dictatorship in the arts.

Already the whole reactionary attack on the arts and the NEA has had a devastating effect. Hardest hit have been the alternative and radical non-profit artists and art spaces. Though the NEA grants to these artists have not been large, other donors often take their cue from the NEA in terms of what projects they support. And the NEA funds major museums, operas, dance companies and theaters--who will now be under heavy pressure to look over their shoulders at the censors. More than ever, these times cry out for artists to meet the challenge and for the people to defend our artists.

Defy the Censors!

Create Art that Liberates!

Dangerous Art for Dangerous Times!

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