"Decency" in the Arts

By Pally, Marcia | Tikkun, November/December 1998 | Go to article overview

"Decency" in the Arts


Pally, Marcia, Tikkun


In the late 1980s, performance artist and NEA grant recipient Karen Finley took off her clothes and smeared herself with chocolate to symbolize the shit women put up with. Most of the audience at the 1 AM performance I saw thought Finley's feminist point was emphatic, if messy, but leaders of the political and religious right did not see it that way-at least as they read about it in the papers. They saw Finley's piece as an unnecessarily pornographic way of expressing oneself which decent people shouldn't have to pay taxes to support. They complained to Congress, and Finley and three other artists whose work addressed AIDS or (homo)sexuality-John Fleck, Holly Hughes, Tim Millerlost their grants. In return, the artists sued the government, accusing the NEA of discriminating against them on the basis of their ideas, thereby violating Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. Thus was the beginning of the nineyear court fight that ended on June 25, 1998 when the Supreme Court, in "The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) v. Karen Finley et al.," upheld the now-famous "decency test" for NEA grants. That decision has broad implications-though at the moment, unclear ones-not only for American art but for all public programs that fund the ideas, research, or expression of Americans.

In 1989, during the controversy that followed Ms. Finley's new clothes, Congress passed its first law prohibiting the NEA from funding provocative art. Reflecting the conservative shift in Congress during the Reagan and Bush administrations, the law prohibited NEA grants for art that is obscene, sadomasochistic, homoerotic or that depicts the sexual exploitation of children. The statute was declared unconstitutional in 1991 (in a case called Bella Lewitzky Dance Foundation v. Frohnmeyer)-not only because the broad prohibition against homoeroticism and sadomasochism disqualified much of Western art (including images of the Crucifixion) but also because the Supreme Court reaffirmed that government may not discriminate against the ideas of its citizens.

In 1990, when it became clear that the courts would not sustain the 1989 prohibitions, Congress passed a second law creating the "decency test." The test holds that the NEA, when awarding grants, must "take into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public."

("Decency" has no precise legal definition and is a subjective judgment, unlike "obscenity," which is illegal in the United States.) The 1990 law also required that grant recipients promise in writing not to violate the "decency" test-a requirement artists quickly dubbed the "loyalty oath." In response, Finley et al. extended their suit to challenge the "decency test."

In their case, the artists claimed that the "decency test" discriminates against controversial ideas and that it is vague, thereby casting a shadow over a wide range of art which the NEA will therefore be wary of funding. The artists asked: What precisely is "decency"? What is the line between disagreement and disrespect? Whose "standards," "beliefs," and "values" should artists respect-those of a high school teacher in Brooklyn, a race car driver in Kansas City? Who will determine what these standards are? How can every NEA project reflect the values of all U.S. citizens?

In addition to these objections, the artists made a very particular claim about the government's ability to discriminate against ideas in projects that it funds, and it is this part of the case that will most influence artistic, educational, and research institutions. The artists' argument was called "Rust v. Sullivan," a case in which the the Supreme Court held that government may indeed select what information is dispensed in federally-funded family planning clinics (to include, for instance, discussion of birth control but to prohibit information on abortion) because government may control (choose, limit) its own speech. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"Decency" in the Arts
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.