When government is a patron of the arts Court rules: NEA may consider standards of decency in awarding grants, which is a political plus.


THE SUPREME Court saved the federal role of selectively funding the arts. It has been an important function of all governments in all centuries, promoting culture to help define national unity. But it is under attack here.

The court recently upheld a 1990 law directing the National Endowment for the Arts to ensure that "artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which applications [for grants] are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public."

Without that, there is little chance Congress would allow the NEA to survive. It is too easy for Speaker Newt Gingrich to say the taxpayers should not have to pay for what offends them. As it is, Republican leadership wanted to deny the NEA funds this year, but the House Appropriations Committee rebelled, voting 31-27 to give the NEA another $98 million.

The government as patron of the arts, funding a tiny percentage of the work produced, exercises taste and judgment. It cannot do otherwise. This is a different role than the government as sovereign that allows or prohibits. The government is not censoring what it merely chooses not to fund.

This is a distinction lost on four artists who had been recommended for grants before the 1990 legislation but denied them after. The distinction was also lost on the District Court in Los Angeles and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had found in their favor.

As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor pointed out for the majority, the NEA has distributed more than $3 billion since 1965 in roughly 100,000 awards, but only a handful have generated complaints. The Supreme Court has upheld Congress' right to try to impose decency on art it chooses to subsidize, even if no one can define decency to anyone else's satisfaction. Perhaps the House will uphold the wisdom of its Appropriations Committee in giving the NEA another chance to show its stuff.

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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