How Obscene is This! The Decency Clause Turns 20

When it was founded in the 1960s, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a central part of its  mission was to support individuals and institutions producing edgy and innovative artwork.

Twenty years ago, as a result of pressures on behalf of Republicans in Congress and the religious right, Congress amended the statute governing the NEA to require that it consider “general standards of respect and decency for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when awarding art grants. A few years later the NEA budget was slashed and individual artists’ grants were eliminated. In 1998 the “decency” amendment was ruled constitutional by the US Supreme Court because it added just one more consideration to grant giving and did not oppose specific viewpoint-based restrictions.

Looking back from the vantage point of 2010, it appears the decency amendment – coupled with the removal of individual artists grants – did not so much become a reason to censor specific work as have a chilling effect on programming at recipient institutions. It also seems that the amendment shifted the NEA’s emphasis from supporting innovative original work to supporting art and art education that would not likely disturb mainstream standards and values.

There are many questions we need to ask today:

  • How much has the constriction of NEA funding affected art production in the US?
  • Have large publicly funded art institutions become more timid and mindful of “community standards”?
  • In the absence of no-strings-attached government funding can art programming remain free of market and political considerations?
  • Are cutting-edge artists finding non-public sources of funding and are they still challenging “community standards”?
  • Is public funding for the arts no longer relevant to contemporary artists?
  • Is it possible and necessary to push for a return of individual artists grants?
  • Is it still useful to talk about artistic freedom as connected to funding?
  • Does an artwork that likely violates the decency standard have anything valuable to say today ­and who is its audience?

These questions serve as the basis around a series of programs NCAC presents this September in collaboration with the Vera List Center for Art & Politics at the New School and the BFA Department of Visual & Critical Studies at the School of Visual Arts. The programs include panel discussions, film screenings and event-specific videos.

Check out the full program and schedule and register online.

photo still from Marilyn Minter's "Green Pink Caviar" in DESTRICTED

How Obscene Is This! The Decency Clause Turns 20
Public Programs Examining the Impact of the Culture Wars on the Arts

TWO PANEL DISCUSSIONS – FREE ADMISSION

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 – 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Survival vs. Autonomy: Public Funding of the Arts, Free Speech and Self-Censorship
The New School, Tishman Auditorium, 66 West 12 Street, NYC

Featuring Bill Ivey, Former Chair of the NEA (1998-2001); Beka Economopoulos, Founder of Not an Alternative and The Change You Want to See Gallery; Magdalena Sawon, Owner and Director of Postmasters Gallery in New York; Nato Thompson, Chief Curator at Creative Time; Martha Wilson, Founding Director of Franklin Furnace Archive. Laura Flanders of GritTV, Moderator

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 – 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Decency, Respect and Community Standards: What Offends Us Now?
The New School, Tishman Auditorium, 66 West 12  Street, NYC

Featuring artists Wafaa Bilal, censored in Iraq and the U.S.; Holly Hughes, one of the NEA4; Trevor Paglen, Provocateur
and Experimental Geographer; Carolee Schneemann, Pioneering Feminist Artist. Laura Flanders of GritTV, Moderator

FILMS SCREENING – FREE ADMISSION

Monday, September 27, 2010 – 6:30 p.m.
Indecent Exposure: A Discussion and Screening of Films You Are Unlikely to See Elsewhere
School of Visual Arts, SVA Theatre, 333 West 23 Street, NYC

Films Never Released in the U.S., Artists in Attendance

Destricted (2006), produced by Neville Wakefield, featuring shorts by Matthew Barney, Cecily Brown, Marilyn Minter, Richard Prince, Sam Taylor-Wood, and others that flirt with the boundaries between art and pornography

Ken Park (2002) by Larry Clark, a film about skateboarders and their abusive families, banned in Australia for its sexual content

This program is made possible, in part, by funding from CrossCurrents Foundation.

About Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship

Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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3 Responses to How Obscene is This! The Decency Clause Turns 20

  1. Pingback: Is “controversy” a dirty word for arts institutions? « Blogging Censorship

  2. Karen Masbaum says:

    I am currently the president of the Stutz Artists Association in Indianapolis and am looking for information to help me prepare a statement regarding what art will or will not be allowed in our annual Spring Open House, which is open to the public. Did your event with panel discussion come up with any conclusions? This is a much more complicated topic than just saying “nothing offensive, please!”

    • Dear Karen,
      we would never suggest you have “nothing offensive” as a guideline. One can never predict what would offend people and finding work that offends no-one risks reducing your show to boring blandness. Unless you have a specific topic for the show, I would suggest you stick to constitutional principles, i.e. refuse to display work that is constitutionally unprotected: libelous or defamatory work, child pornography, or obscenity (i.e. sexually explicit and “patently offensive” work that LACKS artistic value). If children are likely to come to the show and you have work that is very sexually explicit (nudes do NOT fall in this category), you may either want to put a sign informing parents that there may be material in the show that they may consider inappropriate for their children or put such work in a separate exhibition space, again informing parents of the contents. A final suggestion – if you believe there would be work in the show that people may object to you may want to 1.have a complaints procedure where people fill out a form (we can help you draft that), as well as a response book and/or 2.be prepared to contextualize the potentially controversial work and explain to the public your commitment to creative freedom.
      NCAC will be glad to help at any stage of the process. Good luck with the show!

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