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When the federal government asks a landscape architecture professor to prove that his grant will not be used for anything obscene, you know things are getting serious. Since the controversy over federal arts funding erupted last year over a University-sponsored exhibit, the government has been looking at ways to ensure that taxpayers' dollars are not used for offensive artwork. And its long arm has reached into some unexpected places. Earlier this year, James Corner, an assistant professor of landscape architecture and regional planning, was asked to sign a voluminous document pledging that his aerial photographs of landscaping were not "obscene or indecent." He signed the document, but said that if he were a painter or a sculptor involved with "artistically explorative works," he might have chosen differently. Corner, whose project was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, is one of countless artists across the nation who has felt the heat of a fire kindled by the University-sponsored photography exhibit last year. But the aftermath of controversy surrounding the Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, has affected dozens of people at the University. And most say that while they have not experienced direct censorship, they have been torn by a political struggle in which they must compromise their principles or lose funding. The University, led by President Sheldon Hackney, has vehemently supported the ICA throughout the 17-month ordeal, and has spoken out against the NEA restrictions. Nonetheless, University artists who depend on NEA grants to fuel their research find themselves at the mercy of the new NEA rules. · In 1988, the NEA-sponsored ICA exhibit, entitled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, was displayed in Meyerson Hall with little notice. The show then went on a cross-country tour which led to countless protests and counter-protests, the indictment of a Cincinnati museum director and a restrictive amendment to the NEA appropriations bill. In July 1989, the Mapplethorpe exhibit passed through the nation's capital, where Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) stumbled onto it and was shocked by some of the works -- particularly ones depicting homoerotic acts and naked children. Upon learning that taxpayers, through the NEA, had funded the show, Helms pointed to it -- along with an Andres Serrano exhibit which included a photo entitled "Piss Christ" -- to pass an amendment restricting Endowment funding. For more than a year, all NEA grant recipients, like Corner, had to sign the pledge swearing off obscenity. The debate over the now-weakened amendment thrust the ICA and the University, under Hackney's vocal leadership, into the national spotlight to fight against what critics termed "government-sponsored censorship." And since then, the ICA has been the target of struggles over NEA funding. The NEA appropriations bill said that any grants requested by the ICA must be posted on Capitol Hill for 30 days before consideration because of its role in the Mapplethorpe exhibit. And this summer, the National Council for the Arts, which oversees the NEA, turned down two of three grants despite previous approval by peer panels. ICA director Patrick Murphy said that the rejection, which was later reversed, was based on the grants' content but was meant as a punishment to the museum. "The feeling was that to give a grant to the Mappelthorpe museum would be an affront to Congress," Murphy said. According to David Morse, who handles the University's federal relations, the ICA receives the majority of the approximately $500,000 the University gets from the NEA annually. Other groups at the University which receive NEA grants, including the Morris Arboretum, the University Museum and the Graduate School of Fine Arts, have not been as prominent in the funding debate, but officials said last week the restrictions loom in the minds of all grant recipients. For most of its 25-year history, the NEA, which gives money to about 20 percent of all applicants, was widely praised by the arts community for its accomplishments, and it helped numerous well-known artists get their first break. But the fallout from the controversy surrounding the ICA's Mapplethorpe exhibit has changed everything, according to Murphy. "The NEA has severed themselves from their main constituency, the arts community, by trying to serve the political community," Murphy said last week. "There is a mistrust in the NEA and it will take years to build confidence in that agency again." "The atmosphere of the arts has suffered, but we may not know the repercussions for a number of years," he added. Officials from other University divisions that receive grants agreed with Murphy last week, saying free expression must be paramount in artistic endeavors and that the NEA obscenity amendment has hurt that principle. The University Museum recieves NEA grants for some exhibitions and for storage and conservation of artifacts. "The Museum feels strongly that we have a right for the free expression of ideas," said Museum associate director Gregory Posssehl, who received an NEA grant for conservation of South Asian artifacts. "If NEA policies should run counter to these ideas . . . if we were asked to sign it [an obscenity pledge], we wouldn't." The Graduate School of Fine Arts also gets NEA grants for educational programs, exhibits and research. "I think it's an abhorrent thing and a classically political thing to do," said William Braham, director of the school's research center, through which most of the school's grants come. "I fully agree with the University's decision to go attack congress." Braham said many grants professors get from the NEA, although small, are important seed grants, which are often essential to projects and can not be turned down easily as a form of protest. "It's a thing you would like to object to but not with your own money," he said. · Assistant Vice President for Policy Planning Morse, who keeps a close eye on the NEA for the University, noted that by and large it has been art institutions, rather than colleges and universities, that have lead the fight against the restrictions. The University, however, has played a unique role in the controversy, he said. "For the most part, the ball has been carried by arts community rather than higher education," Morse said. "But among higher education, we have become a leader." Morse gave much of the credit for bringing the University to the forefront of the fight to Hackney, who has been one of the most vocal individuals in the press and on Capitol Hill pushing against the restrictions. A former head of a local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Hackney has championed freedom of expression since his days as a fledgling provost at Princeton University in the early 1970s. Whether over the campus visit two years ago by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan or the current debate over the racial harassment policy, Hackney has always asserted open expression as one of his overiding principles. So, as he wrote in the July edition of Academe magazine, "when my summer of dicontentment was destroyed last August, first by the decision of the Corcoran Gallery not to exhibit the Mapplethorpe show, then by the Helms amendment to the NEA appropriation bill, I had a relatively easy time sorting though the issues and reaching a decision." Hackney said last week that because of the University's role in the NEA debate, he felt compelled to join the fray in September 1989, when he wrote a strongly worded criticism of Helms in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In addition to dismay over actions against the ICA, Hackney said he spoke out because he was afraid that government regulation of expression, once started, would find its way into other fields. "It seemed to me that if the same principal were applied, all sorts of government grants would have some sort of prior restraint attached to them," the president said last week. He added that he has been to Washington several times to lobby against restrictions, and officials from all over the University's art community praised Hackney for his efforts last week. ICA director Murphy said Hackney has been "very supportive of what we've been doing." Murphy added that his organization has not shifted its focus because of the NEA controversy. "Our reason for existing is the presentation to our constituency of art we believe in," Murphy said. "Art will sometimes affirm and sometimes challenge the values within our society." He said that his museum, which organizes funding for artists' exhibits, receives more works which deal with sexual issues than it did before the controversy. Approximately 40 percent of each project is funded by NEA grants, Murphy said. The ICA director said that the museum will continue to apply for NEA grants -- they sent in three new ones last month -- and will hope that the NEA will behave as it was originally intended. "We're dealing with a system of government that has the maturity to fund projects that may be critical of their society," Murphy noted. "Stalin funded the arts, but only the arts that expoused Stalin's policies." · Last month, Congress re-authorized the Endowment without the obscenity amendment, but University officials said it is a mixed blessing. As part of a hard-fought compromise, the clause was replaced with a statement requiring works to meet "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" to receive grants. Hackney said he felt the new legislation is a success of sorts. "It has come out as well as one could hope," he said. But Murphy noted that while courts around the country have set legal limits on what can be considered obscene, the "new language of decency" has no such guidelines and may prove problematic. Indeed, just last week virtually the entire NEA literary publishing peer review panel resigned over the decency issue. The mass recognition -- nine of the 11 board members quit -- may signal a renewed debate on the issue. "Fortunately we're in a position where we no longer have the obsenity language," Morse said. "But nobody knows exactly how they plan on interpreting this new set of criteria." Murphy said that although the NEA may never return to its former status, he believes that if the Endowment lays low and avoids further controversy it may be able to get its work done. "My feeling would be that the NEA should get on with its job," he said.

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