Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Talks Justice, Civic Engagement at Radcliffe Day


Church Says It Did Not Authorize ‘People’s Commencement’ Protest After Harvard Graduation Walkout


‘Welcome to the Battlefield’: Maria Ressa Talks Tech, Fascism in Harvard Commencement Address


In Photos: Harvard’s 373rd Commencement Exercises


Rabbi Zarchi Confronted Maria Ressa, Walked Off Stage Over Her Harvard Commencement Speech

Take a Stand for Art

By Stephen J. Newman

SINCE THE FEDERAL government ordered the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) not to fund any work considered "obscene," Harvard has done nothing substantial to combat constraints on freedom of expression.

Too often Harvard just waffles when it has the chance to take a stand on a political issue. When by its prestige and good reputation it can push through a change for the better, Harvard--like most large bureaucracies--tends to sit still, overcome by its own inertia.

And once again the University is trying to stay out of the fray when it should be in the vanguard of those fighting to protect artistic freedom.

LAST OCTOBER, Congress approved a measure sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that took away the NEA's ability to make its funding decisions on the basis of promise and merit. Now artists--or organizations that sponsor artists--applying for a grant must sign a pledge promising not to produce anything that may be considered "obscene." The Helms wording defines obscenity as that which "appeals to a prurient interest," "depicts or describes in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct" and "taken as a whole, lacks serious artistic and cultural value."

Several important NEA and NEH grant recipients--including Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival--already have announced their intentions to refuse grant money, totaling more than $300,000, until Congress changes the law. Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) and Sen. Claiborne Pell (R-R.I.) have introduced legislation to free the NEA and NEH from constraint for at least five years.

Harvard can afford to join the chorus of voices in support of the new bill, thereby improving its odds of passage. As a percentage of its total budget, Harvard receives relatively little NEA money, so refusing to accept any grants would have little effect on the operations of the University.

The case is different with the American Repertory Theater (ART). About $400,000--9 percent of its operating budget--came from NEA funds last year. Refusing to sign the obscenity pledge would severely hurt the organization's ability to operate. But accepting the money, on the other hand, would blast the group's artistic integrity.

The ART is currently delaying signing the anti-obscenity pledge in hopes that the Helms restrictions, set to expire at the end of September, will not be renewed.

But rather than hope for the best, the ART should refuse unequivocally to sign the pledge. The organization--and Harvard as well--should say instead that it will tighten its belt until Congress comes to its senses, rather than devalue its reputation.

JUST BECAUSE the definition of obscenity is so vague, if it can be defined at all, promising not to be obscene is absolutely useless. The art world probably would benefit more if artists were forced to sign pledges promising not to be boring, rather than not to be obscene. The Helms rules amount to an unjustifiable prior restraint on free expression.

The late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said he found it impossible to describe obscenity, but added, "I know it when I see it." Going by that paradoxically common-sensical criterion, it's easy to see that no one can tell if something will be obscene before it is created, so it's silly to say, "Okay, Senator, you win. I won't be obscene."

In any case, no one who applies for NEA grants plans to be obscene. The late Robert Mapplethorpe--whose homoerotic photographs put Helms on the warpath in the first place--surely did not consider his pictures obscene, or gross, or even mildly icky.

Now, opponents of icky things say what the artist thinks doesn't matter, since by court interpretation, community standards apply. But community standards cannot be applied until the work is actually created. And if, as frequently occurs, artists plan to exhibit their work in various cities, community standards become virtually impossible to standardize.

Of course it's questionable whether obscene art actually hurts anyone. Anyone who doesn't like an exhibit can avoid going to that part of the museum that day. If parents think art can corrupt their minor children, they should just not let their children see the offensive work--a sort of self-styled "just say no to sadomasochistic art" campaign.

NONE OF THE truly offensive people in America apply for NEA grants anyway. Andrew Dice Clay doesn't need government money; the public is giving him plenty. And if the public shells out millions to hear, "Robin Leach? I fucked him," on the big screen in Dolby stereo, it appears that community standards are pretty low.

While it is okay for the government to fund a certain project to achieve certain goals, and to place restrictions on the use of public money, limiting uses for NEA money is counterproductive. The NEA was not established to fight offensive art, but instead to promote creative art. Truly creative artists often lack money and studio space, and the NEA makes it possible for much otherwise wasted talent to be used for the benefit of society.

And Harvard should make it clear that it stands on the side of the struggling artist. Just waiting for Congress to change its mind does nothing to help protect those who wish to create and be free of arbitrary regulation.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.