Tying Down Federal Funds for the Arts

May 25, 1990

Report Outline
Special Focus

Introduction

The National Endowment for the Arts, one of the main sources of federal support for the arts, is up for reauthorization this year. As the House and Senate begin drafting the reauthorization legislation, lawmakers have begun taking sides on whether to eliminate, continue or strengthen a year-old restriction on funding obscene art. The process has turned into a heated political debate over obscenity and government censorship—a debate many members of Congress feel they can't win with the voters.

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Overview

Will new strings be attached to federal grants to artists, musicians, actors and writers? It's beginning to look that way.

Although the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its companion agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), are barred by their charters from funding obscenity, last year Congress strengthened the prohibition by approving a measure that specifically barred federal funding for works that “may be considered obscene.” But because the law left it up to the NEA and the NEH to judge whether works were obscene and whether they lacked “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” some conservative members of Congress felt the measure did not go nearly far enough.

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