WASHINGTON — The White House, fending off demands that it limit the content of federally supported art, Wednesday sent Congress a proposal to renew arts funding without any restrictions on subject matter.
The Bush Administration proposed a five-year extension of the National Endowment for the Arts and rejected content controls like those that sparked an uproar here last year and led to a one-year congressional ban on financing of obscene art works.
NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer, testifying before a House subcommittee considering a budget authorization for the arts, said: "After much careful thought and discussion, it is our conclusion that the legislation proposed here, which contains no content restrictions . . . will best serve the American public."
The NEA controversy centers around objections by some conservatives to federal support for artworks that may be offensive, sacrilegious or indecent.
The protests were set off last year by two photographic exhibits that received NEA support. One, by Robert Mapplethorpe, included sadomasochistic and homoerotic themes. The other, by Andres Serrano, depicted a crucifix in a jar of urine.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) objected vehemently to those projects and pushed through a measure that withheld $40,000 of the NEA's funding, the equivalent of the money spent on the two controversial projects, and imposed the one-year restrictions. The NEA's budg et for this year is $171 million.
"To those who are offended, I am truly sorry," Frohnmayer said of last year's controversy. But, he told the subcommittee, "art is like research. It is trying new things, taking risks, pushing boundaries.
"Not all art succeeds. To not do research is to stand still and be bypassed by the rest of the world."
The NEA director also pointed out that the endowment relies heavily on reviews by citizens' panels in issuing grants.
Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), chairman of the House education and labor subcommittee, called the proposal announced by Frohnmayer "a major piece of information and news."
But while the Bush proposal was welcomed by arts groups and arts supporters in Congress, it promises to lead to more difficult congressional and public debate.
In Raleigh, N.C., Helms announced that he had written to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, demanding an investigation of the arts endowment. In a statement, Helms contended the arts endowment had continued to fund pornographic artworks despite the restrictions imposed last year.
Frohnmayer, in his testimony, angrily denied that the NEA has ever had a policy of promoting obscene artworks. He attacked right-wing groups by name--including the Mississippi-based American Family Assn. and the fundamentalist "700 Club" television program--and accused the family association of mounting an advertising campaign "seeking to raise funds . . . at the expense of the National Endowment for the Arts."
Rep. E. Thomas Coleman (R-Mo.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, complained that the controversy and debate over the NEA reflected "a bumper sticker mentality" in which discussion "has been simplified down to whether one supports pornography . . . or censorship."
But Coleman said the content of some of the photographic images that were the initial source of the controversy that began last year remains troublesome. He and Rep. Paul B. Henry (R-Mich.) warned Frohnmayer it may be impossible to navigate the NEA reauthorization bill through Congress without content restrictions being attached at some point.
"I will not attempt to justify artworks that offend common sense standards of decency," Coleman said. He said it may be inevitable--even desirable--that a political compromise will have to be struck under which the NEA authorizing law would contain "appropriate language that will guarantee freedom of artistic expression and accountability" for possibly offensive content.
"I, for one, am deeply distressed by some of the grants funded by the NEA," Henry told Frohnmayer. But he was even more sharply critical of what he characterized as "duplicity and moral posturing" by members of Congress who have become the NEA's most effective adversaries. Though he did not mention them by name, Henry, Williams and other subcommittee members made it clear they were referring to Helms and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita).
"Some of the political posturing on this issue is itself pornographic," the Michigan Republican said. But, he said, "please don't blind yourself to the political reality. The NEA has some explaining to do. In order to save it, we are going to have to reform it."
In his statement Wednesday, Helms said he "is deeply concerned about the NEA's apparent indifference to enforcing the congressional ban on funding obscene art."