A confluence of seemingly separate events--the Florida obscenity imbroglio over the rap group2 Live Crew and the Washington meltdown of the National Endowment for the Arts--has intensified concern in the arts community over far broader threats to freedom of expression.
It is--and always has been--a mistake, so this thinking concludes, to perceive the 2 Live Crew and NEA crises as unrelated entities. They are part, say an increasingly diverse array of observers, of a single, much larger and more alarming trend.
The two issues, these observers contend, are intimately tied to such events of the recent past as attempts to slap warning labels on record covers, organized campaigns against television advertisers condemned for sponsoring violent or allegedly immoral television programs, the campaign to suppress the motion picture "The Last Temptation of Christ" and the battle over enactment of a constitutional amendment to ban physical destruction of the American flag.
To many observers, the situation is not a collection of episodes or controversies at all, but a single, national issue driven by an organized, well-financed right wing struggling to retain influence in the face of communism's decline and setbacks on a variety of constitutional fronts, from abortion rights to flag burning.
Even the separate components have had political overtones from the beginning. The record-labeling battle, for instance, was supported by a Washington group called the Parents Music Resource Center--led by the wives of then-Treasury Secretary James Baker and Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.).
Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, addressed the issue last week at a press conference at which choreographer Bella Lewitzky said she was turning down a $72,000 NEA grant rather than sign the equivalent of an anti-obscenity loyalty oath.
The broad, diverse controversy, Greene said, "affects all of the arts. If any of you believe there are not absolutely interconnected elements here, you are not getting the picture."
The arrests and lawsuits across the country have brought the issue of censorship to the boiling point, according to New York-based First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams.
"A significant minority, or maybe even a majority, is getting angrier and angrier at the forms of expression that routinely have become available in American life," he said. "One of the real tests of a dedication of a people to free expression is always whether they are willing to protect expression that they find really distasteful.
"We are at a turning point in enforcement of the obscenity laws," he said. "I don't separate the 2 Live Crew album from the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. (Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS last year, was a New York photographer whose sometimes sexually provocative images have played a key role in the NEA controversy.)
"Within the past few months we have seen the first prosecution of (the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati) for exhibiting (the Mapplethorpe show) and the prosecution of (2 Live Crew) for performing music on stage. Obscenity laws are being used or misused to punish and limit the use of expression in different fields."
A handful of individuals and organizations, so this line of thinking goes, have orchestrated significant parts of these seemingly unrelated controversies. Actors include Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita), and televangelists such as Virginia-based Pat Robertson and the Pomona-based Focus on the Family.
But of all the players, none is apparently more broadly influential than the American Family Assn., the Tupelo, Miss., organization run by the Rev. Donald Wildmon. The group, founded by Wildmon as the National Federation for Decency in 1977, has established itself as a role-player--center stage or behind the scenes--in virtually every free expression controversy of the last five years.
The group reportedly played a causative role in the 2 Live Crew controversy by sending a transcript--made in California by Focus on the Family--of the group's lyrics to a conservative radio talk-show host last January. Wildmon's group touched off the NEA firestorm last year by complaining about arts endowment support of an exhibit that included the Andres Serrano photograph "Piss Christ."
The association's financial records and other documentary sources show it was heavily involved in working to oppose release of Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," and that it has played various roles in campaigns to force labeling of popular music lyrics and to clamp subject-matter controls on television programming.