Art department affected by amendment

By Galvin Kennedy

Students and faculty members at the NIU Art Department feel hard hit by the 1989 Helms amendment which bars the National Endowment for the Arts from funding “obscene” works.

Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., was angered by the fact that $45,000 of taxpayer money was used to finance the controversial works of artist Andres Serrano and photographer Robert Mapplethorp.

Consequently, he managed to pass a law which refuses to fund work that is “obscene” as defined by a Supreme Court case in 1973 which still stands today.

“Obscene” art, as defined by the high court, is “that which the average person, applying contemporary community standards, finds appeals to prurient interest, depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and when taken as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Jerry Meyer, assistant chairman of NIU’s art department, doesn’t like it.

“To the best of my knowledge, everyone at the art school is opposed to censorship of art on the basis of obscenity because the definition doesn’t work,” Meyer said.

Erik Eide, Student Association Art Collection curator, said the Helms amendment should have no effect on the collection because all the works are SA funded.

Eide, an art history major, said “the Helms amendment is culturally suicidal.”

Although the Helms amendment hasn’t directly affected NIU so far, “our sister institution, Illinois State University, is in the middle of a lawsuit for exhibiting an allegedly blasphemous work of art,” Meyer said.

The lawsuit was filed against the NEA, which issued a $15,000 grant last year for “Tongues of Flame,” an exhibit of works by David Wojnarowicz of New York.

David Fordyce, the Los Angeles attorney who filed the suit, alleged the Wojnarowicz show includes an image of Jesus Christ as an intravenous drug user which displays “an open and notorious hostility toward religion.”

Meyer said lawsuits like this and the Helms amendment will “result in a chilling effect on artists because no one will risk producing something controversial if they know funds won’t be available.”

Strong conservative and religious forces argue that taxpayer money should not subsidize obscene and sacrilegious work.

However, Meyer said, less than 5 percent of NEA endowments fund material deemed obscence or offensive.

The NEA is an independent, $171-million federal agency that underwrites a wide varity of artists and art organizations.