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Americans approve, by nearly 2-to-1, of government funding of the arts, and they are evenly split in their reactions to an amendment to a National Endowment for the Arts funding bill offered by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., that would ban public money for "obscene" or "indecent" art.

But while an overwhelming majority of Americans - 66 percent - agree with First Amendment guarantees against government-imposed restrictions on freedom of speech or the press, 16 percent disagree that such protections should exist and 18 percent say they don't know.Those observations are among findings of a Los Angeles Times Poll based on telephone interviews with 2,217 Americans 18 and older, a national sampling that included respondents in all 50 states, subject to error of plus or minus 3 percent.

A total of 49 percent believe artists receiving government funding have no right to be daring or sometimes offensive in their work, while 40 percent said they did, whereas 11 percent didn't know or wouldn't say.

But three-quarters of Americans haven't heard about the controversy (Helms' attack on the rationale behind funding of the Mapplethorpe and Serrano exhibits) that enveloped the Endowment. And large proportions said they didn't know enough about other issues in the controversy to respond intelligently.

While some arts observers said that the lack of awareness of key issues in the controversy wasn't as high as they feared, it does reflect a reality the arts community has been reluctant to face - that the security of artistic freedom and the future health of the federal arts program are not issues that have excited widespread public concern.

"The poll seems to have captured the level of awareness the American public has about the endowment and issues that are surrounding the controversy," said Richard Koshalek, director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. "But I think the arts world is very small. I don't think the vast majority of the public is aware or concerned at this time."

While an overwhelming majority - 61 percent vs. 21 percent, with 12 percent saying they didn't know - opposed government censorship of the arts, more people - 39 percent vs. 31 percent - thought government support should be withdrawn when a controversy develops over a publicly funded artwork, specifically work alleged to be distasteful or profane; 15 percent said the response depended on the situation and 15 percent weren't sure.

A majority of people believe arts support should be at either the state or federal level, with about a quarter favoring each level of government. Another 10 percent said all levels of government should support the arts while 14 percent favored city governments and 4 percent preferred counties.