Despite an outcry that tax dollars are financing obscenity, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will fight efforts to put any restrictions on the National Endowment for the Arts.
He told the Deseret News on Friday that he worries Congress cannot adequately define obscenity in laws governing the NEA. He said radicals could use any resulting wording to try to censor legitimate art.But Hatch is considering legislation to punish artists who use NEA grants on projects that courts later rule are obscene. "They might have to pay the money back. A procedure could be established to possibly disbar them from future grants."
Hatch acknowledged that his stand will almost surely cause political problems for him with some conservatives, who have been his traditional power base.
"Sure, I'm worried sick that it will cause problems," he said. "But I have to do what I feel is right."
Hatch's decision to fight limits on the arts agency is important because he is the ranking Republican on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which is reviewing legislation needed to re-authorize the agency.
The NEA became imbroiled in controversy after its funds were found to have supported a live sex act show by Annie Sprinkles, exhibits of erotic homosexual photos by Robert Mapplethorpe and a photo of a crucifix in urine by Andres Serrano.
"There have been problems with maybe five or six NEA grants, certainly not more than 20. That's not bad out of 85,000," Hatch said. "Even if there were problems with maybe 1,000, that would still be only 1 percent or so."
He added, "What Sprinkles, Mapplethorpe and Serrano did is awful and should not be paid for with tax dollars.
"But at the same time I'm worried about hurting the future Michelangelos out there. Art and obscenity are in the eyes of the beholder, and there's a wide range of beholders out there. I'm afraid some radicals might object to legitimate art simply because someone drew the human figure."
He added, "Even on art that maybe 98 percent of Utahns would agree is legitimate, there would always still be some group out there that would call it obscene and want to stop it."
Hatch noted that the Supreme Court has struggled for years trying to define obscenity.
He also said formal restrictions are unnecessary anyway. Because of the recent controversy, "the NEA is well aware of what we want." He said he has written assurances from the agency that it would seek not to use public funds for work that is clearly obscene or blasphemous.