The National Endowment for the Arts, administering a paltry budget of $176 million, has been under congressional attack over the past few years. Various works of art--from Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs to Holly Hughes's sexually provocative performance art--have caught our lawmakers' attention. In some cases their interest may well have taken the form of contemplative appreciation; in others, though, the reaction was one of moral outrage.

Earlier this year, John Frohnmayer, NEA's head, resigned (or was forced to resign). Two panels of expert reviewers also suspended their activities or resigned from NEA, in protest over the agency's modification of their decisions.

Legislation repeatedly has been introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), stipulating that no federal monies be used to subsidize works of art that are "patently offensive" to the public. Helms's riders have come close to being enacted; only a "corn for porn" legislative compromise prevented the last such bill...

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