When photographer Andres Serrano submerged a plastic crucifix in a glass of urine and took a picture of it, he did more than register his feelings about the state of contemporary Christianity. He added one more bone of contention to a controversy surrounding next year’s funding for the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA]—funds that in Serrano’s case went toward putting Piss Christ on public exhibit.

“What is at issue here is not the First Amendment,” Rep. Paul Henry (R-Mich.) told CT. “What is at issue is the appropriate spending of public dollars and whether public funding for these types of projects is appropriate.” Also at issue is whether standards should be established for artists and museums to follow when they receive public funds.

Who Decides What Is Offensive?

Surely no one wants the government to fund the production and public display of gratuitously offensive art, such as pornography. Yet determining what is and what is not patently offensive (and hence what is and is not art) is not so clear-cut. Things get more complicated when the government gets involved in making the judgment calls.

“The democratic process allows for all sorts of things to happen, especially in the creative community,” says Ed Boeve, chairman of the art department at Calvin College and president of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts). “As soon as we set up people in government to monitor art and creative people, we begin to behave like totalitarian governments.”

Should there be no standards at all, then, for artists who receive public funds? Should art commissioned for public parks and squares be left to the whim of the artist? This has been the policy in the past, and it has sometimes led to controversy when the finished work is patently offensive ...

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