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If an artist nailed Mickey Mouse to a cross, parents associations everywhere would declare a witch hunt. But could a photographer’s Cibachrome of Fido cleaning himself be considered obscene?
The gray areas of decency standards make a lot of artists nervous: Since its founding in 1990, the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression (NCFE) has fielded countless queries from anguished artists hung up on community or governmental censure. The level of frustration out there prompted NCFE to compile its advice in The NCFE Handbook to Understanding, Preparing for, and Responding to Challenges to Your Freedom of Artistic Expression, which comes out this week.
The title’s a mouthful, but it’s nonetheless a handy volume to keep wedged on the shelf between Janson’s History of Art and Painting by Numbers. Its rigorous definition of protected speech, untangling of legal mumbo jumbo, and generous citation of recent decency cases will likely prove as essential to the craft as palette and brush.
The handbook originated from a tattered collection of Xeroxed articles known in NCFE office vernacular as “the Handbook.” When the legalese available from other sources seems impenetrable, the NCFE guide breaks it down in nontechnical terms. The publication also suggests prophylactic measures against decency zealots, such as working the grass roots and schmoozing with local-government types.
When the threat of censorship strikes, it’s usually by surprise. “People it happens to aren’t expecting it,” explains David Greene, NCFE program director. “They’re thinking, ‘My art isn’t political. My art isn’t offensive.’ It often takes them by surprise.” If they’re caught in flagrante indecento, the book also offers a what-to-do-if-it-happens-to-you compendium of step-by-step counter-tactics.
The need for such a guide has been especially great since NCFE lawyers, along with counsel from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, lost their case challenging the National Endowment for the Arts “decency” clause in the Supreme Court in June. Because the high court upheld the standard’s vague language, contends Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations, the definitions are open to manipulation. “The [decency] clause puts presenters of new work at risk,” he adds.Jessica Dawson
To get a copy of NCFE’s guide, call (202) 393-2787.