Smeared with chocolate and wearing little more than a pink boa, performance artist Karen Finley was anything but happy with the Supreme Court ruling that said government need not subsidize art it deems indecent.
"Who's going to be deciding what's decent or indecent?" asked Finley. "Is it a banana going in someone's mouth? Is it covering your body with chocolate?"The court ruled 8-1 to restore a law that requires public values to be considered when handing out government grants. Lower courts had struck down the law, saying it was too vague and violated artists' free-speech rights.
The decision was praised by some who had criticized the National Endowment for the Arts for giving money to several high-profile makers of risque art. Others, including Finley, said the ruling could chill creativity.
Finley garnered national attention in 1990 when her performance art piece, "We Keep Our Victims Ready," featured her coating her naked body with chocolate to symbolize the oppression of women.
The show was seized upon by conservative lawmakers, particularly Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who used it as an example of "indecent" art being funded by the federal government through the NEA.
The controversial law requires the NEA to judge grant applications on artistic merit, "taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public."
The decency standard was set by Congress in 1990 after the endowment gave money to works such as the homoerotic images of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano's photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine.
It was challenged by Finley and other artists, who were backed by the ACLU.
In asking the court to reinstate the law, the Clinton administration argued that the government has the right to use "highly selective" rules to decide which projects and programs deserve taxpayers' support.
Writing for the court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor determined that the law using a decency standard as a criteria for grants "neither inherently interferes with First Amendment rights nor violates constitutional vagueness principles."