The force of Tocqueville's observation that in America political
questions tend to become legal questions has not diminished with
time, as the Ninth Circuit's recent decision in Finley v. National
Endowment for the Arts, 100 F.3d 671 (9th Cir. 1996), emphatically
shows. Indeed, even a narrow statement of Finley's holding - that
the Constitution forbids the NEA from taking into account the "decency"
of a prospective grantee's proposed work - carries an extraordinary
number of doctrinal and policy implications, most of which can be
traced to the essentially political nature of the dispute.
The case, and some might say a somewhat larger problem, begins
with the statutory mandate. The NEA is endowed by Congress to provide
grants to "individuals of exceptional talent engaged in or
concerned with the arts." 20 U.S.C. §954(c). Prior to
1990, grants were to be awarded on the basis of "artistic excellence"
and "artistic merit." In response to the controversy over
the funding of "art" that many found offensive, Congress
amended the statute to require the NEA to "take into consideration
general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs
and values of the American public."
This clause prompted Ms. Finley and three fellow artists to file
suit, alleging among other things that the "decency" standard
is both unconstitutionally vague and an impermissible, content-based
restriction on protected speech. By a 2-1 vote, a Ninth Circuit
panel (Judge Browning writing for himself and Judge Ferguson, with
Judge Kleinfeld in dissent) held that the statutory provision was
both unconstitutionally vague and a content-based speech restriction,
reasoning that the "decency and respect" criterion does
not provide sufficient safeguards against "arbitrary and discriminatory
application of provisions that touch upon speech."
As Professor Kalven said, "[i]t is a revealing test of the
quality of a Supreme Court opinion on freedom of speech to see whether
or not the Court cites in detail or quotes the offensive message.
When it does not, we should be on guard." While Kalven's caution
was directed at opinions seeking to justify restraints by exaggerating
the threatening nature of the speech at issue, the point is valid
for any speech opinion. It is therefore a caution that neither the
Ninth Circuit nor the district court described what the plaintiffs
wished to do with the money they sought. We have only Judge Kleinfeld's
partial description in dissent, which tells us that Ms. Finley's
co-plaintiffs alleged that their work challenged traditional notions
of gender and sexuality, and addressed issues relating to "AIDS,
birth, death, religion" and "consumption in a capitalist
Ms. Finley, of course, has achieved a certain notoriety for previous
performances in which she disrobed on stage and smeared chocolate
sauce over her body. This aspect of her performance, which attracted
considerable attention and in part led Congress to add "decency"
as a criterion for awarding grants, was said to dramatize the subjugation
of women and the violent acts committed against them.
Whatever the artistic merit of Ms. Finley's oeuvre - and it is,
no doubt, considerable - it is a safe bet that many of those called
upon to foot the bill for such activities would find the prospect
of a naked woman declaiming on stage while smearing herself with
chocolate sauce to be, at best, bizarre. A sufficient number of
constituents voiced their displeasure to Congress, which sent a
fairly clear statutory message to the NEA to clean up its act.
For better or worse, presumed artistic merit protects Ms. Finley's
performance from suppression, but not even the Ninth Circuit was
willing to say that she was constitutionally entitled to public
funds. The Court instead ruled that "decency" is such
an elastic concept that it might be used as a pretext for denying
grants on invidious grounds, and was therefore impermissibly vague.
In the Court's words, the clause "grants government officials
power to deny an application for funding if the application offends
the officials' subjective beliefs and values," thereby posing
the risk that "funding may be refused because of the artist's
political or social message or because the art or the artist is
This argument proves far too much. The NEA, after all, is itself
a product of "subjective beliefs and values," in that
it reflects a public decision to spend public funds in order to
achieve certain ends specified by the public's representatives.
Because the NEA's mission is to assist those who display "exceptional
talent" in the arts, rather than to run an artistic lottery,
the NEA must evaluate artists' work and make qualitative decisions
to separate the exceptional grant-seekers from the unexceptional.
Qualitative decisions as to the content of the artists' "speech"
is in fact the very essence of the grant program. The Court's failure
to recognize this basic fact is fatal to its analysis.
Judge Kleinfeld's dissent makes this point well, arguing that while
"decency" may be a vague term, "artistic excellence"
and "artistic merit" are hardly paragons of clarity. Thus,
it is true but irrelevant that a member of the NEA might use "decency"
as a pretext for denying a grant on political grounds. NEA members
will always be able to advance hidden agendas simply because they
operate a program designed to discriminate among artists based on
the content of their work using criteria that are, at best, fluid.
Why the Court chose to condemn a single clause for a risk inherent
in the very enterprise at issue is somewhat less than apparent.
The majority's viewpoint discrimination holding fares no better.
Recalling Professor Kalven's caution, one might well ask what viewpoints
were at issue. Assuming that Ms. Finley's work calls attention to
the subjugation of women, it is hard to see how imposing decency
as a criterion would allow the NEA to deny her a grant on viewpoint
discriminatory grounds. Whatever "decency" may mean, it
is safe to say that most (if not almost all) feminist messages would
fall within its scope. Feminism and decency are not antonyms, just
as feminism and nude chocolate-smearing are not synonyms. There
may be a correlation between strong dissent and indecency, but it
presumably would apply to dissenters on both sides of the ideological
Much more could be said about the Court's faulty legal reasoning,
but the most important aspects of Finley relate to the serious policy
questions the dispute raises. Assuming the Ninth Circuit's ruling
stands, Congress might simply accept that a post-Finley NEA will
not be subject to the decency restriction, but it might also respond
to the decision by eliminating the grant program altogether. Which
course is wiser? Finley suggests that, viewed from either side of
the funding equation, the problems inherent in governmental funding
of the arts outweigh the benefits.
On the recipient side of the grant equation, the problem is the
risk of distorting the art society will produce. The concept of
a starving artist living solely for his or her work will appeal
more to readers of fiction than to actual artists. Talented but
impecunious artists will therefore be drawn to produce the types
of art for which they may earn a living. Absent a sudden explosion
in patrons anxious to risk funds on unproven talent, some such artists
may quite reasonably seek government grants. Grant programs in turn
will necessarily have boundaries; at a minimum, the NEA must decide
what "art" is. The existence of money within these boundaries
will entice artists to fit their work within them. And if grants
exclude indecent speech, artists may curtail their vision and the
public may be denied indecent art that might otherwise have been
Based on such reasoning (and with strong support from George Stigler
and Freidrich Hayek), Judge Kleinfeld's dissent presents a cogent
case for cessation of government funding of the arts. Though artists
might see it as paternalistic pretext, the risk that government
funding will distort the arts seems at least as plausible as the
idea that artists could serve as genuine social critics and dissenters
even as they invoke the judiciary's injunctive processes to obtain
grants of taxpayer funds to which they evidently feel entitled.
The tradition of artistic dissent has taken some odd turns indeed.
The majority's answer to this point - leaving funding decisions
unconstrained by any but "artistic" concerns - raises
a more fundamental problem. The congressional expenditure of taxpayer
funds is a political act, and the NEA is no more immune to political
circumstances affecting its funding than artists would be. If Congress
had not passed the decency amendment, there is a fair chance the
NEA would have beat a strategic (if temporary) retreat away from
controversial grants simply because it relies on Congress - and
therefore the public - for its existence. As a practical matter,
the majority's vision of experts awarding grants on apolitical grounds
is an illusion reminiscent of a New Deal faith in regulation by
Under any sensible interpretation of democracy, such expenditures
should be subject to political pressures, which is to say they should
be subject to modification by those whose money is being spent.
If we assume that governmental intrusions into the arts will affect
the types of art produced, that such intrusions will invariably
(and properly) reflect numerous political choices, and that governmental
funding will therefore likely cause distortions in the production
of art that are to some degree political, then there is a good case
for concluding that the government should borrow the first tenet
of the Hippocratic oath and cease funding.
Against this it may be said that the operation of the art markets
is not the only issue at stake. If the government were to conclude
that funding regional symphony orchestras would have a civilizing
effect on American culture, for example, I would be hard pressed
to disagree. We read in the papers that shopping malls are seeking
to drive out miscreants by playing Mozart, and perhaps a national
experiment is worth a try. Though difficult to define, national
culture and national values are important. One may well argue that,
in addition to underwriting the occupant of the bully pulpit at
any given time, government funds may sensibly be spent on direct
subsidies designed to define such values and enhance our culture.
The invariably political nature of governmental funding decisions,
and the invariably political effects of funding, warrant a fundamental
reexamination of our approach. If we collectively conclude that
continued funding is warranted (as we reasonably could), we should
do so only after carefully considering its political effects, and
with an explicit design to give effect to the wishes of the citizens
whose funds are being spent. If we cannot do that, as Finley holds
we cannot, we should not be spending the money at all. Whatever
the state of the culture wars at any given point in time, the Constitution
cannot sustain the role the Finley court would give it.
*David McGowan is an associate with the San Francisco law firm
of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin.