Artists Sue the National Endowment for the Arts Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The National Endowment for the Arts revoked grants to four performance artists, singled out for their sexually explicit and feminist work. The subsequent trial became a universal rallying cry against censorship in the arts in the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1989, solo performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Each artist’s work dealt with sexuality; Hughes, Fleck, and Miller focused their work on homosexuality specifically. Videos of their work, however, had been shown to the National Council, a body of presidential appointees who oversee all grants Funding of the arts awarded by the NEA. Council members, saying they were shocked by the content of the performances, immediately revoked funding. Their decision was upheld by NEA chair John E. Frohnmayer, who feared that if he did not placate conservatives in Congress and revoke the grants to the four artists, NEA funding would be slashed. [kw]Artists Sue the National Endowment for the Arts (1990-1993) [kw]Sue the National Endowment for the Arts, Artists (1990-1993) [kw]National Endowment for the Arts, Artists Sue the (1990-1993) [kw]Arts, Artists Sue the National Endowment for the (1990-1993) National Endowment for the Arts;and NEA Four lawsuit[NEA Four] Arts;and censorship[censorship] Censorship;of the arts[arts] NEA Four Arts;performing Finley v. National Endowment for the Arts (1992)[Finley v National Endowment for the Arts] [c]Arts;1990-1993: Artists Sue the National Endowment for the Arts[1990] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1990-1993: Artists Sue the National Endowment for the Arts[1990] [c]Government and politics;1990-1993: Artists Sue the National Endowment for the Arts[1990] [c]Organizations and institutions;1990-1993: Artists Sue the National Endowment for the Arts[1990] [c]Feminism;1990-1993: Artists Sue the National Endowment for the Arts[1990] Finley, Karen Fleck, John Hughes, Holly Miller, Tim Frohnmayer, John E. Helms, Jesse

In 1990, Congress, led by the vocal and conservative North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, Helms amendment, and obscenity in the arts amended a statute requiring the NEA chairperson to consider “general standards of respect and decency for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” before awarding grants. In essence, this gave both the NEA and the National Council the authority to deny funds based on what they felt constituted “indecent” Indecency;and the arts[arts] art. There were no specific guidelines set forth for what was to be considered indecent; many felt that homosexual content alone was enough to deny funding. The four solo artists, by this time referred to as the NEA 4, sued, claiming that the decency clause violated their First Amendment rights to free speech and was a form of artistic censorship.

The trial set off a firestorm of protest within the arts community. Arts organizations such as the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Association of Artists’ Organizations joined with the American Civil Liberties Union American Civil Liberties Union in supporting and assisting the performance artists in their lawsuit.

During evidence gathering for the case, the NEA deadline for new grants approached. Numerous artists, as a form of protest, submitted work they felt sure would not be accepted under the decency clause. Unsure how the final court battle would play out, the NEA chose to deny funding to these artists, claiming the applicants’ work lacked artistic merit; the artists were rejected, the NEA said, not because of any indecency in their work.

In 1993, the trial judge ruled in favor of the NEA 4, declaring the decency clause was both unconstitutionally vague and overly broad. The artists’ grants were reinstated, including court costs. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined as well that the clause was vague and that it violated the First Amendment.

The NEA 4 trial, which had been more than a simple case protesting denied funding, became a universal rallying cry against censorship in the arts. The concept that one could tell good art from bad art when one saw it, as declared by Jesse Helms, was widely debated. In terms of gay and lesbian rights, an important declaration was made that homosexual content in art is not indecent by definition. This declaration, coming at the height of the AIDS epidemic, was a positive step toward the social acceptance of homosexuality.

Unfortunately, the victory was short-lived. Ultimately, the case, now called National Endowment for the Arts et al. v. Finley et al. (1998), was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Supreme Court, U.S.;arts funding as conservatives fought to maintain criteria that would allow them to deny funding of art they felt was not in the best interest of the American populace. On June 25, 1998, in an 8 to 1 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the NEA to consider decency standards when awarding art grants. This criteria remains in effect, although it remains broad and vague for the express purpose of allowing subjective assessment of art.


The court rulings have impacted the lives of the four solo artists. While Finley and Miller have applied for and received NEA grants since the trial, Hughes and Fleck have refused to reapply. All four continue to give presentations about their experiences and the devastating effect governmental censorship can have on art, especially art with GLBT and feminist content and imagery.

In 1992, after personal attacks from both sides of the debate, Frohnmayer stepped down from his post as NEA chair and then worked as an attorney and author. He lectured about the controversy, and much of his writing focuses on the arts and politics.

The NEA, after years of funding cuts and attempts by Republicans to eliminate the endowment altogether, still struggles to administer grant awards. In 2004, solo artists had been receiving a tiny percentage of awards only: Most grants go to large, established organizations and programs focusing on children and minority groups. Visual artists have had to support themselves solely through their work, and midsize and smaller performance companies have had to shut their doors. Funding for work with gay, lesbian, or feminist content has been all but eliminated in lieu of work that reaches “larger” populations.

The NEA 4 case has often been used as a precedent in other cases of arts discrimination. For example, in the late 1990’s and the first years of the twenty-first century, the case has been used to force schools and colleges to allow GLBT groups on campus if that school or college allows religious groups on campus. National Endowment for the Arts;and NEA Four lawsuit[NEA Four] Arts;and censorship[censorship] Censorship;of the arts[arts] NEA Four Arts;performing

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dubin, Steven C. Arresting Images: Impolite Art and Uncivil Actions. New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lassell, Michael. “NEA Four Survive a Year of Uproar.” The Advocate, December 3, 1991, 76-78.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, Richard. Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallis, Brian, Marianne Weems, and Philip Yenawine, eds. Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency

February 19, 1923: The God of Vengeance Opens on Broadway

1929: Pandora’s Box Opens

March 5, 1974: Antigay and Antilesbian Organizations Begin to Form

March 20, 1988: M. Butterfly Opens on Broadway

1989-1990: Helms Claims Photographs Are Indecent

Categories: History