Politics, Arts, and the NEA

IF former White House chief of staff John Sununu was the first political casualty of the election season, John Frohnmayer was the second. Last week President Bush "retired" his chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Mr. Frohnmayer, whose agency has been attacked by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and others for funding obscene art, would have given Bush challenger Patrick Buchanan too much of a target in the culturally conservative South. The NEA, with a puny budget of $175 million, has been a lightning rod for conservatives since it helped fund a tour of the late Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs in 1989, some of which were homoerotic.

The issue is difficult for Congress. Members felt pressure to vote for demagogic censorship bills or be attacked for supporting obscenity. The job of NEA head is stickier still. It exists in the cultural cross-fire between modernists and fundamentalists.

Frohnmayer was brought to the NEA to appease both artists and family-values conservatives. In Endowment business he aquitted himself well. His priorities were arts education, cultural exchange, larger direct grants to the states, and a better system for screening grants. Whoever takes over from Frohnmayer should keep his program.

But he never mastered the Washington public-relations game - and was attacked by all sides.

In the wake of Frohnmayer's departure, two things on the NEA: First, the image of an agency sympathetic to degenerate art is absurd. In the past 25 years, only 30 of 90,000 grants have been seriously questioned. NEA guidelines should have teeth. But Congress has enough outrageous matters of its own to handle without legislating art: the $500 billion savings and loan bailout, for instance. Or agriculture grants last year of $146,000 to Seagram's to promote sales of bourbon overseas. Or Mr. Helms's own tob acco price-support program.

Second, yes, the NEA should exist. Conservative George Will and others use the NEA controversy to question arts funding. Art will persist, they say. While true, it is a red herring. Most NEA money only supplements museums, opera houses, and dance companies. When you hear Pavarotti sing or watch Baryshnikov dance on public TV, thank the NEA.

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