An `Arts Warrior' Fires His Bolts

John Frohnmayer speaks of his turbulent tenure as chairman of the NEA under President Bush - when politics kept arts funding in the headlines. INTERVIEW

JOHN FROHNMAYER spent nearly three years, as head of the National Endowment for the Arts under George Bush, struggling to find a middle ground between the sensitivities of politicians and their conservative constituents and his agency's mandate to keep politics out of its funding of the arts.

He came to office in 1989 convinced of his ability to mediate the controversy swarming around the NEA and left in 1992 - effectively booted out by an administration bent on reelection - convinced that mediation was a delusion.

"I came in as a First Amendment moderate and went out as a First Amendment radical," Mr. Frohnmayer said during an interview in Boston this week. He is currently making the rounds of newsrooms and broadcast studios to promote his book, "Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior" (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993, $22.95).

The book traces his turbulent tenure at the NEA, and, as billed, "tells all" about the political maneuverings and double-dealing that kept federal arts funding in the headlines through most of the Bush years. As many analysts of right-wing politics in the late 1980s and early '90s have said, it was too good an issue to let die.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R), the Rev. Pat Robertson, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, and others on the right were convinced that NEA funding of artists whose work dived into sexual, religious, and political themes epitomized governmental irresponsibility and social decay.

Mr. Frohnmayer admits in his book that some of the work funded by the agency struck him, personally, as tasteless and repulsive. But he strove, he says, to uphold the integrity of the process of peer review overseen by the NEA in order to arrive at a determination of "artistic excellence." That, he restated during his interview, must be the only criterion for distributing grants - not questions of decency or community standards. "Decency is in the eye of the beholder," Frohnmayer asserts.

The storm over the NEA abated somewhat when Frohnmayer left his post last spring - forced out largely by the political pressures generated by Pat Buchanan's campaign-trail attacks on Mr. Bush's handling of the agency. But the thunderings could return, since, as the former NEA chief puts it, "Nothing has been resolved, it's every bit as much a live issue as it was."

Substantiating Frohnmayer's concerns, the Clinton administration this month appealed a June 1992 decision by a federal judge in Los Angeles who had ruled that a "decency" content requirement inserted by Congress when it reauthorized NEA funding in 1990 was unconstitutionally vague. Arts groups, who anticipated a friendlier White House under Bill Clinton, have been thrown off balance by the appeal.

"I've been very positive about Clinton," Frohnmayer says, though he adds that the new president has yet to name his NEA chairman or articulate a clear policy on funding for the arts.

Why the furor over the NEA in recent years? Frohnmayer speculates that it is part of broader political change, as right-wingers seek an issue to replace the anticommunism that dominated their politics for half a century. He also agrees that the rise of homosexual activism, as reflected in the arts, has been a specific source of controversy.

The response of the Bush administration, Frohnmayer says, was to do everything possible to sidestep the controversy. "But in the US, controversy has got to be valuable," he argues. "How else do we hammer out notions about the social contract?"

Perhaps that summarizes Frohnmayer's position as well as anything can: The arts are, in his view, a critical factor in getting society to face up to crucial changes and needs in its midst, and the art that does this most persistently is usually on the fringe of public taste. So democratic government, he says, has a clear stake in fostering artistic expression, even when - and perhaps particularly when - it goes against the mainstream culture.

That's a point of view countless Americans may not share - especially when particular works of art, such as the homoerotic photos of the late Robert Mapplethorpe or the chocolate-smearing performance art of Karen Finley, are spotlighted by disgusted politicians. It doesn't lay to rest the question of whether public funding in fact demands the accommodation of public morals and tastes.

The NEA is up for reauthorization again this year, and such questions are bound to resurface. For Frohnmayer, however, only one question matters: Should the federal government be in the business of funding the arts? If so, he says, the First Amendment's guarantee of free expression, not the sensitivities of politicians, has to govern.

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