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Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior.

Unlike the many politicians who ride into Washington on their white horses of reform, John Frohnmayer rode in without a clue. But he wants to ride out as a reformer--an "arts warrior" radicalized by two-and-a-half turbulent years heading the National Endowment for the Arts.

This is his story of conversion: How a well-meaning but fumbling Oregon lawyer took over the embattled arts endowment agency, was routed by boisterous artists and infantile politicians, and fled as a born-again free speecher.

It's a lively if self-serving tale, with a painful message about the First Amendment.

Things began mildly enough. Frohnmayer evidently got the NEA job in 1989 largely because the Bush camp cared little about arts and no hotshot contributor coveted the post. An Oregon arts commissioner and lawyer who had a master's degree in Christian ethics and had once considered a professional singing career, he hadn't even voted for Bush.

In a comment illustrating both his wry frankness and political clumsiness, Frohnmayer says his political credentials consisted chiefly of having "sung a few songs...before an audience of inebriated, and therefore overly enthusiastic, Republicans."

Frohnmayer arrived at a tumultuous time, just after the endowment had been hammered over the controversial art of photographers Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. He instantly found himself wedged between grandstanding lawmakers threatening to cut off NEA funds and furious artists resisting all restrictions.

Frohnmayer never brought the commotion under control. As he tells it, he tried to play the middle against both ends, to publicly pacify the right wingers while stealthily safeguarding free expression.

When White House officials asked what he would do if his personal views conflicted with Bush policy, he swore political loyalty; "in retrospect, I lied," as he puts it. When a posse of conservative congressmen pressed him about obscenity, he said he absolutely opposed it--with his fingers crossed since "my definition of obscenity ... was very different from their definition." And he claims to have added anti-indecency language to NEA contracts specifically to provoke the courts to invalidate it.

But his methods didn't work. The right wing wasn't placated, and the arts community branded Frohnmayer as a censor. The result: battering from both sides, one firefight after another (a performance artist who urinated on stage, a show describing Cardinal O'Connor as a "fat cannibal," a portrayal of Christ with a hypodermic needle in his arm), and Frohnmayer's inevitable dismissal.

Though it seems conveniently revisionist, Frohnmayer tells the story with a mordant fire. Jesse Helms is "a lizard," another member of Congress a "meathead." White House staff members are arrogant snots who "followed the seagull theory of management: fly in, squawk and flap and shit, and fly away."

While never directly criticizing Bush, Frohnmayer wickedly portrays the president as sending him happy-talk memos even as White House aides connived to knife him. In his few conversations with Frohnmayer, Bush speaks in mangled Dana Carvey "Saturday Night Live" syntax. ("Yes, I do support you-difficult job. But Barbara and I are bothered about the raunchy stuff--urine...fist up rectum.")

Sporting reading, perhaps, but it ultimately proves depressing. The book, like Frohnmayer's stormy tenure, is preoccupied with politics, posturing and proceeduralism, not with art or the issues facing it.

An obvious question left hanging is whether it is viable at all for government to sponsor the arts, given the unavoidable clashes between political and artistic values.

Though Frohnmayer suggests a few general reforms, never does the book really come to grips with the core problem: Can anyone, in a partisan arena, develop standards that foster innovation and risk but keep money from out-and-out charlatans?

Even more discouraging is that Frohnmayer apparently felt he had to defend free expression from, in essence, inside a closet, as a subversive within a conservative administration. Isn't free expression a strong enough value in our culture to prevail in open warfare with the censorship crowd?

Commendably, Frohnmayer lands on the side of free speech, but he didn't begin as naive as his book may imply; he took the job after a career in First Amendment law.

By dwelling on politics more than art, Frohnmayer sends an indirect message: As long as politics is the art of compromise, we might as well expect the compromise of art.

Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the University of Maryland College of Journalism.
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Author:Stepp, Carl Sessions
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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