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LEAVING TOWN ALIVE: CONFESSIONS OF AN ARTS WARRIOR By John Frohnmayer, Houghton Mifflin, $22.95, 360 pp.In its two centuries as …

LEAVING TOWN ALIVE: CONFESSIONS OF AN ARTS WARRIOR By John Frohnmayer, Houghton Mifflin, $22.95, 360 pp.

In its two centuries as the light of the world and the arsenal of democracy, the U.S. has found itself menaced by many formidable enemies: His Majesty’s redcoats, North African pirates, the Confederacy, Geronimo, Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler, Tojo, Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussein. But for sheer virulence, intensity, subtlety, and concentration of resources, no threat to the republic can surpass that posed in the past few years by the army of performance artists who threaten to bring down the curtain on American civilization as we know it.

Generally speaking, Americans are fairly adept when it comes to muting the threat from its misfits and insurgents; neutering rabble-rousing rock stars by turning them into overnight millionaires; defanging pop anarchists by getting them good jobs as university professors or stand-up comics; or, as in the case of Curtis Sliwa, simply allowing them to self-destruct. But American society has never found a way to deal with performance artists: dancers who can’t dance, actors who can’t act, writers who can’t write, and comedians who aren’t funny. When first confronted with these crazed individuals who turn up on stage and smear chocolate on their bodies or invite audience members to apply suntan lotion to their skin or conduct exhaustive gynecological examinations of their persons-all in the service of art-the knee-jerk approach of the American people always has been the same: Let’s give them some National Endowment for the Arts money and hope they’ll go away.

Lately, however, that approach has backfired.

The threat posed to the republic by people such as Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and Annie Sprinkle is the subject of a remarkable new book by John Frohnmayer, the only chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts to ever be fired from that position. In “Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior,” the self-effacing, singing lawyer explains how ill-prepared he was for doing battle with the republic’s selfchocolating performance artists when he literally was plucked off the Oregon fairways in 1989 by George Bush.

A gentle soul concerned about his countrymen’s pervasive sense of cultural inferiority, Frohnmayer felt he could lead the charge at the NEA, redeploying the agency’s $168 million budget in ever more creative ways, so that even finer performances of Anton Bruckner’s “Te Deum” could be delivered by the vastly underrated New Hampshire Philharmonic, and even more innovative programs could be choreographed for the Utah Children’s Dance Theater. Alas, it was not to be.

By the time Frohnmayer arrived in Washington, Jesse Helms & Co. had the entire nation in a dither, informing taxpayers that their hard-earned dollars had been used to fund one exhibition in which a crucifix was submerged in urine and a second one of photographs depicting a man with his finger in another man’s penis, and a second man with a bullwhip inserted in his derriere. This was not what the public thought its tax dollars were paying for; most Americans were convinced that the lion’s share of NEA funding was going to those festive Bruckner productions. Frohnmayer thus quickly found himself caught in a deadly crossfire between the Forces of Darkness (Helms, Pat Robertson, Satan) and the Forces of Light (the guy with the urine, the guy-now dead-with the bullwhip, The New York Times).

Frohnmayer never had a chance. He did not have the clout to whip the arts community into shape when it demanded an uninterrupted stream of federal funding to subsidize the self-chocolating performance artist. Neither did he have the political clout to fend off the Helmses by taking his case directly to the American people and saying: Some 98 percent of your hard-earned NEA tax dollars help fund Bruckner performances; only 2 percent goes to pay for urine, bullwhips, and chocolate. It also didn’t help that Frohnmayer was a Republican who hadn’t voted for Bush. In some places, these people are known as Democrats.

Despite Frohnmayer’s abysmal record as a lily-livered marshmallow, the reader comes away from the book with a smidgen of grudging respect for the singing golfer from Portland, OR. Despite his many other failures, it was Frohnmayer who initially cut off federal funding to Karen Finley so that she would have to pay for her chocolate with her own money, and it was also John Frohnmayer who insisted that a New York magazine return the $1,400 in NEA funding that it had used to publish a journal describing the sexual experiences of transsexuals and transvestites.

People familiar with Frohnmayer’s embattled tenure as chairman of the NEA will remember him either as a decent man who just happened to be a bit out of his league with the Jesse Helmses and the urine-toting artiste or as a dithering jerk. As “Leaving Town Alive” makes clear, he was both.


Joe Queenan-a CE contributing editor-writes on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies for Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.