University of Oregon president Dave Frohnmayer has run afoul of evangelical Christians over his failure to take disciplinary action against a school newspaper for running sketches that depicted Jesus Christ in homosexual acts. Perhaps he is taking a cue from his brother’s controversial tenure as head of the National Endowment for the Arts.
John Frohnmayer, who served the first President Bush as head of the NEA from 1989 to 1992, now teaches at Oregon State University. The brothers are a rarity in academia; they are Republicans. But if they typify the respondents in national polls, then Democrats dominate the Grand Old Party in college administration offices and faculty lounges by even more than the nine to one ratios that nationwide surveys frequently report.
John Frohnmayer took the helm of the NEA when the agency was still reeling over the disclosure of controversial grants awarded during the tenure of the Oregonian’s predecessor. Specifically, an exhibit of homosexual photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that featured naked men cavorting with leather gear had received government funding as had a photograph of a crucifix submerged in bodily fluid—the photographer’s own.
Upon taking office, Frohnmayer vetoed a quartet of grants that could also be described as bizarre in order to satisfy lawmakers who wanted the agency on a short leash. When he was asked to leave his job three years later, he took a parting shot at his congressional critics. “We have, over the past 2 ½ years, accomplished much together,” Frohnmayer told the staff at the NEA upon his departure. “We achieved reauthorization without content restrictions, we have promoted arts education across the programs of this agency and outside it.”
Frohnmayer and supporters of the agency always claimed that the controversial grants made up a small percentage of the agency’s budget but he never did back up that assertion with documentation. Moreover, he refused to entertain any attempts to investigate the agency to determine if this were so.
Hence, senators and congressman with subpoena powers did not have much luck in bringing transparency to the NEA. I myself was able to find out what the handful of performance artists who received funding during the Frohnmayer years did only by calling them. They were an odd bunch, who included a woman who came out on stage naked and put on a bird costume, sort of a reverse striptease with an animal rights twist.
“There are allegations by two of the rejected grantees that because their work deals with homosexual or lesbian themes, that’s why their grants were denied,” Julianne Ross Davis, Frohnmayer’s general counsel at the NEA had said, according to the New York City Tribune. “But there were at least two other, or three other, grantees or applicants in the pool that were given grants whose work explicitly deals with lesbianism or homosexual life and sexual issues.”
A lifelong patron of the arts, Frohnmayer’s sympathies lay with the artists, no matter how nebulous their artistry may be. When Congress passed anti-obscenity restrictions on the agency, prodded by the legendary Sen. Jesse Helms, Frohnmayer and his associates chaffed at the guidelines.
“We don’t like it, we don’t want it, we didn’t ask for it, we think it’s unnecessary, and we also think it’s unconstitutional,” Ross Davis said in 1990, Tribune reporter James Taranto reported.
When conservative commentator Pat Buchanan challenged President George H. W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 1992, he made Frohnmayer an issue. The spotlight served to truncate Frohnmayer’s tenure in office.
“”Yes, I do support you—difficult job,” Frohnmayer claims in his memoirs that the president told him. “But Barbara and I are bothered about the raunchy stuff—urine..fist up rectum.” After leaving office, Frohnmayer supported Governor Clinton in the general election that fall.
His Republican apostasy garnered him steady part-time employment on the college lecture circuit over the next decade and a half. In these appearances, he has become even more defiant on the subject of artistic license.
“Offense is our birthright,” he said at Harvard in an anniversary celebration commemorating the NEA’s first 35 years of existence. Does his brother feel the same way?
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This is an odd correction to make. In an earlier dispatch I reported that college lecturer Annie Sprinkle once received an NEA grant for pouring chocolate sauce and bean sprouts over her naked body. Actually, she didn’t do anything that tame: She invited audience members to check out her private parts.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.