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Of Bean Sprouts and Chocolate: Frohnmayer’s Dilemma

September 18, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Was John E. Frohnmayer pondering the artistic merits of bean sprouts and chocolate, or was he worrying that they might provoke another political assault on the National Endowment for the Arts?

The NEA chairman vetoed tax-paid grants for the bean sprouts-and-chocolate lady, Karen Finley, and three other avant-garde stage performers in June 1990 on artistic grounds, Frohnmayer’s spokeswoman says.

Not so, says the American Civil Liberties Union, which claims Frohnmayer violated their free-speech rights by rejecting their grant applications for political reasons.

In a bid to buttress their argument, ACLU lawyers on Tuesday released a batch of confidential NEA documents they obtained after a lengthy tug-of-war with the Justice Department.

The documents surfaced during preparations for a long-delayed trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, where the four performers - Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller and John Fleck - filed a lawsuit challenging Frohnmayer’s decision.

Among the documents was the transcript of a closed meeting of the National Council on the Arts, the NEA’s presidentially appointed advisory body, on May 13, 1990, when the four controversial grants were debated.

The council was worried about the implications of an obscenity ban that Congress had imposed on the arts endowment. Frohnmayer seemed concerned about negative publicity and political fallout if the four grants were approved.

According to the transcript, Frohnmayer said:

″Karen Finley inserts vegetables into her orifices. That is what is going to come out - and rubs chocolate on her bare bosom and uses bean sprouts for sperm.

″That is not the subject for - that is a metaphor. That is not all she is about. But that is what is going to be in the press if you fund it.″

The NEA chairman also cited a performance in which Fleck faced the audience and urinated on the stage.

An NEA observer ″took that to be a badge of courage,″ Frohnmayer said, but ″I don’t believe that The Washington Times will view it that way.″

Earlier, during a May 4 conference telephone call, members of an endowment grant-review panel urged Frohnmayer ″not to fear controversy″ and to support innovative artists whose works address such sensitive issues as AIDS and gay rights.

According to a transcript, Frohnmayer replied that ″the intellectual arguments I have absolutely no problem with,″ but said they won’t satisfy the endowment’s critics.

″I guess the question is that, trying to put as crassly as I possibly can: if in the very short political run, the question were is it more important to fund one or more of these people, or to have the endowment continue in some sort of recognizable form, what do I do?″

Frohnmayer again cited Fleck’s urination on stage.

″What am I going to say when one of our critics comes in, gets the file, sees the site report and says, ’Geez, they funded a guy who whizzes on the stage‴ he said.

An unidentified panelist responded, ″Who knows? Who cares? They’re good.″

NEA spokeswoman Jill Collins said Frohnmayer will refuse to comment on the documents until the court suit is settled.

Nevertheless, she said, ″the endowment is confident that the full record will demonstrate that the plaintiffs’ applications were denied for legitimate artistic reasons.″

Lawyers from the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, who are representing the four performers, disagreed.

In a joint statement, they said the documents demonstrate that ″the NEA process has become politicized as a result of right-wing pressures.″

The transcripts show that Frohnmayer ″never questions our clients’ artistic merit; instead, he sacrifices them out of explicitly political concerns,″ they said.

Two months after Congress repealed its NEA obscenity ban last October, Frohnmayer and the arts council approved two grants for New York theaters to produce new stage performances by Hughes and Finley.

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