John Frohnmayer smiled and said he wished his honeymoon as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts "had been a bit longer, but I hope the marriage will be long and happy."

No matter how long it is, there are certain to be rocky times. Frohnmayer's honeymoon ended abruptly in November, when he first rescinded and then reinstated a controversial $10,000 grant for a show of art about AIDS. Now, arts advocates and Frohnmayer himself are struggling to decide how to handle the inevitable political clashes that await the NEA during reauthorization hearings later this year. The National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA, will discuss that issue at meetings here today and tomorrow.

"Since you can't really predict what's going to happen, my view is you choose your own agenda and then follow it," Frohnmayer said in an interview earlier this week. "It's essentially my view that we make the case for creativity in our society."

But how to pursue that agenda undistracted by political realities is the problem. Although the NEA has managed to stay largely out of the headlines over the past two months, continued attention from NEA critic Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and a series of rumors about NEA grants that could prove controversial have kept the arts community "pretty hysterical," as one Capitol Hill staff member put it.

That hysteria was fed yesterday when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who led the House fight over the NEA last summer, took to the House floor and condemned a show titled "Post-Porn Modernist," by New York performer Annie Sprinkle. Rohrabacher said Sprinkle's appearance was funded by the New York State Council of the Arts, which is in turn funded by the NEA. But a spokesman for the council said yesterday that though it funded part of the series that included Sprinkle's performance, no state money was used for her performance.

"We believed the Annie Sprinkle presentation was not of an artistic quality to warrant council support," the spokesman said.

But it is Rohrabacher, not the New York Council, who will have his words about tax dollars being "flushed into the sewer of fetishism, depravity and pornography" recorded in the Congressional Record.

"I am assured that {Sprinkle} is a bona fide star of pornographic cinema," he told fellow congressmen. "She is also now the recipient of taxpayer funds -- for her live sex show in New York. Yes, you heard me correctly. ... Miss Sprinkle is manipulating herself with toys and selling opportunities for audience participation in her act with the assistance of tax dollars, generously provided by the New York State Council for the Arts, which receives half a million dollars in unrestricted funds each year from the National Endowment for the Arts."

In a statement released last night, Bobbi Tsumagari, executive director of the Kitchen, which sponsored the January performance of "Post-Porn Modernist," called it "a critical look at Sprinkle's personal experiences dealing with some of the most important issues of our time, experiences which have led her to embrace the contemporary holistic health and healing movement. The piece employed performance art techniques to fight gender stereotypes and examine the ways in which sexuality is portrayed by the media."

The Sprinkle flap is typical of the sort of challenge the NEA faces after nearly a year of criticism for its funding of art some find offensive. A story that appeared in Monday's Los Angeles Times detailed a series of letters Helms sent the NEA asking for information about a number of organizations and artists.

"Our opinion is that no matter what the program, no matter what the agency is, when we receive complaints we feel we have a right to ask proper questions, at least where federal funds are in fact involved," said a Helms staff member, who asked not to be identified. "There's nothing to be intimidated about unless there's something to hide. If they're afraid for the public to see something which the public has paid for -- that's their problem, not ours."

But such senatorial attention makes both administrators and artists anxious, fearful that they are on a "hit list" and that their programs will become the next round of ammunition in the congressional battle.

"People panic because they feel at risk," said Charlotte Murphy, executive director of the National Association of Artists Organizations, which counts among its members many alternative groups. "I think what's better is just to find out what the real truth is and start preparing yourself on every show you do that you think might be controversial."

Frohnmayer, who took office last fall, appears to have decided not to become enmeshed in responding to each question raised about NEA-sponsored art. "Even those who are more upset about some of the images -- and granted, some of the images are not ones a lot of us would want to hang on the wall -- I think there's a recognition we can't go image by image. What's acceptable in one society is not acceptable by another."

Asked about Rohrabacher's comments about Annie Sprinkle, Frohnmayer said yesterday, "The point is, we are not the moral arbiter of this country. We're not going to run around and respond just because something happened somewhere that someone didn't like. We are going to be responsible about the money we disperse, and we are going to go about the business of promoting the best arts that this country can produce."

Frohnmayer is faced with the challenge of balancing constituencies. He must appease the artists who were offended by his temporary cancellation of the grant to the AIDS show at New York's Artists Space last fall. He must straddle the sometimes competing interests of major arts institutions based in metropolitan areas, and the local and state arts agencies that often feel slighted in favor of the arts "elite." He must calm Congress as well as satisfy the White House.

Over the past several weeks, Frohnmayer has been speaking increasingly about the need for artistic freedom, which has pleased artists. He has also tried out several other themes, from the recent events in Eastern Europe to the arts as a means for increasing creativity and international competitiveness.

"I think the debate got away a little bit," he said earlier this week. "I think it lost focus. One of the things that helped us gain focus is what happened in Eastern Europe. It's more than just happenstance that some of the leaders struggling and helping gain democracy are artists."

Since taking office Frohnmayer has spoken to NEA staff about the need to make a better case for the agency, and he has hired a part-time public relations consultant and replaced the agency's spokesman.

Frohnmayer is now planning to take the agency on the road. Discussions are underway to hold the next National Council meeting in Winston-Salem, N.C. In addition to being in Helms's back yard, Winston-Salem is the home of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, which exhibited an Andres Serrano photograph of a crucifix submerged in a container of urine that helped ignite the NEA controversy last spring.

Some NEA observers on the Hill and elsewhere worry that holding the meeting in Winston-Salem might be seen as confrontational, but the Helms staffer said, "We don't look at it as confrontational. Perhaps they mean it to be, but that's not our concern."

"It's not intended to be inflammatory," said Frohnmayer. "It's meant to recognize -- as I believe the senator from North Carolina recognizes -- that the arts are a big part of the society there."