WHEN American art scholars of the future sit down to write about this century, Robert Mapplethorpe's show ``The Perfect Moment'' will go down as perhaps the most earth-shaking photography exhibition in history. One venerable art museum has refused to show it. Legislators have thrown tantrums on the Senate floor over it. A museum director has been indicted and could go to jail over it. And because the 25-year-old National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) helped pay for the show, the endowment's very future has come into question.
All of this stems from questions about the allegedly obscene nature of some of the photos.
``I can't think of a previous case where photography has been so actively debated in the halls of Congress,'' says A. D. Coleman, a photography critic and columnist for the New York Observer.
Tomorrow, the city of Boston steps into the limelight as the seventh and final stop of the show's tumultuous United States tour. The Institute of Contemporary Art here plays host to over 120 photographs taken by the late Mr. Mapplethorpe, an artist from New York whose works have been shown in major museums throughout the US and abroad.
Among the majority of classical-style portraits, floral still-lifes, and nude studies in the collection, are images depicting explicit homoeroticism, sadomasochism, and frontal nudity of children. Over the last year-and-a-half, these photos (along with an allegedly blasphemous Andres Serrano photo of a crucifix) have ignited a national debate over the extent of artists' freedom of speech and the role of federal funding for the arts.
Amid the ongoing furor, ICA director David Ross is ``proud'' of Boston's role in hosting the tour. ``Boston has shown itself to be a city of tolerance and openness,'' he says, in contrast to the show's stopover in Cincinnati last April, where the Contemporary Arts Center and its director where indicted on obscenity charges.
Here, the Attorney General ``made it very clear the state has no place in determining for a museum what is or is not a legitimate exhibition,'' Mr. Ross said in an interview at the ICA.
In recent weeks, citizen's groups in Boston have spoken out against the Mapplethorpe photos, ``which is absolutely their right,'' Ross says, ``but I draw the line when I see anyone trying to prohibit or censor a public institution from following its own strongly held precepts.''
The ICA chose to be a host for the Mapplethorpe show in 1987, when Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art was in the process of organizing it. The Philadelphia museum received $30,000 from NEA for the project.
``We've shown many works over the years that have dealt with subject matter that people with a variety of faiths would consider blasphemous,'' says Ross, who is Jewish. But judging an artist's work involves ``recognizing the seriousness of the body of work ... and not taking things out of context.''
He mentions the paintings of Joseph Beuys, a German pilot during World War II. ``He was a Nazi soldier! Would I show his work? You bet. We've shown work by PLO filmmakers whom I don't agree with. But they've been important works of documentary craft.''
The essence of Mapplethorpe's work, he says, is the showing of ``something familiar in a way that's completely novel, to present a flower, a hand, a body, a torso in a fashion that makes it seem as if you've never seen anything like it.''
In Hartford, Conn., the Wadsworth Atheneum, the only mainstream museum to participate in the tour, displayed the works for two months in 1989 without incident. Average weekly attendance shot up to 7,000, compared to 2,000 for its other exhibitions.
``We very carefully layed out reasons as to why we were doing the show,'' said director Patrick McCaughey, reached by phone. In evaluating art, he says, ``moral judgments are not excluded from aesthetic ones. ... Great works contain within them great moral lessons. That doesn't mean they contain lessons in conventional morality, but that they place a value on human experience.''
For instance, if an artist expressed racist attitudes in his work, ``that devalues the human. I would find it hard to conclude it was an important work of art.''
Mapplethorpe, on the other hand, ``will be seen as one of the most significant artists of the '70s and '80s,'' asserts Mr. McCaughey.
In the face of such endorsements fly less approving views.
``This callous disregard for common decency is inexcusable,'' says Nancy Sutton, chairman of Citizens for Family First, a pro-family group in Massachusetts. To her, the photos represent the ``brutalization of men and women,'' ``the sexual exploitation of children,'' and glorification of a life style than can lead to AIDS. ``This lays the groundwork for even more offensive material to be presented in the guise of art.''
The Mapplethorpe debate throws a spotlight on the legitimacy of federal funding of art, when that art conflicts with the religious or moral standards of many citizens.
``How can I allow my taxes to be used to insult my faith or anyone else's faith?'' asks Rev. Sargon Ibraham, a Methodist minister and president of the American Freedom Coalition of Massachusetts. ``It's not a question of censorship - but sponsorship.''
In the fall of last year, Congress confirmed its own misgivings on this point, agreeing upon new wording in the NEA's appropriations bill that bans federal funding of ``obscene'' art and requires artists to pledge they will not produce such material. Legislators are scheduled to resume the NEA debate this September, to determine by Oct. 1 the final conditions for the endowment's reauthorization.
``It makes you a little cynical,'' says Darby Bannard, an abstract painter and chairman of the art and art history department at the University of Miami. ``If you have government money, you're going to have to cater to it. It's inevitable, and you get away from art.''
In recent months, many artists have taken a stand against the grant form's obscenity restriction, giving up their NEA award, or suing the NEA on grounds that the requirement is unconstitutional.
``I can't operate under these kinds of restrictions,'' says Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who announced he would not accept a $50,000 NEA grant. ``Who is going to define what is obscene for me?'' he asks.
But should artists be limited in any way, when using NEA funds?
``Why?'' asks Los Angeles-based choreographer Bella Lewitzky, who refused a $72,000 grant. ``I have a lot of confidence in the NEA's peer panel review system. They already monitor the one thing to be monitored - quality.''
David Ross says the controversy, as he sees it, is not about ``images,'' but about society's failure to consider the world ``for all its faults and its beauty.''
``As discomforting as a work of art is,'' he says, if the ICA ``determines that the work has values and qualities worth discussing, then we put that work before the public to say, `Here it is. Let's look at it. Let's talk about it openly.' ''