Trial Over, Issues Refuse to Fade
Views clash over photo show in a city with a 20-year history of strict anti-pornography enforcement. CINCINNATI OBSCENITY CASE
CINCINNATI — While the streets of this river-front city were plastered with ``Go Reds!'' signs, the entrance to the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) sported an equally impassioned sign: ``Not Guilty! It is art!!'' The poster reflects the relief and triumph felt by the museum and the arts community after a jury acquitted the arts center and its director two weeks ago of obscenity charges related to the Robert Mapplethorpe show presented here last spring.
But the verdict does not signal a return to business as usual, citizens say. The celebrated trial has left the arts center wracked with financial woes and the community emotionally exhausted.
``The city is still very divided. It's going to be a long time before the city heals,'' says Elizabeth K. Lanier, an attorney with Cincinnati's biggest law firm, Frost and Jacobs, and former president of the CAC. ``I don't think the passions have been totally put to rest,'' adds Millard Rogers Jr., director of the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Neither are the issues surrounding the trial likely to fade from national prominence, since other artistic genres are increasingly under fire for allegedly promoting obscenity. The rap group 2 Live Crew and purveyors of ``NC-17'' movies (a new rating replacing the former ``X'') are finding themselves in the middle of broadening debate over what is obscene and what is truly art.
In Cincinnati, the photography show ``Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,'' which traveled to six other US cities, was exhibited as planned. But in preparation for an indictment, local police closed the museum the first day to videotape evidence; namely, several photos showing explicit homosexual acts and frontal nudity of children.
Dennis Barrie, director of Contemporary Arts Center, sees a parallel between the trial that ensued and the record store owner in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who was recently convicted for selling the music of 2 Live Crew, the controversial rap singers, who themselves are facing prosecution on obscenity charges.
``I think it's part of a national pattern to restrict access to the written word, to the painted canvas, to recordings, and to movies,'' said Mr. Barrie, back in his office after the acquittal.
But some Cincinnatians say these conflicts are a result of concerned citizens who are alarmed by material that pushes the envelope of ``common sense,'' violating moral and legal standards.
``You've got to draw the line somewhere,'' remarked Bob Lambers, a computer project engineer eating lunch in a downtown diner. Concerning the museum's trial, ``I would have said `guilty.' It's like everything else - you've got to have limitations.''
When authorities closed the Contemporary Arts Center, ``the impact for all museums was a terrible one,'' Barrie says. ``By coming in our door, they walked in the door of every museum in this country. Their ability to do that here was their ability to do that in New York, Tulsa, Columbus, or Seattle.'' But the acquittals have ``given us new courage that they won't be able to do that again.''
Opponents of the Mapplethorpe show were disappointed, ``but we're satisfied the arts center was not permitted to do an end-run around the legal system. It had to be accountable...,'' says Monty Lobb, president of Citizens for Community Values, a local group.
People around the country, he says, will not understand the ruckus created here over Mapplethorpe ``unless they understand Cincinnati and its history. There is nothing here on the open market for a person to rent or buy that's nearly as explicit or extreme as those Mapplethorpe pictures,'' Mr. Lobb explains in an interview. The absence of peep shows, adult book stores, and massage parlors reflects a ``tradition here over the last 20 years'' of elected officials who treat state obscenity laws ``the way they would drug laws, murder laws, and rape laws.'' Not even an art museum should be exempt from obeying the law, he says. In the opinion of Lobb, the disputed Mapplethorpe photos are not ``art.''
Referring to one of the most controversial images in the show, Lobb says, ``If a man urinating in the mouth of another man is art, I would love for somebody to tell me why that's art. We as a society have gotten to a point where we're so desensitized and calloused to things that are just common sense.''
The jury, however, using the US Supreme Court's definition of obscenity, did not conclude that the pictures had no artistic or cultural value. That was the sole point that determined the verdict, according to press reports.
``The indictment did not represent the views of the average citizen,'' says Kathleen Norris, managing producer of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, a regional theater company. ``Our elected officials overinterpreted their responsibility.''
In September, the Contemporary Arts Center itself conducted a phone survey of 424 randomly selected citizens and found that 63 percent were opposed to the prosecution. But Lobb says, ``I don't buy that.'' The officials who brought this particular law suit have a history of ``going after this stuff,'' and they ``get reelected by landslides year after year,'' he says.
For the arts center, the acquittals represent a Pyrrhic victory at best, Barrie says. The museum will have to shell out at least $325,000 in legal fees (more than 25 percent of its budget), and all corporate support (which previously rang in at about $110,00 per year) has vanished.
In Columbus, officials at the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts have been nervous. ``It's made us very uneasy,'' says director Robert Stearns, who was Barrie's predecessor at the CAC. ``How would a conviction have affected the role of museums as educational institutions?'' he asks with a note of alarm in his voice.
But Stearns says the Cincinnati firestorm will not influence program selection at the Wexner, the region's most important venue for avant-garde art, nor will it cause him to cancel or alter any artist's work featured at the center. ``I see it [the verdict] as a signal to continue what we're doing,'' he adds, mentioning that the controversial performance artist Karen Finley is scheduled to appear there next month. ``Our concern is to present a diversity of viewpoints.''
Barrie says he thinks the verdict will dampen the spirits of those people in other cities who might try to prosecute art institutions on similar charges. ``If they couldn't win here with a sympathetic power base and sympathetic law enforcement officials, then where can they win?''
But other towns across the country are not unaware of anti-obscenity efforts in Cincinnati. Two young women from Muskegon, Mich., who were strolling through the Cincinnati Art Museum, said the trial here has definitely prompted citizens in Muskegon to take action against material they find obscene.
One of the women, Diane Hoppes, said she grew up in Cincinnati and was personally ``surprised'' at the acquittal. Watching people celebrating over the verdict ``kind of tore at me. I wish we could have seen a moral stand taken,'' Miss Hoppes said.
``I hope things like this trial will make people want to get involved and aware of what's going on around them,'' said her friend Ann Kalchik. Added Hoppes: ``A lot of times, it may not be some big name like Mapplethorpe.''