The Obscenity Trials

NOT since David felled Goliath have Philistines suffered such reverses from unexpected sources. At least, that's how the contemporary arts, music, and publishing worlds are regarding two jury verdicts handed down this month in Cincinnati and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In the first case, eight Ohio burghers with little interest in art acquitted Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center and its director of obscenity charges for including some erotic photographs in an exhibit of works by Robert Mapplethorpe. A few days later, six men and women in Florida acquitted members of the rap group 2 Live Crew on obscenity charges stemming from a performance of lewd songs.

In each case the jurors - defying cultural stereotypes and the apprehensions of the cognoscenti - and relying on the testimony of experts - found artistic merit in the challenged works, which therefore are protected by the First Amendment.

As matters of criminal law and freedom of speech, the two verdicts are a relief. Censorship is anathema to the fundamental American principle of individual liberty and its political and cultural concomitants. Prison bars, even just figuratively, are a crude response to ideas: Prosecutions of words and images, however offensive, evoke the totalitarian's ultimately futile dream, never more than fitfully entertained in this land, that people can be herded into folds of mental conformity by an iron-fisted state.

The American polity has rightly made it exceedingly difficult to criminalize ideas. But law doesn't subsume morality: What's legal isn't necessarily good.

To discuss the works attacked in these trials, the mainstream press has had to sanitize them. Most newspapers and magazines wouldn't reproduce Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photos, and even fewer would print the sexually sadistic lyrics of songs from 2 Live Crew's ``As Nasty as They Wanna Be'' album. As a result, the public debate has been misleadingly abstract. The works in question are, simply stated, vile and grotesque. Far from being liberating, as avant-gardists are wont to proclaim, they are degrading and contribute to imprisoning thought in chains of carnality.

It's one thing that Americans afford such works legal protection. But as a people we must face up to their true nature, and not be morally intimidated by those who curl their lips at the ``philistinism'' of the ``booboisie.'' If we fail to mount a moral counteroffensive through our families, churches, schools, and other institutions, then we will be abandoning the field of consciousness to those whose idea of freedom of expression seems to begin and end with base observations of the human anatomy.

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