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Those Were the Days!

By Michael Blankenship · March 30th, 2000 · Power of One
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I confess that the 10-year anniversary of the Mapplethorpe exhibit and trial in Cincinnati snuck up on me. Then I started getting calls for interviews and reflections on this bit of history which had become such a turning point in my own life as well as in the cultural climate and history of our city. As I dug out and poured over the boxes of material and images in my closets and files, the truly unique quality of the time came through loud and queer.

But apart from serving as my own activist's coming out party, Mapplethorpe was the defining example for the nation's -- and the world's -- developing awareness of Cincinnati as a center of intransigence and intolerance.

Conversely, the experience provided the excuse necessary for diverse and typically passive local citizens to become active, unite and express their rage at a morality imposed upon them by political figures manipulated by so-called "Christian" extremists led by Citizens for Community Values (CCV). It was a clear illustration of the degree to which such extremists are driven by homophobia and of how well-entrenched homophobia is among the ruling political and corporate class.

It sparked outrage nationwide as the high point of the Republican right wing's vilification of art and artists they fail to understand. The seven-month ordeal, from indictment to verdict, enabled national participation. It brought artists, activists and citizens from all over the country to Cincinnati to protest the trial, paralyzing downtown and embarrassing the rubber-gloved police and public officials. America's first-ever trial of an art exhibit and a museum director deserved no less.

As is typical in most social disturbances, people only get involved when they feel it directly affects them. What was great about Mapplethorpe was that so many regular people realized how it affected them, their independence of thought and their cultural environment. Even if their involvement was to be short-lived, it was a wonder that it happened at all.

Really, there was no way for me not to be involved. I was an artist, and art was under attack. I was queer, and queers were under attack. My lover, Bill, had HIV, and AIDS education was under attack. Far from looking to pick a fight, the fight had tracked me down at home. Surrounded by hostile forces, Bill and I had no shortage of fronts to fight on.

What was really amazing was how a bunch of rag-tag street activists could make a difference in how the story played out. Bill had dragged me into his circle of queer activism, the now defunct Gay & Lesbian March Activists, known by the moniker of GLMA (glama). All through the spring, as the media kept up the Mapplethorpe-equals-obscenity drumbeat, and while most mainstream and arts activists optimistically and unrealistically hoped for no police interference, GLMA had been preparing for the worst.

And while these same mainstream folks tried desperately to pretend that queerness wasn't an element, whitewashing the artist and the art to suit their own "just don't talk about it" tastes, we knew Mapplethorpe's queer imagery was the heart of the matter -- the foundation on which prosecutors and politicians would build their case.

Prior to the bust on April 7, 1990, a mainstream rally on Fountain Square drew about 1,000 people. They were well-mannered, calm, tame. No shouts, no chants, mostly just milling about. Their tone was plaintive, their speakers rational and bordering on whiny. They were naive.

Meanwhile, local arts organizations were in chaos. Boards were split, members resigned, sponsors vanished. High-profile organizations weren't allowed to voice support for the embattled CAC, fearing for their own financial security.

Working at Playhouse in the Park at the time, I was called down into the offices for a reprimand. A bunch of us were planning to attend the Fountain Square rally and I was making banners, one of which identified us as artists from the Playhouse. One of the homophobic carpenters in the shop raised a stink, and Kathleen Norris, then executive director, sternly warned me that I was to make no mention of the Playhouse in anything we did and the Playhouse was to have no part in any of it, period.

Meanwhile, in downtown office towers, debates around water coolers were ceased at the orders of higher management. Word went out that employees were not to involve themselves in the controversy, forcing some concerned workers to don paper bags over their heads when appearing at public events. Free expression had become a dirty little secret, with opinions punishable by firing.

Fear had spread the rumors of obscenity, fanned the flames of intolerance, drained the pools of support and forced the uncertain to follow the leader. The only logical conclusion was trial.

So, of course, with most of the influential and respected members of society either burying their heads in the sand or actively participating in the attack, the struggle against repression was left for those with nothing to lose. Even the area's largest gay organization, Stonewall Cincinnati, ducked the Mapplethorpe issue, insisting on neutrality.

GLMA took up the slack with aplomb, promising a demonstration worthy of the dire situation. Community housing resources were developed in preparation for out-of-town visitors during the September trial. A team of organizers and legal observers met with the police to negotiate procedures for the protest march. And extra care went into crafting a message to point out the history of homophobia driving the prosecution.

The march was indeed "the perfect moment," as the Mapplethorpe exhibit was named. Despite the local media's participation in playing up the obscenity charges to boost their ratings and the efforts of the mainstream liberals to de-queer the issue, our message had gotten through: The real motivation behind the prosecution, the reasoning behind the charge of obscenity, was institutionalized homophobia in city and county government. In the eyes of Sheriff Simon Leis, Prosecutor Art Ney and Police Chief Lawrence Whalen, anything so blatantly queer was, in itself, obscene.

What those so intent on cleanliness and godliness failed to consider was the notion of looking at the exhibit as a document of social history. Robert Mapplethorpe lived a life that cannot be lived in our current age. He took his fame and skills as photographer of the glamorous and cultured and turned his lens on his own obsessions and excesses. He documented a way of life and a social scene which existed in a particular place at a particular time and which is virtually extinct today.

The best representation we have of that experience is Mapplethorpe's work, where his particular genius survives in extraordinary images of darker impulses captured with the love of an artist's eye. You can look at the "X Portfolio" as either a testament of that genius or a warning of its excesses, but it's the one witness that's left.

Like Mapplethorpe, many others cannot be called to testify. A sign carried by a late friend of mine, radical artist Terry Flanagan, summed it up perfectly: "CCV did what AZT couldn't: KEPT MAPPLETHORPE ALIVE!"

Did we as a city learn anything from the experience 10 years ago? I think we did. We learned, as a wonderful banner proclaimed, "If you give artists freedom of expression, soon every American will want it!" We learned that constitutional freedoms can easily be nullified by financial interests. We learned that, even with a legal victory, there's a high price to pay for pushing the envelope with diversity of thought.

We learned that we had all better remember our place and that responsible people are always looking out for our best interests. And we learned that, in Cincinnati, each arts organization is on its own when charges of indecency are made.

This same tawdry drama would play itself out over the years, to the present day. A few years later, with Poor Super Man at Ensemble Theatre, we'd have to go through another threat of prosecution, another flight of sponsors, another recognized artistic triumph, another record-breaking run of attendance and another institution that would never attempt anything similar again.

POWER OF ONE is the political made personal. Contact Michael at CityBeat, 23 E. Seventh St., Suite 617, Cincinnati, OH 45202, or e-mail him at letters@citybeat.com.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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