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Mapplethorpe: Cowboy Hats, Canonization and Current Truths

By · May 4th, 2000 · Sybil Ibburtezan Writes
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When I was growing up, the media made things pretty simple. Cowboy shows, those epitomatic morality tales, spelled it out visually: The good guys wore white (hats always, sometimes other clothing, often astride white horses) and the bad guys wore black (notable exceptions, Adam Cartwright and Paladin, an interesting hybrid). You could spot good or evil coming toward you from the far end of town.

It was only as I and the post-Kennedys/King/Malcolm X assassinations country grew up that we were both forced to use more grey matter to understand the grey areas. The Vietnam War pushed the media toward similar maturation.

Yet there are Twainian time-warp pockets in which the powers that be, through their media, would keep us as young and dumb as possible. No sex please, we're children (as though children are without sexuality). No beards on ballplayers (glad that's finally gone). "Adult" anything ought to be banned. And attempts to publicly address these issues are seldom reported.

The prosecution and trial of the Contemporary Arts Center and its director for presenting the touring Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition The Perfect Moment were front page/lead story TV news for almost a year here in 1989-90, with the indictment occurring in early April. This was the first (and still only) time in the nation's history a museum was criminally prosecuted for what it put on its walls or in its halls.

The rest of the world thought we were insane. It's already difficult to remember how outrageous a violation it felt. Local media assisted the censorial effort to get public opinion to help shut down the show, unsuccessfully.

CityBeat properly devoted a major cover story to the then-and-now of the prosecution, although failing to report on either a two-day national conference on arts censorship at the Omni Netherland Plaza (even though co-sponsoring the event) or the ACLU's annual dinner, whose program focused on censorship, honored the co-counsel in the Mapplethorpe trial and featured as speaker the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during that period, a man who had censored artists' and arts institutions' grants but grew to be an earnest anti-censorship advocate.

The Cincinnati Post ran a front-page, headline story in recognition of the anniversary, revealing that the Mapplethorpe trial judge believed then and apparently still believes the exhibition was not protected expression and that the prosecutors, sheriff and a self-anointed anti-porn crusader all believe they won rather than lost the case, having successfully chilled similar expression from occurring here again.

The Cincinnati Enquirer ignored the anniversary entirely. Their minor mention of the Netherland conference ("Indecent Exposure") was buried behind six-column wide, Metro front-page coverage of a convicted Watergate burglar speaking to a Christian men's group. And they avoided reporting on the ACLU event in favor of a local anti-porn conference the same night, stopping porn being preferable to supporting the Constitution any time. They told me they'll wait for the movie, in early summer, to discuss Mapplethorpe.

The movie's a Showtime ditty entitled Dirty Pictures, which has been rewritten three times to increase emphasis on the heroic struggle of then CAC Director Dennis Barrie, much to the delight of actor James Wood, who plays St. Dennis. This 10th anniversary should be the perfect moment for a couple of stories you probably haven't heard before related to the show, the trial and the lionized one.

Months before the controversial Mapplethorpe retrospective arrived in Cincinnati, amid law enforcement and media attempts to create a climate of revulsion and behind the scenes economic intimidation to prevent its opening, the Contemporary Arts Center apparently had grown less than comfortable with the idea of presenting the entire exhibition. It approached Images Center for Photography, a nearby, non-profit photography gallery with a membership nearly as large as the CAC's, to see if it was interested in showing some of the photographs, without saying which pictures it wanted to shift or why.

I was curatorial coordinator for Images at the time.

Members of Images' board proposed various bodies of work which were of interest, from the flowers (not much likelihood of getting those) to Mapplethorpe's early portraits or his Lisa Lyons pictures. None of these offers elicited an immediate response.

Most of the board never learned exactly what the CAC had in mind, as the opportunity to divide the exhibition ended when the organizing institution, Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art, reminded the CAC that their contract required presenting The Perfect Moment in its entirety, and so the offer to Images was brushed off the table like a crumb.

In retrospect, it seems likely what the CAC had in mind was moving the most problematic pictures -- the X,Y and Z portfolios -- off premises, hopefully passing off some of their problems, too. Not exactly a move of committed support for its curatorial programming or that of a courageous defense of freedom of expression. Don't look for this moment in the movie.

The trial took place nearly seven months after the indictment and lasted five days. For the first four, experts testified as to whether or not the charged photographs were art and therefore protected expression. The judge had previously ruled that "taken as a whole" need not pertain to the entire exhibition but instead could be adequately applied to a single photograph, rendering virtually all contextual information summarily excluded. So, the experts were left to describe how diagonal lines intersected at a central point in a picture (where a whip handle is inserted into the artist's anus, for instance) and give similar fatuous explanations.

Defense witnesses, conservative looking representatives of important institutions, were reduced to shuffling through 8-by-10 plastic copy prints of Mapplethorpe's work in a dog-and-pony show to prove the right of an art museum to select what art it presents. Barrie and Enquirer art critic Owen Findsen were to testify on the last day of the defense's presentation.

The evening before, convinced a conviction was imminent, Findsen telephoned me in hopes of finding some fresh point of view. Images' relative insignificance and my long hair had kept me out of the witness pool, and, additionally, I was not the biggest fan of Mapplethorpe's work.

Having watched from the outside, I did have a different perspective. If a film were being judged, I asked, would film stills be viewed instead of the film itself? In this trial, press copy prints were being passed around in place of the actual art. Mapplethorpe's prints often were large and beautifully printed, with self-designed frames as integral parts of the work. The jury was prevented from experiencing this art by viewing only the small copy prints.

The defense was falling into to the mindset of the prosecution with respect to the medium it was defending, I believed, treating photography more as a reproducibly recordative medium than a representational expressive art form. The police understanding of photography as an objective record employed as evidence in determining whether a crime has taken place had nearly been allowed to become the trial's standard, replacing the necessary ongoing perception of the medium as an art form -- not a mistake people involved in presenting art should make. It was photography itself which was part of the problem, as Mapplethorpe's ideas represented in watercolors or as wood cut prints would not have triggered criminal prosecution.

"When they hand you the pictures and ask whether each is art, as they have each previous witness," I asked Findsen, "why not, instead of again saying 'Yes, absolutely,' say something like 'No, not really' and explain why?" If the jury feels there's a significant gap between what it has been shown and what it is being asked to judge, that gap can produce doubt and doubt can prevent a conviction, I reasoned.

Findsen keystroked rapidly throughout the conversation. The following morning, he took what he'd written to the defense attorneys: "Ask me these questions," he said he told them, "and I'll give these answers." According to Findsen, they huddled, discussing the plan, and decided to try it.

Weeks later, at the victory party at the CAC following its acquittal, Findsen spotted me across the main gallery. Elbowing his way through the crowd, he furiously thumped me in the chest with his finger and shouted over the din, "You won the trial! You won the trial!" When I asked if Barrie shared this opinion, Findsen said he was sure he must. So I told him, if that's the case, I'd simply like a thank you from him, and Owen said he'd make sure of it. But I never heard a word from Dennis on the subject, publicly or personally.

I don't know the extent to which Findsen's evaluation of the impact of this late strategy shift is shared by the other players in the trial; history rapidly morphed into mythology around this exhibition and its prosecution, and obfuscation and misrepresentation abounded. But as it's a story I've wanted to have told, after 10 years, I decided to tell it myself.

One important educational opportunity I was sorry to see passed up was implicit in Barrie's oft-repeated mis-statement, "The work is art, not pornography." He had to have known that the contested photographs were from a group that Mapplethorpe himself called pornographic, an attempt to understand and harness porn's power.

Artists throughout history have made pornographic imagery, from naked buggery on ancient Greek vases and celebrational sex in frescoes on the walls of Roman villas to athletic, multi-partnered sex sculpted on the walls of Hindu temples and modern art by Picasso, Koons and countless others. As an entirely normal area of human interest, sex and erotic arousal have long been subjects of artistic expression.

My point is, art and pornography are not mutually exclusive and are both constitutionally protected expression. Only obscenity loses this protection, which, by law, art cannot be. There was no legitimate basis for the Mapplethorpe trial occurring.

Ten years later, it seems less shocking that police entered an art museum and local government put it on trial. What happened in Cincinnati and had never happened before now seems to have acquired a measure of cultural legitimacy. New York Mayor Giuliani's effort to destroy the Brooklyn Institute of Art and Science because he took offense at a single painting (on religious grounds) engendered widespread vocal condemnation and was rejected by a federal judge recently as unconstitutional. But it also found considerable support among individuals who normally would call for reduced governmental interference in their lives.

The "Indecent Exposure" conference, which I organized, brought authorities in the fields of arts censorship and freedom of expression from all over the country to Cincinnati for what Michelle Coffey, acting director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression in Washington, D.C., called "the best conference on the subject I've ever attended." But it couldn't bring Cincinnatians back to the subject, as attendance was dismal. The ACLU's program, which I emceed, attracted the faithful, reconnected through the honorees and energized by the speakers, but not those most in need of the message.

There is no visible crisis locally. Actual censorship is practiced more often undercover and lower key now than in the Mapplethorpe years. And the effective intimidation of the prosecution and attendant economic threats have resulted in widespread institutional and individual self-censorship.

Accepting all this as normal and usual in Cincinnati makes us more inattentive, complacent, resigned. To paraphrase Mapplethorpe trial attorney Louis Sirkin, from his conference presentation's title, we beat the rap, but the verdict was no victory.

So please, see and enjoy Dirty Pictures, but don't fall for the white hats any more.

 
 
 
 

 

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