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The Latest Arts Martyr

By Steve Ramos · May 2nd, 2002 · Arts Beat
If I had the chance to say goodbye to artist Thomas Condon April 29, before Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Norbert Nadel sent him to prison for 2 1/2 years for taking pictures of corpses at the Hamilton County Morgue without permission, I would have told him not to lose faith in Cincinnati.

I would have pointed to the temporary appeals victory by Dr. Jonathan Tobias, the former assistant coroner convicted of aiding Condon, as reason for optimism.

I would have told him that justice will eventually squeeze its way past a robe-cloaked clown like Nadel and a witch-hunter like Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen.

I would have tried to make Condon smile on what has to be the blackest day of his life by appropriating Richard Nixon's trademark phrase about America's conservatives, "the silent majority," and twisting it into a liberal motto.

You see, like I've told Condon many times, I believe that many people in Cincinnati are tolerant, liberal and open-minded. These people are Cincinnati's silent majority, and they know when local TV stations and daily newspapers are biased and one-sided in their reporting. They can see through Allen's crusade to depict Condon as a disgusting man responsible for "vile photographs."

More importantly, they understand how Allen played the controversy card in order to protect Hamilton County Coroner Carl Parrott, who undoubtedly granted Condon access to the morgue.

The problem is that many of these silent liberals possess little political or corporate power. They can't pick up the phone and make a call to the Hamilton County Republican Party. They don't have the clout of large political donations to toss around.

They're people like University of Cincinnati art student Andre Hyland, who, along with some friends, came to the Hamilton County Courthouse April 16 to show support for Condon during the initial sentencing hearing.

If I had the chance to shake Condon's hand on April 29, I would have told him that he should be proud of the way he's kept his composure throughout a year's worth of slander.

I would have told him that his beautiful artwork speaks volumes about the goodness and creativity inside his soul.

I would have told him that someone like Allen can't break a man's spirit as long as that man stays true to his beliefs.

If I had the chance to embrace Condon on April 29, I would have told him to disregard Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) Director Charles Desmarais' quote in the April 17 Cincinnati Enquirer. "There is a great tradition of art in general and photography in particular of depicting the dead," Desmarais told the paper. "The subject that Condon took on and the way he did it was transgressive. If one moves into dangerous territory like that, there could be very dangerous consequences."

I would have told Condon that Desmarais' quote had nothing to do with art, transgressive or otherwise, and everything to do with an arts organization director desperate to raise the necessary money to complete the capital campaign for his new museum.

I would have told Condon that Desmarais lost a lot of respect for giving that comment, because even if he was misquoted he wasn't misquoted enough to alter his stance on Condon's prison sentence.

I would have told Condon that there are many people in Cincinnati who still celebrate the CAC's 1990 victory over the obscenity indictments against its exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. His trial was as significant as the Mapplethorpe trial, despite the anti-art rhetoric from people like Desmarais.

On April 29, I watched Condon's transfer to the Hamilton County Justice Center from the hallway outside Nadel's courtroom. I didn't speak with Condon. I felt it was time for him to focus solely on his family and his wife. Basically, I broke the first law of reporting by deciding not to intrude.

I didn't speak with Condon April 29, but he weighs heavily on my mind. I know he didn't want to become Cincinnati's latest arts martyr, but I can't picture him as anything else.



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