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Art Isn't a Crime

By Steve Ramos · December 5th, 2002 · Arts Beat
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This is what National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) Arts Advocacy Director Svetlana Mintcheva has to say about artist Thomas Condon, who begins his appeal Thursday after being sent to prison by Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Norbert Nadel: "Morgue photography is nothing new. It's a legitimate subject of artistic expression. There was a great injustice done to Thomas when the photographs were released before he could crop them. We (NCAC) were taken back by the strong language by the prosecutor and the judge who referred to the art as vile and disgusting. Clearly public opinion was affected by this attitude."

Mintcheva backs up her pro-Condon words with an NCAC press release on Dec. 2 leading with the headline, "Free Expression and Art Advocacy Organizations Protest Criminalization of Artistic Expression in Cincinnati." The release announces NCAC's ongoing support for Condon, joining forces with other groups like the International Association of Art Critics and Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts as well as individual artists including playwright Craig Lucas and filmmaker Milos Forman.

Condon is free from prison on appeal after taking pictures of corpses without permission at the Hamilton County Morgue in January 2001. He was convicted last year on eight counts of gross abuse of a corpse, and the results of his appeal will determine whether he has to serve the remaining two years of his sentence.

Speaking after the press release's send-off, Mintcheva says the release was timed to make the greatest impact possible before the start of Condon's appeal this week.

This is what National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) Arts Advocacy Director Svetlana Mintcheva has to say about artist Thomas Condon, who begins his appeal Thursday after being sent to prison by Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Norbert Nadel: "Morgue photography is nothing new. It's a legitimate subject of artistic expression. There was a great injustice done to Thomas when the photographs were released before he could crop them.

... We (NCAC) were taken back by the strong language by the prosecutor and the judge who referred to the art as vile and disgusting. Clearly public opinion was affected by this attitude."

Mintcheva backs up her pro-Condon words with an NCAC press release on Dec. 2 leading with the headline, "Free Expression and Art Advocacy Organizations Protest Criminalization of Artistic Expression in Cincinnati." The release announces NCAC's ongoing support for Condon, joining forces with other groups like the International Association of Art Critics and Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts as well as individual artists including playwright Craig Lucas and filmmaker Milos Forman.

Condon is free from prison on appeal after taking pictures of corpses without permission at the Hamilton County Morgue in January 2001. He was convicted last year on eight counts of gross abuse of a corpse, and the results of his appeal will determine whether he has to serve the remaining two years of his sentence.

Speaking after the press release's send-off, Mintcheva says the release was timed to make the greatest impact possible before the start of Condon's appeal this week. Its advocacy focuses specifically on the photographer's criminal case, but its criticism is directed at all of Cincinnati.

"This is the third time since 1990 that criminal charges are leveled against artistic expression in Cincinnati," Mintcheva says, "which raises grave concerns about a chilling effect on artistic freedom."

The NCAC release lists the obscenity charges brought against Contemporary Arts Center Director Dennis Barrie in 1990 for hosting the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective and the 1994 obscenity charges brought against the Pink Pyramid bookstore for renting a video of the Pier Paolo Pasolini film, Salo: 120 Days of Sodom.

"We protest the persistent criminalization of artistic expression in Cincinnati," the release states, "and specifically the imprisonment of artist-photographer Thomas Condon on criminal charges of corpse abuse for taking photographs in a Cincinnati morgue."

Mintcheva is critical of Cincinnati, but her words ring true. What's disappointing is that a New York City-based organization is taking a leadership role on behalf of Condon instead of a local arts or political group. Cincinnati Campaign Against Censorship in the Arts, the group run by local artist Bill Messer, is one of the organizations listed on Mintcheva's release.

Condon's most public local supporters have been a group of recent University of Cincinnati art graduates, Caroline Caldwell, Erin Heitsch, Brandon Hickle and Andre Hyland. They created an installation, made up of 14 frames containing media coverage of Condon's trial, for a September show at the Art Academy of Cincinnati's Chidlaw Gallery. But young artists have a difficult time competing with the rhetoric from Cincinnati's powers-that-be.

Inside the Manhattan offices of the NCAC, people can't believe what's happened to Condon. Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen referred to Condon's work as "vile photographs." During the trial, Nadel summed up his feelings about Condon's work: "Mr. Condon instigated this entire situation with his so-called project, which I can only describe in my words as idiotic."

It's very clear how I feel about Condon. Earlier this year, I wrote that justice would eventually squeeze its way past a robe-cloaked clown like Nadel and a witch-hunter like Allen. I still believe that many people in Cincinnati are tolerant and intelligent and that they see through the biased reporting in daily newspapers and local TV stations as well as the prosecutor's crusade to depict Condon as a pervert.

Mintcheva's press release shows I'm not alone. I hope someone locally will lead the NCAC's cause.

It shouldn't take a New York City-based arts group to teach Cincinnatians that art isn't a crime. That's a message we need to deliver ourselves.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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