While the streets of this river-front city were plastered with
"Go Reds!" signs, the entrance to the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC)
sported an equally impassioned sign: "Not Guilty! It is art!!"
The poster reflects the relief and triumph felt by the museum and
the arts community after a jury acquitted the arts center and its
director two weeks ago of obscenity charges related to the Robert
Mapplethorpe show presented here last spring.
But the verdict does not signal a return to business as usual,
citizens say. The celebrated trial has left the arts center wracked
with financial woes and the community emotionally exhausted.
"The city is still very divided. It's going to be a long time
before the city heals," says Elizabeth K. Lanier, an attorney with
Cincinnati's biggest law firm, Frost and Jacobs, and former
president of the CAC. "I don't think the passions have been totally
put to rest," adds Millard Rogers Jr., director of the Cincinnati
Neither are the issues surrounding the trial likely to fade from
national prominence, since other artistic genres are increasingly
under fire for allegedly promoting obscenity. The rap group 2 Live
Crew and purveyors of "NC-17" movies (a new rating replacing the
former "X") are finding themselves in the middle of broadening
debate over what is obscene and what is truly art.
In Cincinnati, the photography show "Robert Mapplethorpe: The
Perfect Moment," which traveled to six other US cities, was
exhibited as planned. But in preparation for an indictment, local
police closed the museum the first day to videotape evidence;
namely, several photos showing explicit homosexual acts and frontal
nudity of children.
Dennis Barrie, director of Contemporary Arts Center, sees a
parallel between the trial that ensued and the record store owner in
Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who was recently convicted for selling the
music of 2 Live Crew, the controversial rap singers, who themselves
are facing prosecution on obscenity charges.
"I think it's part of a national pattern to restrict access to
the written word, to the painted canvas, to recordings, and to
movies," said Mr. Barrie, back in his office after the acquittal.
But some Cincinnatians say these conflicts are a result of
concerned citizens who are alarmed by material that pushes the
envelope of "common sense," violating moral and legal standards.
"You've got to draw the line somewhere," remarked Bob Lambers, a
computer project engineer eating lunch in a downtown diner.
Concerning the museum's trial, "I would have said `guilty.' It's
like everything else - you've got to have limitations."
When authorities closed the Contemporary Arts Center, "the impact
for all museums was a terrible one," Barrie says. "By coming in our
door, they walked in the door of every museum in this country. Their
ability to do that here was their ability to do that in New York,
Tulsa, Columbus, or Seattle." But the acquittals have "given us new
courage that they won't be able to do that again."
Opponents of the Mapplethorpe show were disappointed, "but we're
satisfied the arts center was not permitted to do an end-run around
the legal system. It had to be accountable...," says Monty Lobb,
president of Citizens for Community Values, a local group.
People around the country, he says, will not understand the
ruckus created here over Mapplethorpe "unless they understand
Cincinnati and its history. There is nothing here on the open market
for a person to rent or buy that's nearly as explicit or extreme as
those Mapplethorpe pictures," Mr. Lobb explains in an interview. The
absence of peep shows, adult book stores, and massage parlors
reflects a "tradition here over the last 20 years" of elected
officials who treat state obscenity laws "the way they would drug
laws, murder laws, and rape laws. …