Trial over, Issues Refuse to Fade Views Clash over Photo Show in a City with a 20-Year History of Strict Anti-Pornography Enforcement. CINCINNATI OBSCENITY CASE
Laura Van Tuyl, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 Art Museum.
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. …