Art and obscenity

The anti-obscenity lobby has its day in court

PAMELA YOUNG October 15 1990

Art and obscenity

The anti-obscenity lobby has its day in court

PAMELA YOUNG October 15 1990

Art and obscenity


The anti-obscenity lobby has its day in court

Cincinnati prides itself on being one of the most morally pristine cities in the United States. It claims to have no adult bookstores, pornographic cine-

mas or massage parlors. New York City photographer Robert Mapplethorpe inhabited a very different world. Acclaimed for his stark black-and-white images of flowers, celebrities

and explicit homosexual acts, he died of an AlD6-related illness in 1989. When the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati displayed a touring exhibit of Mapplethorpe’s work last spring, local officials found some of the images morally objectionable. As a result, the gallery and its director, Dennis Barrie, had to stand trial for obscenity and illegal use of a minor. Last week, the eightmember jury returned a notguilty verdict. But the charges, which had never before been

laid against a public U.S. gallery, are widely seen as part of a rising tide of censorious morality. Said Bruce Guenther, chief curator of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art: “A concerted attack on the arts is going on in this

country—it won’t be stopped in Cincinnati.” Over the past several years, American antiobscenity forces have mobilized to become much more aggressive—and effective—in their campaign to limit availability of what they consider to be obscene art and entertainment. As a result of their lobbying, the major U.S. recording companies now put warning labels

on records with profane lyrics. Last week, a jury in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., convicted recordstore owner Charles Freeman of selling a banned album. A Florida court had declared rap group 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be to be obscene because, in the words of U.S. district Judge Jose Gonzalez, it appealed “to dirty thoughts and the loins, not to the intellect and the mind.” Freeman faces a possible jail sentence of up to one year and a $1,150 fine. Meanwhile, con-

troversy has arisen over restraints on federal grants to art with sexually explicit content. Last year, Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina spearheaded a successful drive to require individuals and organizations receiv-

ing funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to sign a pledge stating that they will not use the money to create obscene work. In Canada, anti-obscenity lobbyists have had less impact, but they, too, have clashed with the arts community.

With the verdict in Cincinnati last week, however, the anti-obscenity lobby suffered an important setback. Said a jubilant Barrie: “It’s a great day in this city and a great day for America. We stood up for the First Amendment, for artistic creativity.” At issue in the Contemporary Arts Center trial were seven of the photographs from the 175-piece show Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. Two of them show children with their genitals exposed, and five are explicit images—one photograph of a man urinating into another man’s mouth and four showing anal and penile penetration by various objects.

The not-guilty verdict is good news for the NEA, the U.S. federal arts agency. Morally conservative groups have strenuously objected to some recent NEA grants, including one of $34,500 to the Mapplethorpe show. Rev. Donald Wildmon, a United Methodist minister and founder of the Tupelo, Miss.-based lobby group the American Family Association, told Maclean ’s: “What an artist or artistic community wants to do on its own time or with its own money is its own decision. But when tax dollars are involved, artists have to answer to taxpayers.”

For the NEA, the Cincinnati trial took place at a particularly delicate time. The organization’s mandate is currently under consideration for a three-year renewal from the federal government. Last week in Washington, the House appropriations committee voted to increase the agency’s annual budget to $207 million

from $196 million. But other critical aspects affecting the NEA’s future hang in the balance. Debate is under way on a Senate bill that would eliminate Helms’s controversial obscenity pledge. Several representatives, however, want to amend the bill to put tougher restrictions on the NEA.

In the case of the Mapplethorpe show, organized by the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1988, controversy began well before the exhibit reached Cincinnati. Last year, opposition groups objected strongly to the Mapplethorpe collection and to another photographic show that had been partially funded by the NEA. In the second show, an exhibit of works by 40-year-old New York photographer Andres Serrano, the most notorious was Piss Christ, an image of a crucifix immersed in urine.

The Mapplethorpe exhibition was supposed to travel to Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of

Art in July, 1989. But in a decision strongly criticized by the arts community, Corcoran officials cancelled the show, citing concerns that its presence in Washington would increase the outrage on Capitol Hill. Another local gallery, the Washington Project for the Arts, did show the Mapplethorpe exhibit, which broke attendance records at galleries in Chicago, Berkeley, Calif., and other U.S. cities.

The controversy over Mapplethorpe’s work exploded again when the show arrived in Cincinnati last April. Before the exhibition opened, Monty Lobb Jr., president of the anti-pornography organization Citizens for Community Values, examined the catalogue. Said Lobb: “My first response was shock. It was hard to believe that something that extreme could be shown in a public museum.” When the show opened on April 7, police laid charges against the gallery and its director—but the court allowed the exhibition to continue. Attendance records

were broken again when 81,000 visitors passed through during its seven-week run, and by the time the show closed on May 26, gallery membership had increased by 80 per cent.

On Sept. 24, the day that jury selection for the trial began, gay and freedom-of-speech activists staged a demonstration outside the courthouse, blocking traffic while simulating sex acts. During testimony, Barrie, the bearded, silver-haired director, told the court that the five photographs alleged to be obscene illustrated the “homosexual subculture of New York City in the 1970s.” Declared Barrie, 43: “The intention was to take a sometimes tough, sometimes brutal subject matter and bring beauty to it.”

Last week, as the trial concluded, the Mapplethorpe show finished its run at its final tour stop, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. There, as in other cities, it drew record crowds. Gallery officials said that it attracted more than 100,000 people—twice the number

of people who visited the institution in all of 1989. Director David A. Ross said that he and other directors owe a debt to the agitators. “If any of us could afford to have Jesse Helms do marketing for us full time,” he added, “we probably wouldn’t need to be subsidized.”

Meanwhile, artists and cultural institutions continue to wrestle with the dilemma of whether to sign the NEA anti-obscenity pledge or forgo a grant from the funding agency. Several have decided that a grant is not worth the price. The most famous and perhaps most vocal opponent of the pledge is Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival in Manhattan. Said the respected Papp: “Art has to lead in freedom of expression. The reason artists are the first to be attacked is because they are in the vanguard of expression.”

Papp has already turned down one $57,500 NEA grant because of the condition, and he says

that he will reject another one of $371,000 if the government votes to retain the pledge. The Senate bill currently under debate calls for the elimination of the anti-obscenity pledge, but it does stipulate that any NEA grant recipient found guilty of obscenity by the courts must return the money.

The Boston Institute’s Ross maintains that the preoccupation with rooting out obscenity has a lot to do with a “prevailing climate of homophobia.” He added, “In this country, we are in the midst of a sex panic—an attempt to remarginalize homosexuals.” In June, on the recommendation of the National Council on the Arts, a presidential advisory body, the NEA chose not to award grants to four performance artists, three of whom are gay. All four had received NEA funding in the past, and a panel of their peers had already approved the grants..

Canada’s anti-obscenity lobby is less powerful than its U.S. counterpart, but it has attacked the arts-and-entertainment communities, /in obscenity trial is scheduled to begin in the Ontario provincial court in Ottawa on Nov. 5 over two albums by the Victoria, B.C.-based rock group Dayglo Abortions, Here Today Guano Tomorrow and Feed Us a Fetus America. As well, on several occasions, Canadian customs officials have detained literature destined for gay bookstores—some of it already available on general bookstore shelves—declaring it to be obscene.

Some public figures have also taken up the anti-obscenity cause. Late last year, Conservative Revenue Minister Otto Jelinek publicly objected to the Canada Council’s decision to subsidize a production at Toronto’s Buddies, in Bad Times Theatre Company called Drag Queens on Trial. Jelinek declared that Iffie grant was “enough to make me bring up.” And last November, the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon mired itself in controversy when it showed works with homosexual erotic content and religious imagery by Ottawa photographer Evergon. Some members of the community called the show obscene and blasphemous.

The events indicate that, both in Canada and

in the United States, champions of artistic freedom of speech and the anti-obscenity crusaders are becoming increasingly polarised. Cincinnati’s Lobb says that he likes his city the way it is. He points with pride to its low crime rate and its prostitute-free streets. But he emphasizes the importance of remaining vigilant against obscenity. Said Lobb: “Many say Cincinnati has the highest community slandards in the country. I can assure you we did not get there by being silent.”

But Piss Christ creator Serrano maintains that a guilty verdict in Cincinnati would have been “a low blow for democracy and freedom of expression.” It was “ironic,” he added, iihat the first obscenity charges ever laid against a gallery in the United States should come at a time when “totalitarian nations are becoming more democratic.” The gulf between Serrano’s views and Lobb’s seems as vast as North America itself.





Cincinnati and correspondents’ reports