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When Art Fought the Law and the Art Won

Posted on October 02, 2015

Robert Mapplethorpe Cincinnati Perfect MomentTwenty-five years ago, art was put on trial in a highly publicized and political showdown. The Mapplethorpe obscenity trial—the first time a museum was taken to court on criminal charges related to works on display—became one of the most heated battlefronts in the era’s culture wars. Taking place over two weeks in the fall of 1990, the resulting attention challenged perceptions of art, public funding, and what constituted “obscenity.” A quarter century on, the trial’s impact can still be felt, and is being recognized in Cincinnati, the city where it all took place, with a series of events and exhibits.

“It sort of never goes away,” says Dennis Barrie, who served as the director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) from 1983–1992, and found himself and his institution in the center of a national controversy. “Something will pop up on quite a regular basis about what happened.”

At issue was The Perfect Moment, a retrospective exhibition of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He had risen to national prominence through his black-and-white depictions of 1970s New York, including celebrities (Andy Warhol, Philip Glass, Deborah Harry), nudes, and graphic depictions of sadomasochism. “Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism,” as his longtime roommate and occasional collaborator Patti Smith said of his work in her memoir of their relationship, Just Kids. The show’s approximately 175 images captured the range of Mapplethorpe’s subjects over his 25-year career, grouping them into three “portfolios:” nude portraits of African-American men (the “Z” portfolio), flower still lifes (“Y”) and homosexual S&M (“X”).

“The ‘X’ portfolio was tough material for some,” says Raphaela Platow, the museum’s current director.

The show was not for everyone, but Barrie and the CAC board felt its artistic importance could hardly be questioned. The show was especially timely considering Mapplethorpe had died of complications from AIDS just a few months earlier, raising interest in the artist and his portfolio.

The exhibit originally showed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia, where it generated some local concerns about a few of the images—particularly some of the more sexually graphic ones, as well as a pair featuring nude children—though generally the show received enthusiastic reviews. But as the survey made its way to Ohio, touring through Chicago and Washington, D.C., controversy began to build.

As Barrie was attending a conference of museum directors several months before The Perfect Moment was scheduled to open in his museum, word arrived that D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery had withdrawn its plan to exhibit Mapplethorpe’s work. The American Family Association, a conservative watchdog group, had been urging politicians to demand that the Corcoran’s National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) funding be eliminated if it went through with the retrospective; its director backed down in the face of pressure.

“That announcement really swept through the room like wildfire,” says Barrie. “All of us who were directors of museums recognized that a door had opened up for hostile censorship against our organizations.”

It was a warning shot for Barrie, and though it might be expected that a museum in Cincinnati would be less likely to draw the kind of attention of one in the nation’s capital, he and the CAC board decided to take precautions. The city was by most measures more conservative than average, prohibiting peep shows, adult bookstores, and strip clubs.

The CAC played offense by lobbying community members for public support for the show, reaching out to politicians and media outlets. They also prepared their defense by securing the services of public relations professionals who had dealt with arts-related controversies in the past, as well as first-amendment lawyer H. Louis Sirkin.

“We really thought at one point that we had won over the city,” says Barrie.

But he underestimated the forces amassing against envelope-pushing works of art.

Read the full story at Smithsonian.

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