Mike Allen, Art Critic

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen knows "vile photographs" when he sees them. That's why, on Feb. 13, he charged local photographer Tom Condon and Deputy Hamilton County Coroner Jonathan Tobias

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Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen knows "vile photographs" when he sees them. That's why, on Feb. 13, he charged local photographer Tom Condon and Deputy Hamilton County Coroner Jonathan Tobias on 12 counts of abuse of a corpse and one count of breaking and entering.

Chances are you've already heard the story. While being considered for a contract to update coroner-training films, Condon took photos of morgue corpses with photographs, books and syringes posed on them. Tobias is accused of giving Condon access to the morgue.

Condon now faces 16 years in prison, and Tobias faces 17. Suddenly, Allen has become Cincinnati's arbiter of decency. Somebody needs to tell Citizens for Community Values doofus Phil Burress he's been replaced by someone with true political power.

I imagine Allen has a large poster of New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in his office. It's clear Allen is modeling his Condon attack after Giuliani's political bullying against the Brooklyn Museum.

I envision an autographed picture of Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis sitting on Allen's desk. In this dream, Allen chats with U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, spending their afternoons lamenting how "controversial" art has the power to destroy society.

Allen is Cincinnati's newest visual art critic. Maybe he should apply to fill the vacancy for a visual arts critic at The Enquirer. A paper that prints editorials slamming the Brooklyn Museum of Art's fall 1999 exhibition, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, and advocates arts vandalism at the Contemporary Arts Center would welcome someone like the prosecutor.

I listened to Allen's sermonizing on TV about the objectionable nature of Condon's photographs. I also heard him stress that the county's case against Condon was strictly about criminal behavior.

"This is not a case about artistic expression," Allen told the TV cameras. "This is not a case about the First Amendment."

I don't buy anything Allen is saying. A vibrant, healthy and progressive city needs contemporary art and artists who are willing to push boundaries. In Cincinnati, a city at odds with its ultra-conservative Midwestern roots, the need for artistic freedom is greater than ever.

It's been 11 years since the political war over the Contemporary Arts Center's Mapplethorpe exhibit. Last year, Artworks Director Tamara Harkavy took away student poet Nina Caporale's $500 scholarship for reading a poem titled "You Ass."

Allen's witch-hunt against Condon and Tobias looks to become Cincinnati's defining cultural symbol. It's a reminder that art can come under attack any time in Cincinnati.

News about Condon takes me back to an oft-repeated question about Cincinnati and its young artists: Does this city truly support the arts? How many artists leave Cincinnati, frustrated by our conservative climate? Finally, has Cincinnati learned anything from Mapplethorpe?

Last month, CityBeat reported on J.T. Colfax, a Colorado performance artist who was arrested and jailed for photographing dead bodies in a Denver area morgue. But Condon's case is different from Colfax's in that Condon received access to the morgue. What's unclear is how many morgue administrators knew about Condon's photography.

Conspiracy theorists will tell you Allen is undertaking a political clean-up job to cover the butt of the Hamilton County Coroner, a Republican elected official like Allen. What's pathetic is how credible that idea sounds. In an ultraconservative town like Cincinnati, artists such as Condon are easy targets.

In the aftermath of the "You Ass" controversy, Nina Caporale left to attend classes at Sarah Lawrence College. Condon won't be so lucky. If Allen has his way, he'll be off to jail.

Through it all, local arts leadership remains unwilling to step away from their political neutrality and make a stand for or against Condon. Their silence hurts Cincinnati's cultural community. It also strengthens Allen's newfound role as the city's reigning arts critic.

Contact steve ramos: [email protected]

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