Someone Has to Stand up Against Arts Censorship; Will It Be You?

Months before the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective exhibition The Perfect Moment actually arrived in Cincinnati in the spring of 1990, it was headline news. Local law enforcement officials waved th

Mar 23, 2000 at 2:06 pm

Months before the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective exhibition The Perfect Moment actually arrived in Cincinnati in the spring of 1990, it was headline news. Local law enforcement officials waved the photographs in front of the media to stir up public disdain.

The story was front-page news almost daily up through the trial that fall. But the campaign backfired, as the public responded more supportively than condemnatively of the Contemporary Arts Center (far more so than local arts institutions did). CAC membership doubled, and record-breaking audiences came to the show.

Of course, the big victory was the CAC's and its director's acquittal. At least that's how most of the country saw it; here, some of us knew better.

The freeze was on all over town, and has stayed on. Artists canceled their exhibitions here, afraid of prosecution, and curators curtailed their range of exhibitable options, worried about losing funding sources. Meanwhile, academic and arts organizations canceled conferences in Cincinnati in protest of our censorial behavior, but a Chamber of Commerce spokesperson claimed the city would more than make up the lost income in increased bookings from religious groups.

The next time Cincinnati cops moved against protected artistic expression, they did so in plain clothes, undercover, targeting the tiny Pink Pyramid gay bookstore for renting a video of the Passolini film Salo — which somehow generated less media attention locally than nationally over the two-year persecution. Times had changed, and neither the city nor the media could count on the public to take their side — a far cry from the days of the Keatings, when Charles ran his popular anti-porn crusade and Bill ran the supportive Enquirer.

Mayor Roxanne Qualls even proclaimed "Anti-Censorship Day in Cincinnati" on the second anniversary of the Pink Pyramid police raid, implicitly criticizing her police force and prosecutors.

The Mayoral proclamation coincided with a demonstration involving nearly 20 area religious and social justice organizations on the street in front of the store, which no local media covered, although all were invited. The American Civil Liberties Union and other national organizations joined to fight the city's prosecution, writing a supportive amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief signed by nearly 60 actors, filmmakers and institutions from Alec Baldwin and Martin Scorcese to Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art.

Locally, six area movie critics, working for the major papers and local TV and radio, were ready to add their names and expertise supportively to the cause on a Friday; by the following Monday, all had changed their minds, citing employers' threats regarding their jobs. For the record, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 (Miller v. California) that, while prevalent community standards may play a role in determining obscenity, they cannot cause to be obscene any expression which has serious artistic, educational, scientific or political value, all of which is protected speech.

The local organization initiating these Pink Pyramid support efforts was the Campaign Against Censorship in the Arts, formed in the aftermath of the Mapplethorpe prosecution. CACA had brought British filmmaker Paul Yewel and his award-winning documentary Damned in the USA to Cincinnati just weeks after the film was freed to be shown in the U.S. by a federal judge in Mississippi.

The film focused considerable attention on the Mapplethorpe exhibition and the CAC's prosecution, yet both the CAC and the local ACLU — which had defended the filmmakers nationally and for which the Cincinnati event was a legal defense fund benefit — declined to inform their members of or support the event. This was the first time the challenged Mapplethorpe photos were publicly displayed (projected) in Cincinnati since the CAC exhibition, and the media showed up in force. Somehow, though, their reports didn't air or find their way into print.

CACA also had co-organized a citywide Festival of Free Expression in 1992, presenting outlaw art in Cincinnati, including dramatic readings of banned literature, screenings of banned films, exhibitions of the work of banned artists and even completely nude live theater in the basement of one local art gallery (the now-defunct C.A.G.E.).

On the fifth anniversary of the acquittal in the Mapplethorpe trial, the CAC — which for most of that time had practiced enforced avoidance of the subject — decided to recognize the moment by hosting a talk by John Frohnmayer, who had revoked artists' grants as President Bush's director of the National Endowment for the Arts. So CACA organized an illustrated lecture at the CAC by artist Andreas Serrano, the infamous author of "Piss Christ" and principal target (with Mapplethorpe) of the Religious Right's "culture war."

The CAC again didn't inform its membership of the Serrano talk and refused CACA access to CAC board members to raise funds for the event. While fewer than 20 people attended the Frohnmayer talk, many of whom were CAC staff dressed as audience, a grateful, record audience of nearly 300 crowded in for the Serrano event. The Enquirer's art reporter was among them, taking copious notes and grinning when he said, "Isn't this amazing?!" His report never ran, however, as an editor explained no space would be available for the story.

Years and several other CACA organized events later, Enquirer writer Ben Kaufman was asked why the paper never covered any of them. He replied that he had looked through the computer for Enquirer stories involving the organization to find out whether it really exists and hadn't found any. He sounded as though this explanation made sense to him.

When Cincinnati Museum Center Director Dick Glover (great name for someone taking his action) tried to prevent a CACA talk by national ACLU Director Nadine Strossen entitled "Defending Pornography" — allowing he'd have no problem with the talk were it titled "Condemning Pornography" — the CACA finally made it into The Enquirer, in a front-page story focusing on the beleaguered Glover.

The indictment of the CAC for the Mapplethorpe show marked the only instance in U.S. history of a museum put on trial for the contents of its exhibitions. The CAC has no plans for a recognitional symposium, panel or artist's talk — although CACA offered them one (privately, staff confide an institutional inclination not to confront the issue).

Again it was down to CACA to initiate and organize a two-day conference on arts censorship at the Omni Netherland Plaza this weekend. The presenters are national authorities in their fields and areas of expertise discussing this critically important topic here in Cincinnati, stimulated by recent art censorship instances in other parts of the country.

Make the most of this opportunity by supporting the conference and attending at least some of the presentations.