Mapplethorpe trial puts Cincinnati on art map--but town talks about baseball

September 27, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati must have a short attention span.

Robert Mapplethorpe has become "Robert Who?" and the only obscenity people are talking about is what will happen to Manager Lou Piniella's body parts if the Reds baseball team fails to clinch the National League West pennant.

"Sure, I went to see the Mapplethorpe pictures," Al Pace, TC 48-year-old taxi driver, said yesterday. "Took the wife. You hear all the controversy, you want to see the pictures. But that was months ago. How about our Reds?"

Not all Cincinnatians have switched their news priorities that drastically, but in the gathering places of this riverside city it is easier to hear of baseball than of the trial that has come to symbolize the national debate over obscenity and the arts.

The Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, are charged in Hamilton County Municipal Court with pandering obscenity and using minors in nudity-related materials, both misdemeanors. Many of the photos in the exhibition here last spring depicted homosexual and sadomasochistic acts.

If convicted, Mr. Barrie faces a fine of $2,000 and a year in jail, and the gallery could be fined up to $10,000. Yesterday, in the third day of the trial, attorneys continued to grill potential jurors. They hope to impanel a jury and present opening statements today.

In their questioning of potential jurors, defense attorneys have previewed their strategy: "Is there anything dirty about the human body?" "Is an artist any less of an artist because he's homosexual?" "Is there anything that is inappropriate as a subject of art?"

It seems fitting, somehow, that the trial should take place in buttoned-down Cincinnati, where politicians have built careers on banning X-rated titillation.

The city, home of the National Coalition Against Pornography, outlaws adult bookstores, X-rated movies and videos, massage parlors, nude dancing clubs and peep shows.

In the late 1950s, Charles Keating Jr., the financier now jailed in Los Angeles on charges that he swindled savings and loan investors, founded Citizens for Decent Literature, beginning the city's rich tradition of porn-busting.

In 1977, in the same courthouse where Mr. Barrie stands accused, Larry Flynt, then publisher of Hustler magazine, was convicted of pandering obscenity. Although that conviction was later overturned, residents still cannot buy hard-core sex magazines like Hustler in Cincinnati.

"To find Mr. Barrie not guilty would be to lower our community standards," said Monty Lobb Jr., president of Citizens Concerned for Community Values in Cincinnati.

"Cincinnati has not gotten its fine reputation because people were silent. We've worked hard to clean up this city. People are tired of being pushed around, and told that they have to accept extremes. Those photographs are extreme."

Five of the photographs depict homoerotic images: One shows a man urinating into another man's mouth and the others show anal and penile penetration with such objects as a finger, fist and bullwhip. The remaining two photos show, separately, a nude boy and partially nude girl.

These seven photographs form the basis of the state's case.

The photographs of the children were hung among other portraits, still lifes and nudes. The other five were displayed separately in a library case designed by Mr. Mapplethorpe.

No one under 18 was permitted to view the exhibit when it was in Cincinnati, where it drew record crowds. Gallery officials did set up a nursery in their boardroom for infants who had come with their parents.

The photos by Mr. Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS last year, have been displayed in museums from Berkeley to Boston. Controversy was never a hallmark of the show until the ultraconservative U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., declared it obscene, triggering an action by Congress that limited federal funds for the arts.

Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, said a guilty verdict would have a chilling effect on the arts nationally, potentially shackling both artists and museum directors.

So far, preliminary rulings by Judge David Albanese have sided with the prosecution. In particular, the judge ruled that jurors must consider the seven photographs individually, rather than as part of a larger exhibition of 175 photographs.

Further, he ruled that the arts center was not a museum, a definition that would have given it greater protection under Ohio obscenity laws.

The Contemporary Arts Center, founded in 1939, specializes in constantly changing exhibits of contemporary and sometimes challenging art. It has no permanent exhibit.

"Generally, the man on the street ignores us," said Amy Banister, the gallery's director for development. "What we do is for people who are hooked into an openness for new ideas. Mapplethorpe was a very easy target."

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