Mapplethorpe's photos important in art and politics, defense says

September 29, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

CINCINNATI -- Defense attorneys for a Cincinnati art museum charged with pandering obscenity told a jury yesterday that Robert Mapplethorpe's photographic exploration of the gay underground was artistic and politically important -- no matter how disturbing the homoerotic images might be to them.

Even though the controversial photographs reflect a "world many of us could never conceive of being part of," attorney H. Louis Sirkin said in his opening statement in the landmark trial, they represent an artistic record by a "brilliant photographer" of the gay "underground."

Last spring, the Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, were indicted on the opening day of "Robert Mapplethorpe: A Perfect Moment," an exhibit of 175 photographs that has appeared in several U.S. cities.

Seven of the photographs form the basis of the charges: Five depict homosexual and sadomasochistic images, and two show a child with exposed genitals.

City prosecutor Frank Prouty asked the jury of four men and four women to "draw the line" at the "lewd exhibition." He added, "You're

going to think isn't there something more? Shouldn't we hear something more? The pictures are the state's case."

Jurors toured the Contemporary Arts Center yesterday, just a few blocks from Room 124, the tiny courtroom in Hamilton County Municipal Court where they will reconvene Monday to hear testimony in the first obscenity case filed against a U.S. art museum.

Jurors were permitted only a moment to view the gallery from the front entrance, where they could see several sepia-toned photographs of the Mona Lisa, an image of Christ and a nude.

For several of the jurors, it was the first time they had been in a museum in years. It was clear from earlier questioning of potential jurors that art is not a priority, much less an interest, of any member of the jury.

A vice officer with the Cincinnati Police Department testified yesterday that law enforcement officials received numerous telephone calls and letters last winter to complain about the exhibition before it arrived.

Officer James Hicks said those complaints prompted a police investigation -- including a videotaping of the show -- although police never filed charges. A grand jury later issued an indictment.

Officer Hicks and another policeman recalled that the homoerotic photographs that appeared in the so-called "XYZ Portfolio" were displayed in a glass library case in a room separate from the rest of the exhibit.

Both recalled long lines of people waiting to view the portfolio. "The place was packed," Officer Hicks said. "It was wall to wall people. Crowded."

The exhibition drew record crowds in its Cincinnati run from April 7 to May 26.

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