Obscenity trial leaves strippers unimpressed

October 03, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

CINCINNATI -- Just across the Ohio River from button-down Cincinnati, in a community nicknamed "Sin City," stripper Beth Roberts dances to "Tutti Fruiti" in nothing but pasties and string panties.

On the pink carpeted walls of the Brass Bull, where the 23-year-old Ms. Roberts works, are velvet paintings of women in various stages of undress.

"I see nude women all day long," Ms. Roberts said yesterday. "Now, I like art, don't get me wrong, but I like country pictures. You know -- ducks, geese and cows."

It has been with some astonishment that residents of Newport, Ky. -- highlighted in a "Donahue" show Monday called "Cleaning Up Sin City" -- have watched unfold the Mapplethorpe obscenity trial, now into its second week in a Cincinnati courtroom.

"If Cincinnati has a guilty conscience, I guess it's Newport," said Ms. Roberts.

"If the truth be known, most of our customers come from Cincinnati. I don't really understand what's happening over there."

It is in Cincinnati, which has some of the most sexually restrictive laws in the nation, that the Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, face charges of pandering obscenity and using minors in nudity-related material.

The museum and its director were indicted in April after a grand jury toured "Robert Mapplethorpe: A Perfect Moment," a traveling exhibition of the late photographer's works that included 175 still lifes, figure studies and portraits.

Seven of the photographs form the basis of the case: Five depict homosexual images, and two show children with exposed genitals.

Cincinnati -- called "Censornati" by supporters of Mr. Barrie -- has become a battleground for freedom of expression as defense attorneys fight the first prosecution of an art museum on obscenity charges in U.S. history.

In Room No. 124 of Hamilton County Municipal Court yesterday, the defense appeared to score a major point -- and the prosecution helped.

Under cross-examination, lead prosecutor Frank Prouty prompted Jerry Stein, a longtime arts critic for the Cincinnati Post, to testify that the photos of the two children were "most innocent," comparing them to cherubs in Baroque and Renaissance art.

In earlier testimony, jurors had learned that the parents of the children -- who were 2 and 5 years old when the photos were taken -- had asked Mr. Mapplethorpe to take the pictures, and in fact, that they had been present when they were shot.

Mr. Stein also discussed the five photographs with homosexual subjects. "An artist in addition to putting something down on a canvas is really telling us something," he told the jury of four men and four women. One of the photographs shows a man urinating in another man's mouth, and four others show objects inserted in a rectum or penis.

"Have we ever become so angry or disappointed about something in our lives that we sat down to write a letter, then tore it up and threw it away? This is a healing process," said Mr. Stein, suggesting that Mr. Mapplethorpe's photographic exploration of homosexual sex practices was, in effect, an artistic diary that allowed him to express his anxieties.

Mr. Stein's endorsement of Mr. Mapplethorpe's talents and his high regard for the seven photographs were important to the defense, which hopes to demonstrate that the pictures did not violate community obscenity standards.

While jurors have heard flattering appraisals of the photos from art experts from museums in California and New York, this was the first time a local expert had applied his own standard.

Mr. Barrie said he expects to testify today as the defense concludes its case.

Also yesterday, Cincinnati police issued arrest warrants for 35 arts and gay rights activists who were among the 150 demonstrators who protested in front of the courthouse on the opening day of the trial. The 35 face charges of disorderly conduct.

Back in Newport, where strip joints invite customers inside to see the "girls girls girls -- like eggs fresh from the country," Nikki Nielson, fresh from an appearance on "Donahue," noted:

"Believe it or not, many of my customers are talking about that case. The city's reaction was way out there. I've heard the same thing over and over: No one's holding a gun to your head to look at the pictures. No one likes censorship, not us girls on Monmouth Street and not some art gallery in Cincinnati."

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