Museum chief defends Mapplethorpe photos

October 04, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

CINCINNATI -- The director of a Cincinnati art museum defended Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit photographs against charges of obscenity yesterday while acknowledging that some observers might find them "disgusting to look at."

Contemporary Arts Center Director Dennis Barrie, testifying in the first obscenity case ever brought against a U.S. museum, told jurors he gladly brought the controversial exhibition to Cincinnati, where museum officials had "every right and every reason" to show it.

Mr. Barrie and the Contemporary Arts Center were indicted on misdemeanor charges of pandering obscenity and using minors in nudity-related materials the day the 175-picture retrospective, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment," opened a successful six-week run last spring.

Hamilton County Municipal Judge David Albanese again refused yesterday to acquit the defendants of the charges, saying prosecutors had built a strong enough case to take to the four-man, four-woman jury.

The defense concluded its case after Mr. Barrie took the stand. Testifying for 30 minutes, the gallery director recalled how he felt the first time he viewed an exhibition of Mr. Mapplethorpe's works in New York two years ago.

"It was one of the most stunning exhibitions I'd ever seen, beautiful and moving," he said. "I believed it was one of those things that should be and could be shown in Cincinnati."

Jurors hearing the celebrated case, which today enters its ninth day of trial, must decide whether five photographs that depict homoerotic images violate local obscenity standards.

Two other photographs, showing a child nude or partially nude, form the basis of the other charge, that of using minors in nudity-related materials.

Cincinnati Enquirer art critic Owen Findsen yesterday called those two photographs, which show a child with genitals exposed, harmless.

"If you look at the pictures and feel something's wrong, maybe you should look into your own heart instead of what's on the wall," he testified.

Six art experts -- museum directors, art historians and art critics -- have testified that the homoerotic images had serious artistic merit, which is one of the tests of obscenity set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lead prosecutor Frank Prouty plans to offer rebuttal testimony today by mass media analyst Judith Reisman, a former adviser to the "Captain Kangaroo" TV show and a consultant to the American Family Association, an anti-pornography organization.

Jurors were expected to get the case for deliberations by tomorrow.

Defense attorneys asked Judge Albanese for the third time yesterday to permit jurors to view a videotape of the entire exhibition.

The judge refused, suggesting that jurors then might determine that the entire exhibition -- which includes many photographs of flowers -- violates obscenity laws.

"The exhibition is not on trial in this case," he ruled. "The pictures in the indictment are."

In his defense of Mr. Mapplethorpe's homoerotic art, Mr. Barrie said the photographer was able to take "a tough and sometimes brutal subject and bring beauty to it."

Asked by Mr. Prouty how a photograph of a man with a bullwhip inserted in his rectum could constitute art, Mr. Barrie answered, "Artists are often tortured human beings, and this is a very tortured photograph."

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