Jurors found Mapplethorpe pictures 'gross'--but not without artistic value

October 07, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

CINCINNATI -- If Jennifer Loesing never hears Robert Mapplethorpe's name again, it will be too soon. And as far as the photographer's sexually explicit photographs are concerned, Mrs. Loesing can only say: "Gross."

But the 29-year-old X-ray technician said she and seven other jurors acquitted a Cincinnati museum and its director of obscenity charges on Friday because, as much as they were repulsed by the homoerotic images, jurors were convinced the photographs had artistic merit.

"We all agreed they were gross -- I think most people would find them so," Mrs. Loesing said yesterday. "As a person going into a museum, I would not appreciate that as art. But even though my moral beliefs may be different, this is the United States of America and this is a country that values freedom of choice."

Artists and advocates for freedom of expression placed much significance yesterday on the fact that a jury of mostly churchgoing suburbanites in America's heartland acquitted the Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, on misdemeanor charges stemming from the exhibition, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment."

"We're delighted that this decision was rendered in a community like Cincinnati, which has been known as one of the most conservative communities in the U.S.," said Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. "This was not a jury in New York City or Los Angeles. This was Cincinnati. We are looking at heartland reaction, and I think they speak very loudly for all Americans."

The leader of the Cincinnati anti-pornography group that had pushed for the prosecution -- the first prosecution ever of a U.S. museum on obscenity charges -- sought yesterday to minimize the significance of the verdicts.

"You don't know what goes on in a jury's head. Obviously, we think they were wrong. But it's just one case in one community over one set of materials," said Monty Lobb Jr., director of Citizens Concerned for Community Values. "We were in place long before Mapplethorpe came, and we'll be here long after everyone has forgotten about this case. Cincinnati did not get its fine community standards because we were silent."

The Contemporary Arts Center and Mr. Barrie were indicted April 7 when the traveling retrospective opened its hugely successful six-week run in Cincinnati, a city with some of the most sexually restrictive laws in the country. In addition to pandering obscenity, they were charged with illegal use of a minor in nudity-related materials.

Seven photographs in the 175-picture exhibition formed the basis of the charges: Five depicted homoerotic images, and two showed a child with genitals exposed. "The Perfect Moment" ended a two-year national tour in Boston last week.

Jurors, deliberating just two hours after a trial that lasted two weeks, quickly determined that the museum and Mr. Barrie were innocent of illegal use of a minor in nudity-related photographs because testimony showed that parents of the two children had consented to the photos' being taken.

"There wasn't much to be said about them," Mrs. Loesing said.

Mrs. Loesing, who is married to an engineer and has a11-month-old daughter, said some jurors believed that the homoerotic photographs appealed to a prurient interest in sex and depicted sexual conduct in a patently offensive way -- two criteria of the U.S. Supreme Court's test of obscenity.

But none of the jurors -- only one of whom completed college -- believed that the photographs lacked artistic value, which is the third criterion of the test. Defense attorneys Marc Mezibov and H. Louis Sirkin presented a string of witnesses from the art world who testified that the photos, though disturbing, were artistically important. One of the pictures showed a man urinating in another man's mouth, and four showed objects inserted into a penis or rectum.

"It's like Mr. Sirkin said early on: If you don't have all the pieces of an apple pie, you don't have an apple pie," Mrs. Loesing said. "It was a very hard decision, it really was. I think the pictures are disgusting, I really do. I've had to put my personal and religious feelings aside, and that's been very difficult.

"But I don't think Mr. Mapplethorpe meant for it to be obscene," she said. "I walked out of that courtroom feeling good. I have no regrets. I really did feel like we did the right thing. Dennis Barrie didn't commit any crimes, and neither did the arts center."

Many in the art world believe the Mapplethorpe verdicts will bolster their appeal to Congress to withdraw a strict anti-obscenity ban slapped on the National Endowment for the Arts last fall at the request of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. Congress instituted the ban in response to Mr. Helms' outrage over the Mapplethorpe exhibition, which was supported in part by federal funds.

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