Cincin­nati, Map­plethorpe and the cul­ture wars

City has changed since mu­seum’s ob­scen­ity trial 25 years ago

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY GRACE DOBUSH style@wash­post.com Dobush is a free­lance writer.

cincin­nati — Twenty-five years ago this month, a de­ci­sion about a few pho­to­graphs drew the na­tional spot­light to Cincin­nati.

“The Per­fect Mo­ment,” a col­lec­tion of 175 Robert Map­plethorpe pho­to­graphs, had just opened at the city’s Con­tem­po­rary Arts Cen­ter. The ret­ro­spec­tive in­cluded clas­si­cal nudes, sen­sual flow­ers, two por­traits of nude chil­dren and five ex­plicit images of gay S&M cul­ture.

The ex­hibit’s rep­u­ta­tion pre­ceded it: The Cor­co­ran Gallery of Art can­celed its show­ing along the tour amid protests, and its di­rec­tor re­signed. When the ex­hibit opened in April 1990, Hamil­ton County prose­cu­tors charged CAC di­rec­tor Den­nis Bar­rie and the mu­seum it­self with ob­scen­ity, the first time crim­i­nal charges had been levied against a mu­seum in the United States.

At the time, Amer­ica was em­broiled in a cul­ture war, fear of AIDS raged and the fu­ture of the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts was at stake. News out­lets from the coasts por­trayed Cincin­nati as a cul­tural back­wa­ter that would rather lock up a mu­seum di­rec­tor than be con­fronted with dif­fi­cult art.

The eight-per­son jury in the county even­tu­ally found the de­fen­dants not guilty of all charges. Now, 25 years af­ter Map­plethorpe, Cincin­nati’s con­ser­va­tive rep­u­ta­tion no longer seems war­ranted as the city keeps find­ing it­self at the cen­ter of the LGBT move­ment.

Putting art on trial

At the start of 1990, Bar­rie knew he risked con­tro­versy by bring­ing the Map­plethorpe ex­hibit to Cincin­nati. The artist, who had AIDS, had died just months af­ter Philadel­phia’s In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Art put to­gether “The Per­fect Mo­ment,” and his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was a fo­cal point for Repub­li­can sen­a­tors who were tak­ing the NEA to task for fund­ing art they con­sid­ered ob­scene.

Hamil­ton County pros­e­cu­tor Si­mon Leis — who later was sher­iff dur­ing the Map­plethorpe events — had fa­mously pros­e­cuted Hustler pub­lisher Larry Flynt in the 1970s, and there was a strong anti-pornog­ra­phy move­ment in the area led by the Chris­tian or­ga­ni­za­tion Cit­i­zens for Com­mu­nity Val­ues. Know­ing the heat the Cor­co­ran had faced for “The Per­fect Mo­ment,” Bar­rie pre­emp­tively en­listed lawyer H. Louis Sirkin, who spe­cial­izes in First Amend­ment de­fense cases.

Aware that charges could arise, Sirkin filed an ac­tion of declara­tory judg­ment in lo­cal court, ar­gu­ing that un­der Ohio law, a le­git­i­mate mu­seum such as the CAC could not be charged with ob­scen­ity. But the mo­tion was dis­missed the night be­fore the show’s open­ing, which at­tracted 4,000 peo­ple, four times the usual turnout. “We were gen­er­ally pre­pared that some­thing was go­ing to hap­pen,” Sirkin says.

The next day, sher­iff ’s deputies came back with pa­pers to serve. Sirkin and Bar­rie’s de­fense fo­cused on con­vinc­ing the jury that Map­plethorpe’s work was art; the pros­e­cu­tion coun­tered that it was pornog­ra­phy.

The de­fense brought in art ex­perts from across the coun­try to tes­tify about Map­plethorpe’s tech­nique. “He was a clas­si­cal pho­tog­ra­pher most of the time, all about light­ing and po­si­tion of the model. He wasn’t rad­i­cal in that sense,” Bar­rie says. “The flow­ers were a lot more sexy than the X Port­fo­lio,” which con­tained the S&M pho­tos.

The pros­e­cu­tion said the pic­tures would speak for them­selves, but “there were no ex­perts in the art world say­ing this was pornog­ra­phy,” said Richard Meyer, an art his­tory pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford Univer­sity and the author of “Out­law Rep­re­sen­ta­tion.“The jury de­lib­er­ated for less than an hour be­fore ac­quit­ting Bar­rie and the CAC.

The trial was “a PR dis­as­ter,” says Vice Mayor David Mann, who was a City Coun­cil mem­ber at the time. “It kind of made us the laugh­ing stock of so­phis­ti­cated com­mu­ni­ties.”

Things got worse be­fore they got bet­ter. A 1993 city char­ter amend­ment made Cincin­nati the only U.S. city to ban en­act­ment or en­force­ment of gay rights laws un­til 2004.

“We didn’t know it then, but [the Map­plethorpe case] was the last stand of the or­ga­nized West Side Catholics, led by Marine vet­eran and Sher­iff Si­mon Leis, against the in­evitable tran­si­tion from a city with a Ro­man Catholic as­cen­dancy to a city where power was up for grabs. Still is,” says Al­bert Pyle, who was a staff writer for Cincin­nati Mag­a­zine at the time of the Map­plethorpe case. “The West Siders were shocked that the city wasn’t ashamed of it­self. The non-Catholic whites were em­bar­rassed for the city to take a hit in the na­tional press. Black Cincin­nati, who had no stake in the CAC but who were so­cial con­ser­va­tives, thought it was a lot of white non­sense.”

Source Cincin­nati Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Julie Calvert de­scribes it as a “slow drum­beat of neg­a­tiv­ity. Any time peo­ple heard the name of Cincin­nati, there was al­ways some­thing neg­a­tive,” she says. The con­ser­va­tive rep­u­ta­tion stuck around “be­cause we weren’t do­ing any­thing to con­vince peo­ple that we weren’t.”

A city re­born

The Con­tem­po­rary Arts Cen­ter’s cur­rent di­rec­tor, Raphaela Pla­tow, says, “The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple de­cided it was re­ally im­por­tant to show works of art even if they chal­lenge a cer­tain per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion.” Map­plethorpe’s work “is beau­ti­ful but can po­ten­tially be dif­fi­cult to look at. This is where I per­son­ally love art be­cause it chal­lenges me and makes me con­sider other peo­ple’s point of view.”

When Chris Seel­bach be­came Cincin­nati’s first openly gay City Coun­cil mem­ber in 2011, he made im­prov­ing the city’s re­la­tion­ship with les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der res­i­dents a pri­or­ity, in­clud­ing of­fer­ing equal part­ner ben­e­fits to city em­ploy­ees, cre­at­ing a do­mes­tic part­ner­ship registry, hir­ing LGBT li­aisons for the po­lice and fire de­part­ments and the mayor’s of­fice, and ex­tend­ing trans­gen­der-in­clu­sive health ben­e­fits to city em­ploy­ees. When he was elected, Cincin­nati’s score on the Hu­man Rights Coun­cil’s Mu­nic­i­pal Equal­ity In­dex, which eval­u­ates ci­ties on sup­port for LGBT pop­u­la­tions, was 68. As of 2014, it was a per­fect 100. And Cincin­nati son Jim Oberge­fell was at the cen­ter of the land­mark Supreme Court de­ci­sion this year to le­gal­ize gay mar­riage.

Seel­bach grew up in nearby Louisville but came to Cincin­nati for col­lege in 1998, when “we were ar­guably the most anti-gay city in the coun­try.” Now, “for the first time in 60 years, our pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing, peo­ple are com­ing back to the city,” he says.

The pen­sive mo­ment

Mu­se­ums are re­vis­it­ing Map­plethorpe’s work for the first ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive in 25 years: “Robert Map­plethorpe: The Per­fect Medium” runs at the J. Paul Getty Mu­seum and the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art from March 15 to July 31. Meyer says Map­plethorpe’s work has rarely been seen by the Amer­i­can pub­lic since “The Per­fect Mo­ment,” and he won­ders, “Is this go­ing to be shock­ing any longer, or has he been tamed in the past 25 years?”

In ad­di­tion to an ex­hibit of pho­tog­ra­phers in­flu­enced by Map­plethorpe that opens Nov. 6, the Con­tem­po­rary Arts Cen­ter hosted a two-day sym­po­sium on Map­plethorpe’s work and cen­sor­ship Oct. 23 and 24 in Cincin­nati. Only one panel dis­cus­sion fo­cused on the trial. “The mo­ment of cen­sor­ship hap­pened, but it’s one mo­ment on a pretty long con­tin­uum of some­body who’s made a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to the art world,” Pla­tow says.

“I’m ab­so­lutely con­vinced that if we lost that case in Cincin­nati, the NEA would have been gone,” Sirkin says, a sen­ti­ment echoed by Meyer, though Meyer notes that de­cency clauses and fund­ing cuts less­ened the NEA’s in­flu­ence.

“What Map­plethorpe un­der­stood is that you’ll never get rid of cen­sor­ship al­to­gether, but when cen­sor­ship of art hap­pens, it’s used as an op­por­tu­nity or fo­rum for pub­lic di­a­logue about why art mat­ters in a demo­cratic cul­ture,” Meyer says.

ROBERT MAP­PLETHORPE FOUNDATION/COUR­TESY OF THE J. PAUL GETTY TRUST AND LOS AN­GE­LES COUNTY MU­SEUM OF ART

A ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hibit of pho­to­graphs by Robert Map­plethorpe, seen above in a self-por­trait, in­cluded clas­si­cal nudes, sen­sual flow­ers, two por­traits of nude chil­dren and five ex­plicit images of gay S&M. The rep­u­ta­tion of “The Per­fect Mo­ment” pre­ceded its stag­ing in Cincin­nati in 1990: The Cor­co­ran Gallery of Art can­celed its show­ing amid protests, and its di­rec­tor re­signed. The ex­hibit and the artist’s sex­u­al­ity were fo­cal points in a larger cul­ture war. When it opened at Cincin­nati’s Con­tem­po­rary Arts Cen­ter, the cen­ter’s di­rec­tor and the mu­seum were charged with ob­scen­ity. “Lo­tus for Map­plethorpe” by Emily Mo­mo­hara, right, and “Un­ti­tled,” be­low right, by Katy Rucker re­flect Map­plethorpe’s con­tin­u­ing in­flu­ence.

EMILY MO­MO­HARA/CON­TEM­PO­RARY ARTS CEN­TER

KATY RUCKER/CON­TEM­PO­RARY ARTS CEN­TER

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