Sunday, May 21, 2000
Mapplethorpe battle changed art world
Ten years later, both sides claim their victories
By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Art vs. obscenity made great live drama in Cincinnati 10 years ago, when Dennis Barrie and the Contemporary Arts Center were indicted for pandering obscenity hours after the opening of the photography exhibit, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment.
Protesters outside the courthouse in 1990.
(Enquirer file photo)
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In question were seven portraits, mostly of sadomasochistic acts. These were the Dirty Pictures that give Showtime's made-for-television film (9 p.m. Saturday) its name.
Mr. Barrie and the arts center he directed were acquitted in a much-publicized trial six months after the indictment. But the arts, and public arts funding, remained a point of contention throughout the 1990s as politicians debated the value of art in society and the need for the government to sponsor it.
A decade later the verdict is in, pleasing groups on most sides of the debate:
Arts supporters have been able to deflect efforts to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency that had granted money to museums featuring the art. Nationally, state and local support for the arts has grown consistently since the end of a mini-recession in 1992. Ultimately, arts groups say they were forced to unify and become politically active, taking the arts into American communities and schools.
Watchdog group Citizens for Community Values, which organized the protest against Mapplethorpe's exhibit, claims victory, too. The original intent of the awareness campaign was to get the attention of the Contemporary Arts Center and ask them to act responsibly, says Phil Burress, head of the group.
For the last 10 years they have acted responsibly. How could we consider this anything else but a victory?
Climate of the time
Jonathan Katz is a man who knows what it's like to be at ground zero. He was a graduate student at Kent State University 30 years ago when shots fired on campus anti-war protesters were heard around the world.
Now executive director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in Washington, D.C., Mr. Katz likens the Mapplethorpe obscenity trial to Kent State in terms of its being a catalytic incident.
Big as the word Mapplethorpe remains in Cincinnati, the exhibit represented a greater tug and pull of liberal and conservative values of early 1990s America.
Experts agree that those dirty pictures would have been nothing more than an art history footnote if the exhibit, which had toured to several cities around the nation without incident, hadn't opened in Cincinnati in the midst of a fascinating confluence of circumstances:
Conservative Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina already was on a rampage over an Andres Serrano multimedia exhibit that included a crucifix submerged in urine.
Nina Ozlu, a vice president of Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C., rarely says Mapplethorpe without attaching and Serrano.
She argues that it wasn't so much Mapplethorpe's pornography as Serrano's sacrilege that created a bloodlust to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts.
The pendulum was swinging toward a more politically and socially conservative America. It probably peaked with a new Republican majority Congress led by Newt Gingrich in 1994.
At the time, the National Endowment for the Arts was enjoying one of its highest budgets ever, $170 million. Yet even as the Democrats were departing, Republicans were laying plans to eliminate the agency completely.
National Endowment of the Arts chairman William Ivey calls the controversy surrounding Mapplethorpe the one that let the genie out of the bottle and demonstrated the power of images in creating political conflict around artistic work.
This controversy came when the nation was entering a period when we were examining our values from a conservative viewpoint, he says. I think the angriest part of that is now behind us.
National arts consultant George Thorn theorizes that arts exhibits under fire were simply (an early) symptom although certainly more than a symptom in Cincinnati of things to come. They included library books being taken off shelves, debates over course content in schools and what people can teach, a return to a debate between creationism versus evolution, he says.
What we were looking at (with the Mapplethorpe debate) was an ideology and a system of values being played out politically.
The Mapplethorpe exhibit began its tour almost a year before it reached Cincinnati, giving the people who objected to it plenty of time to prepare a Cincinnati beachhead for the Culture Wars.
At a Dirty Pictures press conference in January, Dennis Barrie said Cincinnati was, in retrospect, a likely place for just such a skirmish.
Dennis Barrie (right) celebrates the verdict with attorney Louis Sirkin.
(Enquirer file photo)
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It could have happened somewhere else ... (but) in Cincinnati, you really did have a kind of mid-American values, sort of a bit of the Bible Belt, a bit of Middle America kind of crossing together. And I think it was the logical battleground for an issue like this, says Mr. Barrie, who moved to Cleveland in 1993 to become director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, he is president of Malrite, a Cleveland company that stages major events for museums and other organizations.
We did know of the exhibit several months in advance and worked privately behind the scenes to get seven photos which we felt were prosecutable removed, Mr. Burress acknowledges. We warned them, and we were right: The grand jury did indict.
"A way to create it'
Mapplethorpe continues to be a hot button in Cincinnati.
The Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts, which temporarily dropped funding for the Contemporary Arts Center 10 years ago in the midst of the uproar, declined to participate in this story. Executive director Mary McCullough-Hudson said she doubts that we have anything significant to add.
Local anti-censorship groups invoke the Mapplethorpe name regularly, but nationally, artistic self-censorship is largely dismissed as an non-issue. Where there's a will to create, there's a way to create it, says Ms. Ozlu of Americans for the Arts.
There is remarkable unity of opinion 10 years later: that the indictments and trial that followed were very good things.
Citizens for Community Values never resented the acquittal, Mr. Burress says. The most important part of all this is that the community at large learned that not everything is protected by the First Amendment. Citizens understand there is a system in place to question.
That which is questioned must go to a jury, and the jury determines and applies community standards. It's not the (Contemporary Arts Center) and not the (Citizens for Community Values) that decides, but the public. I'm pleased by that.
Arts advocates likewise say they've come out of the turbulent '90s in good shape. Several well-researched reports through mid-decade told of growing alienation between publicly funded arts and the public, which found them increasingly elitist and irrelevant to their lives.
And arts advocacy groups, which had united to save the National Endowment for the Arts, had lost several early battles. Twenty categories of grants were abolished between 1990 and 1995, and funding plummeted in 1996 as the Republican Congress made serious moves to eliminate the agency.
Then arts advocates learned how to fight back.
Ms. Ozlu defines the next step as a massive public education campaign. We now have an awareness as a country and as individuals, and we have something to say "yes' to rather than something to say "no' to.
What America is saying yes to most emphatically, says Mr. Katz, are arts that are family- and community-related. The fastest growing segments of the arts, he points out, are hands-on youth museums and discovery centers and local arts agencies.
The arts community has matured, Mr. Katz says. He adds that thanks to the events 10 years ago, There's more a sense of public responsibility, of consideration of preparing an audience for the unfamiliar.
Would that have happened without the visibility of the debate? Would coordinated advocacy for culture and humanities have been catalyzed without the debate? I don't know.
Charles Desmarais, director of the Contemporary Arts Center today, is convinced that there would be no new building plans under way for the center without the past 10 years of high visibility debate.
The Contemporary Arts Center was already 50 years old when Mapplethorpe happened, he says. It gave it an international attention it had never had before. Ultimately that was a very positive thing for the visibility of the institution.
Framing the debate
Now, says Mr. Katz, the arts sector, battle-scarred from a decade of hard fighting and harder thinking, is a grass roots movement.
Ms. Ozlu calls funding cutbacks to the National Endowment for the Arts traumatic ... chilling. But she also sees a deep change in the debate in Congress, which has become far more civil to arts supporters.
Earlier this month, Majority Whip Tom DeLay told the National Press Club that the National Endowment for the Arts is off the agenda for this Congress. There simply are not enough votes to continue the fight to eliminate it, he said.
After an initial plummet in 1996, the arts agency's budget has held fast at just under $100 million. State legislatures across the country granted arts councils $292 million in 2000, up from $211 million in 1992. Recent increases have been as much as 8 percent a year, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.
Direct government (federal, state and local) funding for not-for-profit arts today is virtually unchanged from 1992 levels, although the funding stream has changed significantly.
In 1992, the National Endowment for the Arts' $175.9 million contribution to museums and art centers almost matched the money given by the 50 states. Now, states outgive the endowment's contributions nearly 3-to-1.
(Mapplethorpe) was a turning point in the way the debate was framed, says the endowment's Mr. Ivey.
Ultimately it galvanized support for the (National Endowment for the Arts) and the federal role for arts support in this country. Arts advocates came together and stayed together.
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