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Mapplethorpe controversy reverberates in Cincinnati 10 years later

The Associated Press

CINCINNATI — Ten years after seven photographs made Cincinnati the focus of a dispute between art and obscenity, the winners act like losers and the losers believe they won.

"We lost the battle, but won the war," Frank Prouty, the Cincinnati assistant prosecutor who handled most of the prosecution stemming from the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, told The Cincinnati Post for an April 8 story. "The Mapplethorpe legacy is that it hasn't occurred again. It's been 10 years now and similar incidents have not arisen."

"Censorship in Cincinnati is probably every bit as tight today as it was in 1990 because people are afraid," said Louis Sirkin, the lawyer who defended the art director charged in the case. "Mapplethorpe created the image that if you do something a little off-color, you're going to be arrested and that's frightening."

A Hamilton County grand jury indicted the Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, the day the exhibit of 175 photographs opened. The charges were pandering obscenity and illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented materials.

While police videotaped the exhibit, including seven photographs featuring homoerotic images or children in questionable poses, several hundred protesters stood outside chanting "Gestapo go home."

The next day, U.S. District Judge Carl Rubin barred local authorities from interfering with the exhibit until the criminal charges were resolved. Some 80,000 people — a museum record — saw the show over the next few weeks.

On Oct. 5, 1990, a jury acquitted Barrie and the center, and museum officials proclaimed a significant victory for art over censorship.

Museum lawyers and arts supporters who celebrated 10 years ago, however, are now worried that the ordeal has prompted self-censorship by museums.

Local artist Ellen Zahorec, who called off a Northern Kentucky University art show a few years ago after people protested her painting of the Virgin Mary on an ironing board, said a controversy similar to the Mapplethorpe case could happen again in Cincinnati.

"I know the art watchdogs are still out there, ready to attack at the slightest hint of aesthetic controversy," she said.

Phil Burress, head of Citizens for Community Values — the group which led the protest against the Mapplethorpe photos — describes the episode a victory for his organization.

"As a result of the trial, we have not had any prosecutable material brought into our arts community," Burress said.


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