The art world thought it won that Mapplethorpe trial.
Ten years ago, Dennis Barrie became the first museum director in American history indicted for hanging an exhibition—Robert Mapplethorpe’s retrospective The Perfect Moment. On April 7, 1990, police swept into Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, search warrant in hand, knocking down the velvet ropes at the door and ordering artgoers to vacate the premises. Barrie emerged shortly thereafter to address thousands of spectators waiting outside. Covering his face with his hands, he declared, “This is a very dark day.”
But that fall, he was acquitted after a six-day trial. It looked like a big defeat for the far right. Within a week of the verdict, a few congressmen even developed enough spine to publicly defend the National Endowment for the Arts. Months later, a Cincinnati newspaper was still calling Barrie a “folk hero.” But the First Amendment lawyer who defended Barrie and the museum tempered his response right from the moment of acquittal, calling it merely a “momentary victory.” With a decade of the culture war behind us now, that looks like the right call. Battle won. War lost.
Dirty Pictures, a new movie playing over the next month on Showtime, reprises the Mapplethorpe adventure in Cincinnati, focusing for dramatic effect on the personal toll it took on Barrie and his family. There, some artistic license is taken in the film. For example, the man who twice offers Barrie a large bribe wants him not to testify, when in real life the man wanted him to cancel the show, then to plead guilty. And Barrie never hesitated to testify, as he does in the movie.
But the film does depict what happened to The Perfect Moment in much of its horrible verisimilitude. And there’s some satisfaction to be had in just seeing it all exposed: How Citizens for Community Values circulated Xeroxes of the most disturbing photos and pressured the museum’s board. How Sheriff Simon Leis declared seven of the photographs “criminally obscene” before the exhibition even arrived. How the judge turned out to be a good buddy of the sheriff’s. (“Practically his vassal,” declared a local First Amendment lawyer.)
And those rulings! That the CAC was not a museum but a gallery, which gave it less protection under the law. That “the work taken as a whole” meant each photo, not the whole exhibit, so that jurors would see only, for example, “a man urinating into the mouth of another man.” No flowers. No context. And the judge allowed a woman who’d been a songwriter for Captain Kangaroo (and a consultant to the far-right American Family Association) to testify as the prosecution’s art expert.
Dirty Pictures includes all the photos from the exhibit—uncensored, no blue dots or black bars. The story is intercut with talking heads from both sides, Jesse Helms to Salman Rushdie, making all the arguments about free expression that have not been resolved and never will be. Because the culture war is about two irreconcilable ways of looking at the world. The right has a tremendous advantage in this conflict because they never see ambiguity. And they are unrelenting.
With their constant rhetoric about “porn,” right-wing frothers have turned the nonprofit art world into one big adult bookstore waiting to happen. The Mapplethorpe trial upped the ante considerably. Cincinnati does not have adult bookstores. This is the town without Hustler, where, as one local reporter mused in 1990, “You can be arrested for thinking of a banana and a donut in the same thought.” So Barrie faced up to a year in jail for hanging a show that had already toured four other cities without any attention from local police. Given the town’s history of moral crusades, many in Cincinnati were actually surprised when the jury acquitted him. But Barrie didn’t quite go unpunished. About a year after the trial, the museum’s board of directors fired him. And he could not hold his marriage together.
It seems both appropriate and chilling that Dirty Pictures gives the last word before the credits run to the actor who plays the head of Citizens for Community Values. “We didn’t lose anything,” he calmly announces. “Our victory was won long before that trial. Our victory is in our power to bring prosecutions. All across the country these days, people are much more careful about the kind of artwork they show in their museums and galleries. No one wants to come up against what Dennis Barrie went through.”
Dennis Barrie says today that he has no hard feelings about losing his job. “In retrospect, I understand it. I understand that people want things to go back to normal.” He was also ready for his own life to go back to normal. The controversy had been very hard on his family, causing tremendous tension in the marriage. The death threats he got, despite many changes of phone number, were often directed at his children. Of course, many people in Cincinnati supported him too, but even there—he found that he’d gained an unwanted celebrity. “I remember one of my kids saying, ‘When are people just going to leave us alone?’ And it was very wrenching. I like museums. I liked doing what I did, but I couldn’t do it there anymore.”
He planned to leave the museum world completely. Early in ’93, he joked to a reporter that the only museum job he would consider taking would be at the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Soon afterward, a headhunter called him, and he became that museum’s first director. “In the wake of Mapplethorpe, while I was celebrated by a lot of people, it would have been very hard for me to find a job in the art world,” says Barrie. “Because of fear more than anything else. At Rock and Roll, a lot of the artists themselves, the performers, and some of the record people had been so subject to First Amendment issues all the time. They liked the idea that I came out of that background.”
Currently Barrie is president of the Cleveland-based Malrite Company, creating “for-profit museums for the 21st century.” The one closest to realization will be built on Fisherman’s Wharf and deal with the history and culture of San Francisco. Will any of the others be art museums? “No way,” he laughs.
The disheartening implication of the Cincinnati case is that even when you stand up to the bullies, you can’t win. Barrie and the CAC made their stand, and the First Amendment saw them through. But this is how the current—and real-life—leader of Cincinnati’s Citizens for Community Values evaluates the impact of that trial today: “The community at large learned that not everything is protected by the First Amendment.” I think that translates, roughly, as “Believe in free expression, and we will make you pay.”
Last year’s Sensation show in Brooklyn, then this year’s blip over the Hans Haacke piece at the Whitney Biennial, were the first provocative moments in the museum world since Mapplethorpe. Caution has been the rule. In Cincinnati, the Citizens for Community Values point out that the CAC has “acted responsibly” for 10 years. They claim victory.