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Sights of Contention :
Mark Jarzombek
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The term "Mapplethorpe trial" is a misnomer, for in reality it was not Robert Mapplethorpe but a museum, the Contemporary Arts Center, and its director Dennis Barrie that were on trial—the first such trial in the United States. At the center of the controversy were 7 photographs from a show of 175 that were alleged to violate obscenity and child pornography laws.1  It was important for the defense attorneys to discuss the works in the context of the museum, but also in terms of the artist's career and style, in order to take advantage of legal judgments that protect art from censorship.2  The defense also brought in numerous museum directors to explain to the jury the goals and mission of a museum.3  The attorneys for the prosecution took a simpler Appendx 2 page break 59 | 60approach. Is the work of art changed by being in the museum? The prosecution certainly thought so. The museum, from its point of view,  only served to obscure the truth of Mapplethorpe's photographs, a truth that required that the works be experienced in the context of everyday life and not in the artificial domain of the museum. "Let the pictures speak for themselves," prosecutor Frank Prouty explained to the jury.4  The status of these photographs as non-art would  then be immediately apparent. The testimony of the museum directors who came to Barrie's defense could be discounted, for "the concern of the art world is art," Prouty explained. "Are they saying that they are better than us?"5  Let us not be led to believe something is art, Prouty advised the jurors, simply because we are told it is. "A finger stuck in the head of a penis, is that art?" he asked.6 

This debate raised important issues not only about where the aesthetic experience takes place (in the museum or outside the museum?), but also about the very nature of that experience (immediate or mediated?). The situation was, however, hardly black and white, with liberal and conservative positions easily differentiated, especially if one considers the recent article by Arthur Danto, the eminent philosopher of history at Columbia University and a self-proclaimed champion of American liberalism.7  Though not protesting the outcome of the trial (Barrie was acquitted after only a few hours of deliberation), Danto was, however, highly critical of the means to the end. For Danto the museum directors, upholding, so he claimed, the Kantian principle of "disinterested interest, were incapable of comprehending the true impact that the artworks can make."8  The directors were, in his words, "arrogant Kantians who treated these extraordinary images as formal exercises."9  To demonstrate this, he compared their dry testimony with his own vivid memories of Mapplethorpe's work. "I find it difficult to forget that show. I saw it on a hot, bright day in August. . . . I found myself pretty shaken. . . perhaps because a boundary between fantasy and enactment had been crossed."10  He was quick to add that the values expressed in these photographs "are not ours," but no values are, "except those that define us as a nation," and those are linked "to the value of free expression. . . . Every work of art [should be] supported by the government [as] a celebration of freedom, no matter what its content."11 

Though driven by different motivations, both the prosecution and Danto spoke of the power of these images. Both arguments were also integrally tied to the question of the location of the photographs, an issue rarely brought up in all the charges and countercharges. Yet it was the status of Mapplethorpe's photographs as works in a museum that provoked the anger of the Cincinnati moralists and led them to call for Appendx 2 page break 60 | 61the vice squad to raid the museum and take down the offensive photographs. next page

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