TV Show Asks if America Can Tolerate Dirty Pictures

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Source: Reuters

By: Arthur Spiegelman

(LOS ANGELES, CA) — Television pays tribute to a champion of free speech on Saturday, celebrating his heroism and putting on a display of the art he defended – dirty pictures depicting bizarre sex acts probably never shown on the small screen.

But there aren’t as many long, lingering close-ups of obscene photographs as the director wanted in the new Showtime cable network film “Dirty Pictures,” a docudrama account, starring James Woods, of the start of the U.S. culture wars — the 1990 trial of Cincinnati museum director Dennis Barrie for displaying the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Director Frank Pierson said he had to cut back on the images of leather-clad sadomasochists at work and play in order to win an acceptable rating so the film could be shown in prime time.

“I guess there is an irony here but I am happy with the film. It is the picture I wanted to make. I did not delete images so much as reduce their time on the screen.” Pierson said.

For those wanting to savor the full effects of Mapplethorpe, the Santa Monica Museum of Art is putting on the controversial Cincinnati show for the next two weeks, showing 150 works by the artist who died of AIDS in 1989 that have not been seen in exhibit for a decade. It expects no protests.

But “Dirty Pictures” is the story of the ultimate in bad reviews – a sheriff became so upset at a local exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s controversial photographs that he tried to jail Cincinnati Arts Center director Barrie for obscenity six months after the show closed and 81,000 people had seen it.

The incident a decade ago helped launch a series of battles over what can and cannot be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and what can and cannot be shown in American museums.

It is a fight that continues today with the most recent battle winning headlines around the world as New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to cut off public funds for the Brooklyn Museum because it displayed a painting of the Virgin Mary made with elephant dung.

Barrie’s trial ended with a jury ruling that the offending images – two of naked children with their genitalia exposed and six of either graphic sadomasochistic or homosexual sex – were art rather than dirty pictures because of something a dogged editor might try to drill into the head of a cub reporter – CONTEXT.

Mapplethorpe had bathed his stark images in an artistic light and surrounded them with pictures of flowers so that the presumably obscene subject matter was miraculously transformed into art – or so art critics contended.

In fact, many critics thought and still think that the flower pictures are infinitely more sensual that his sex scenes. But someone forgot to give the sheriff of Hamilton County a crash course in art appreciation and he raided the joint, trying to close it down. When that failed he brought Barrie up on charges.

The film shows the stunning effect the controversy had on Barrie and his family – how it ultimately helped lead to the end of his marriage and how he and his wife and two sons were snubbed and taunted by their former friends and neighbors. In the end, even though he won his case, Barrie had to leave town.

“It was a very traumatic time and it changed our lives forever. All I had ever wanted to be was a director of a small museum and that ended that,” Barrie recalled the other day at an opening of the film and the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

He thinks he did the right thing but a decade later he wonders about Mapplethorpe, who is credited by some critics as being a pioneer in the photographing of sadomasochistic and homosexual life styles.

“He (Mapplethorpe) was a man obsessed with celebrity. He wanted to be more famous than Andy Warhol and he achieved that because of the trial for a while,’ Barrie recalled.

As for Barrie, his defense of art and the rights of free speech under the First Amendment helped him get his next job – founding director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

“A lot of the singers and artists in rock had their own free speech battles and understood what I went through,” Barrie said.