Giving Compass’ Take:
• Alex Palmer describes how The Perfect Moment, an art exhibit featuring homosexual S&M, sparked a trail that reinforced the first amendment right of free speech in 1990.
• What is the role of museums in developing, reflecting, and upholding culture? How can funders help increase access to art that in unfettered by censorship?
• Read about censorship in schools.
Twenty-five years ago, art was put on trial in a highly publicized and political showdown. The Mapplethorpe obscenity trial—the first time a museum was taken to court on criminal charges related to works on display—became one of the most heated battlefronts in the era’s culture wars. Taking place over two weeks in the fall of 1990, the resulting attention challenged perceptions of art, public funding, and what constituted “obscenity.” A quarter-century on, the trial’s impact can still be felt.
At issue was The Perfect Moment, a retrospective exhibition of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He had risen to national prominence through his black-and-white depictions of 1970s New York, including celebrities (Andy Warhol, Philip Glass, Deborah Harry), nudes, and graphic depictions of sadomasochism. “Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism,” as his longtime roommate and occasional collaborator Patti Smith said of his work in her memoir of their relationship, Just Kids. The show’s approximately 175 images captured the range of Mapplethorpe’s subjects over his 25-year career, grouping them into three “portfolios:” nude portraits of African-American men (the “Z” portfolio), flower still lifes (“Y”) and homosexual S&M (“X”).
On April 6, the night before the show was scheduled to open to the public, a members preview drew far higher attendance than previous events, with more than 4,000 people in attendance and coverage by local and national media. Besides some protestors, the preview went off peacefully. Barrie was pleasantly surprised.
A little before noon on opening day, a grand jury issued four criminal indictments—two against the museum and two against Barrie himself for pandering obscenity and illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented materials.
After several days of testimony, both sides made their closing arguments and the jury began deliberations on October 5.
They returned after two hours with a verdict: Not guilty on all charges.
Read the full article about art and obscenity by Alex Palmer at Smithsonian Magazine.
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