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Mapplethorpe Show Bumps Into a City's Legacy of Conformity : Law: Cincinnati has a long history as a bastion of morality. There is no red light district and there are no adult book stores. Against this backdrop, the filing of obscenity charges is not viewed with surprise. : NEWS ANALYSIS

April 23, 1990|DAVID WELLS | Wells is a staff writer at the Cincinnati Enquirer. and

CINCINNATI — One hundred and fifty years ago, aristocrat Nicholas Longworth of this city commissioned a marble sculpture of Eve, standing naked in the Garden of Eden.

The local art critics insisted that it be covered with a calico dress.

Art appreciation in Cincinnati has not changed much in a century and a half. Two weeks ago a county grand jury indicted the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati and its director, Dennis Barrie, on obscenity charges for displaying the works of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

The exhibit, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment," consists of 175 portraits, nudes and still lifes by the late photographer. The grand jury, prodded by a sheriff and a prosecutor with national anti-pornography reputations, objected to seven of the pictures.

Five of the shots show homoerotic images. Each of those pictures resulted in a separate charge of pandering. The other two pictures named in the indictment are shots of nude children. Those pictures resulted in charges of "using a minor in nudity oriented material," a 5-year-old Ohio law that the Supreme Court of the United States held to be constitutional last week.

Barrie and the arts center are scheduled to appear before Hamilton County Municipal Judge David Albanese for a pre-trial hearing April 30. It is conceivable, though unlikely, that the case could be tried and settled before the show's scheduled close May 26.

But even if the show ends before the trial begins the case cannot be made moot, said Asst. Cincinnati Solicitor Karl Kadon. The prosecutors can, and they have indicated that they will, seek a conviction after Mapplethorpe's pictures are only a memory in Cincinnati.

In the meantime, thanks to an order from a federal judge at the behest of the museum, the police are prevented from seizing any of the photos or interfering with the operation of the exhibit. The pictures remain on the walls of the gallery and the crowds keep lining up to see them in record numbers.

The only interruption of the show came the day the indictments were handed down, and the Cincinnati police closed the gallery for about an hour while they videotaped the exhibit.

To outsiders, the televised sight of police officers with drawn billy clubs clearing out an art gallery may have seemed surreal. To those who have lived in Cincinnati, it seemed like business as usual.

Last year members of the city's vice squad sat through a performance of "Equus" at the local playhouse, just to see if the award-winning play violated community standards.

There is no red light district in this city of 369,000. There are no adult book stores or movie theaters. The local video stores do not carry X-rated tapes.

It used to be said that Cincinnatians went across the Ohio River to wide-open Newport, Ky., for their sin.

But even Newport's sordid charms are fading. There are still assorted burlesque clubs on Monmouth Street, but repeated reform movements have had a cumulative effect during the last 20 years, and now the gambling is underground and the performers have to keep their G-strings and tassels in place.

To find out why Cincinnati and its environs have come to be known as the bluenosed bastion of morality you have to go back to the 19th Century, according to Allen Brown, former counsel to the Cincinnati chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"It has been over 100 years since there was a significant foreign immigration wave into Cincinnati. There has been very little new cultural stock that would force any cultural diversity," Brown said.

"The single biggest virtue of Cincinnati is its serene conformity and its ease of livability," he said. But that tranquillity is combined with an almost total countywide domination by the Republican Party.

"That total domination makes it so that the leaders look for problems that offer no resistance. That way they can look effective and please the little old ladies who dominate the ballot box," said Brown. In his view, pornography became a straw man, a villain on which society's ills could be blamed, with no noticeable backlash.

The issue moved from one that may have been genuinely held by a core group of activists, to an issue that is now politically expedient for everyone, said Brown.

The active public policy that resulted in charges against an art museum and its director began in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the anti-pornography movements of Charles Keating. Keating, the same man now enmeshed in the Lincoln Savings and Loan scandal, was then a young Cincinnati attorney full of religious zeal and a hate for "smut peddlers."

He founded Citizens for Decent Literature, later called Citizens for Decency Through Law. He used the organization to wield a combination of legal and economic pressure against theater owners and bookstores.

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