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Sadly, 1st Amendment Is Also a Defender of the Dross of This World

June 05, 2000|SUSAN SELF | Susan Self is a freelance entertainment researcher working in Los Angeles

As youth is wasted on the young, so too is the 1st Amendment wasted on America in the 21st century. What has proven to be the ultimate safeguard against government tyranny and coercion--the Free Press--has been so successfully implemented and protected that we are now reduced to invoking it in defense of sexually explicit museum exhibitions and drawings from Hustler magazine.

The Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, a subject of a recent Showtime movie reviewed by Christopher Knight ("Censorship Run Amok in 'Pictures' ", May 27), are yet another example of how good we have it. That the late Mapplethorpe and publisher Larry Flynt are commonly viewed as heroes of free speech (no credit ever goes to their lawyers) is in a way strangely reassuring that all is well. Kind of.

What is unsettling is the risk that the current generation may see the right to create sexually explicit materials and unauthorized celebrity Web sites as the ultimate victory of a free press.

Americans don't often have satisfying 1st Amendment moments: Rarely do we need to use the free press to protest government campaigns of massive terror, property confiscation and random torture (Westside parking enforcement notwithstanding). Knight's reference to the "most chilling" segment of the documentary--the uniformed police arriving at the museum with a warrant--doesn't create the same level of arctic intensity for me that would come from a scene of jackbooted KGB agents bursting in to seize one of Solzhenitsyn's rough drafts.

Both situations involve the squelching of expression, but the expression stifled in the second instance was one that had potential to save a country.

The self-satisfied moral pronouncements of the anti-censorship forces would be more welcome not only if I could occasionally feel good about what was being defended but also if I truly believed they practiced what they preached. I don't find the "blue noses, religious fanatics [and] gay bashers" noted by Knight an especially attractive group either, but he would help his cause by pledging to defend their right to free expression just as ardently as he appears to defend Mapplethorpe's.

To be truly worthy of the accolades the art community is continually bestowing upon itself for fighting the good fight, they must give us more examples of the works of the world's real heroes. There aren't nearly enough exhibitions relating to Chinese, Burmese and Iranian dissidents, pictures of the Berlin Wall or displays of handwritten copies of the "Gulag Archipelago" that Russian citizens secretly passed among themselves during the Cold War. Such 1st Amendment thrills, no matter how vicarious, are necessary to remind us why the Bill of Rights is one of the most important government documents ever written.

Controversial entertainment masquerading as art basks in the reflected glory of the 1st Amendment's undisputed virtue, a virtue to which the former does not aspire. A free-speech victory tends to confer the status of art to what in a former life was known as Exhibit A.


The art community bases its pleas for both federal and private funding on the ideas that Art is Important and Art is Good. I'm sure there are people who see the Mapplethorpe photos as representing the highest achievements of which the camera is capable, but I suspect for the majority of museum-goers, there is a strong ambivalence. I feel these photos, no matter how professionally displayed, have long departed from the world of art and have exited into the abyss known as entertainment, and so belong on the Internet with the rest of the sex sites.

And on what standards do I base this judgment? Being a dues-paying member of the middle class, I predictably base them on a bourgeois aesthetic. Great art, art that endures, attempts to elevate the spiritual over the animal and material. It also does not exclude, which most sexually graphic works tend to do. It captures both the human and the divine and leaves one elevated and inspired.

What one feels like doing after viewing the Mapplethorpe show is strictly a matter of taste, but I doubt anyone races from the gallery itching to join the pro-democracy forces in Tibet. Showcasing and glorifying the lowest form of human behavior gives a visual argument to those who oppose whatever group or issue is being featured: i.e., if this represents your best, how can you expect much enthusiasm for your cause?

The right to create art or entertainment without the government's or the collective's approval should continue to be defended and monitored. But don't allow the grandeur of the 1st Amendment to be inadvertently transferred to what's being protected. Museums don't always house art, and moral fervor isn't always indicative of moral superiority. The highest forms of human expression aren't always surrounded by a frame.


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