This month marks the 20th anniversary of Dennis Barries acquittal in a historic obscenity trial concerning photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.
At the time, Barrie was Director of Cincinnatis Contemporary Arts Center, which exhibited Mapplethorpes traveling exhibition The Perfect Moment, a show that included several homoerotic images.
Barrie and the CAC were exonerated of obscenity charges by a jury who determined that the photographs didnt meet the Supreme Court test of obscenity, which holds that, the work would have to be patently offensive, i.e., deliberate in its intent and taken as a whole, lacking in serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Interestingly, the exhibition had already traveled to museums before Cincinnati, but was canceled at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., because the board feared losing federal funding if they presented the show.
Reflecting on his own historic event, Barrie recently said that censorship today has moved on to bigger targets, including schools, television and textbooks.
Censorship in all its forms is and always will be a matter of taste and sensibility, yet it is often driven by religious beliefs or political leanings.
When it comes to museum funding, censorship can compromise the principles and integrity of the institution, its Board of Trustees, the director and its mission to serve the community.
In 2000, the Brooklyn Museum of Art came under fire for exhibiting Sensation. One image in particular was viewed as sacrilege by the church and some museum donors, so Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who admitted having not seen the show, shut it down and threatened to take away the museums city funding.
Last year, the National Portrait Gallery, after only a few hours of pressure from the religious sector and various conservatives, removed a video by David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist who died in 1992. At issue was an 11-second excerpt from his A Fire in My Belly, depicting a crucifix with ants crawling on it. That abbreviated imagery, taken out of context, is what the Catholic League decried as designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.
Ironically, the artist had used the image to denote anguish and horror and only followed a long tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all humankind.
I am neither condoning nor condemning any art, but wish to point out that if every piece of art that offended some person or some group was removed from a museum, our museums might well go out of existence. Nudes? Gone. Abstract art? Gone. Depictions of war? Gone. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union purged what they called decadent art and either destroyed or locked it away so the public would not be corrupted or possess freedom of thought. In this great nation of ours, no one group should get to decide what the rest of us should see and hear or think about. Isnt that what extremists do in countries with less freedom?
When it comes right down to it, the public has the right to decide for itself what to look at, read or hear. A cautionary notice that a news item, book, film or work of art might be offensive to some viewers is enough; not bowing to special interest groups or diminish ones principles or integrity because of money.
Stew Mosberg is a freelance writer and has written about art regionally and nationally. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.