PRINT Summer 2000


Dirty Pictures

BACK IN 1990, the obscenity charges brought against the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, sent shock waves through the art world. The fact that Barrie faced a possible prison term gave pause to art professionals everywhere. The occasion for the criminal proceedings was an exhibition that the Arts Center had rented from the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Titled “The Perfect Moment,” the show was a survey of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs first mounted in Philadelphia in 1988. By the time the exhibition reached Cincinnati, the artist had been dead a year, and the show had already traveled to Chicago, Washington, DC, Hartford, and Berkeley, with its final destination scheduled in Boston.

The Washington stop, however, marked the onset of the court battle that would ultimately erupt in Ohio. “The Perfect Moment” had been scheduled for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, but when Jesse Helms and the Religious Right mounted an all-out blitz against the exhibition, the Corcoran caved and canceled the show. While the Washington Project for the Arts quickly stepped into the fray to provide an alternate venue, Helms and his flying monkeys had already declared war and were headed for a battlefield in the American heartland.

Dirty Pictures, which airs throughout June on Showtime, tells the story of how the flying monkeys almost stole the light of reason. Director Frank Pierson’s docudrama is an OK television movie. The emphasis is on a seemingly decent man and his attractive family (loyal wife, scrappy sons) fighting the forces of bigotry and censorship. The facts are clearly presented, and Mapplethorpe’s photographs generously punctuate the trial sequences as evidence for the rather surreal testimony introduced by both accusers and accused. What’s strange, though, is how remote it all seems. It’s as if Dirty Pictures wants to be Inherit the Wind but lacks that drama’s moral gravity.

A big part of the problem with the film is that Mapplethorpe’s photographs are never convincingly argued as art, so the core of the drama is very much a formal essay on First Amendment rights. There’s so little passionate engagement with Mapplethorpe’s artistry that Dirty Pictures feels a bit soulless. Sure, moral fascists still slither like rattlesnakes on warm rocks across the editorial pages of all our hometown newspapers, waiting to strike. And if anything, censorship has grown even more overtly cynical, as exemplified by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s self-serving attack on Chris Ofili and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In terms of its predictability, Giuliani’s battering-ram assault of an unarmed black man of foreign extraction was a no-brainer. In light of the “Sensation” debacle, the Mapplethorpe controversy seems oddly straightforward.

The charges against Barrie revolved around seven photographs; two of these depicted children, while the other five showed S&M activities. Albeit elegantly arranged, these images were perfectly capable of knocking the wind out of any number of optimally tolerant citizens. A fist up the ass to the elbow, regardless of the thrusting vertical’s establishing the hegemony of the void on the horizontal field, is not the way most people in America signal affection. The teleplay makes the point more than once that Mapplethorpe’s portraits of cocks were meant to be seen in complementary contrast to his portraits of flowers. It’s kind of endearing that the jury is shown grappling with this rather debatable formalist point, but it’s difficult to imagine exactly what flower might adequately go with the stem dominating the still weirdly silly Man in Polyester Suit.

As Dirty Pictures plays it out, the Mapplethorpe case just doesn’t get larger than Cincinnati. It’s less a consideration of the often divisive artistic, moral, and political complexities that surround the First Amendment than a tale of good citizens who, while they might not approve of what is depicted, ratify the gallery’s right to show it. Well, bravo! It’s important—it’s just not all that entertaining. Michael Mann upped the docudrama ante with The Insider, which had a screenplay as resistant to art over information as Dirty Pictures but which brilliantly turned every obstacle into a cinematic virtue. Dirty Pictures isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. It’s punctuated by talking heads à la Reds, but a sweet Bill T. Jones doesn’t clear the air of a horrid William F. Buckley, Jr. And then there is the star of Dirty Pictures, the extremely peculiar James Woods, who plays Barrie as if he were cocooned in a cloud of snake oil. Woods programs a sort of unctuous neediness into Barrie’s persona that makes you kind of available to seeing him destroyed.

The good news about Dirty Pictures is that people cared enough about the First Amendment to make it. That said, good intentions aren’t what art is made from—a point that, if explored, might have given Dirty Pictures the edge it lacks.

Richard Flood is senior curator at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.