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Robert Mapplethorpe And Obscenity Charges

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Legal Issues

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Robert Mapplethorpe began taking photographs in 1970 with a Polaroid camera given to him by a friend. Nearly twenty years later, when Mapplethorpe died at the age of forty-two, he was considered one of the most important photographers of his time. His elegant and sometimes shocking nudes, the black-and-white portraits, flower still lifes, and images of sexual sadomasochism had been exhibited widely and were the subject of serious critical attention in Europe and America. A few months after his death, Mapplethorpe became the focus of an acrimonious debate over federal funding of the arts when an exhibition of his work was cancelled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. The director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, was subsequently acquitted of obscenity charges brought against him for presenting the same exhibition.
LAW: Defining censorship
When it rules on an ''indecent art'' case, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether not subsidizing an activity is censorship.
The National Endowment for the Arts has been giving tax money to artists since the Johnson presidency. Some of its decisions have been controversial. For example, it subsidized an exhibit of menstrual blood, clothing made of condoms, and a depiction of Jesus Christ as a drug addict and sex object.

In 1990, after the NEA helped fund Robert Mapplethorpe's ''homoerotic'' photos and Andrew Serrano's crucifix in a jar of urine, Congress took action.

It passed a bill requiring the NEA to consider ''general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public,'' as well as artistic excellence, in awarding grants.

Some NEA supporters objected, including Karen Finley - who had previously received a grant for smearing her naked body with chocolate, an act judged to be artistic excellence.

Finley filed a lawsuit, arguing the decency standard was too vague - and also that it violated free speech.

Inexplicably, she prevailed on the trial and appellate levels, setting the stage for a Supreme Court hearing next year.

Decency is no less vague than artistic merit, the only standard that Finley finds acceptable. The quality of art is very much in the eyes of the beholder.

The NEA has defined a bucket of water with two dead flies, an unpainted stick cut from standard lumber and a sculpture of a dozen male sex organs as ''artistic excellence'' and awarded subsidies for all three.

Many Americans, including legitimate patrons of the arts, would disagree.

As for free speech, the NEA statute does not restrict what artists say or do. It merely limits what the NEA itself, a government agency, can do.

Congress is elected to represent the American people. It has an obligation to make certain their tax dollars are used in a way a majority deems appropriate.

If the American people have no say in how their tax money is spent, even through their elected representatives, that is taxation without representation.

If Finley wants to disrobe ...

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