The recent decision in the Mapplethorpe case involving the Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, raises important questions regarding the status of art in our society. The decision of the jury to acquit the director of the museum was based on a distinction between Art and pornography which highlights the very relationship of Art to a Culture-at-large which the Art Strike, and YAWN, seek to question. To find the museum innocent based on such a distinction only further entrenches the status of Artist as privileged creator of Culture; of the objet d'Art as relic, as fetish.
However, this clearly was not the only, or even most important, issue in the case. There were also closely associated, perhaps really enmeshed, questions of censorship. The jury's decision to acquit suggests that because an object or idea can be defined as having artistic value, it may be exempted from "community" based standards of censorship. The question that comes to mind is how do we know such an object is art? How do we know that the objects created by an artist have value? And, is it relevant, even self-limiting, to make distinctions based on the notion that one mode of production is somehow inherently more valuable than another?
The question is not whether such a category as Art exists. It does. There can really be little doubt as to this. It is the nature and function of this category that is in question when we start to look at whether an object belongs to that category and what that means, both for artists and non-artists.
Art is a kind of cultural dialect. It is a system of received signs, syntax and assumptions by which any object, act, or idea may be recognized, and thus invested with meaning-as Art. In capitalizing the `A' in art, I want to refer to a kind of "received pronunciation"-a standard dialect of art.
Art is, then, the meaning put into an ordered system of these signs. This meaning is, at base, a function of the context in which these signs are "read." This context can include not only the physical locality in which the object is placed, but also the environment of assumptions which exist before an object may ever be made. These assumptions include that one is an artist or that one is making art. It is the same for an autoworker. Her assumptions may be that she is a worker, or perhaps an artist. Each description of the action, the creative effort, carries with it a separate set of valuations of the end product, of the actions themselves. This set of values and meanings are, of course, culturally determined and arbitrarily related to the object or action. Moreover, there is no essential meaning, only a shifting set of signs and context which allow for any number of "readings," an underlying structure whose reflections shift from viewer to viewer, situation to situation, limited only by the historical context it is perceived in.
For some, many Art Strikers in particular, Art is also part of a spectacular and indispensable decoration of estranged culture. As Art distracts us through its fashion and theory, it misdirects our gaze from the underlying alienation of our lives from the very culture it covers, an apparently seamless curtain. It creates a surface we no longer understand and are not allowed to touch. This oblique film is now in the realm of the Artist and the Expert. It is owned and controlled as intellectual and cultural property.
The jury in the Mapplethorpe case in Cincinnati found that the photographs in question, (7 out of the 175 that were in the exhibit), were obscene, appealed to prurient interests, but in fact did have artistic value, thus meeting only 2 of the 3 legal standards for pornography. This decision was reached after a series of experts testified to the artistic worth of the works. The fact is, the photographs were Art before they were ever made. That Mapplethorpe was considered to be an artist, that his works had appeared in venues where Art is displayed, that his works have been discussed as Art, all lead to the presupposition that the images in question are Art. To find the gallery innocent based on these assumptions only further mystifies the creative process; only further removes any element of creativity from a non-artist's actions in the world. "I'm not an expert," says warehouse manager and jurist James Jones, "I don't understand Picasso's art. But I assume the people who call it art know what they are talking about." The curtain has been closed. We are neither experts nor priests. We must now depend upon a kind of cleric, an artist or critic, to intercede between us and the creative world.
The question as to whether a work, or idea, or product is Art or pornography is itself a kind of censorship. To call one person an Artist is to deny another's creativity. But, where do we draw the line? We cannot escape censorship on some level. Perhaps, instead of asking whether a work is obscene or prurient, we need to ask if it is harmfully exploitive. As such, I am not disagreeing with the jury's verdict. I am disagreeing with the subtle and mostly very subjective distinctions that their decision is based on. These distinctions are, at best, academic. At worst, they answer questions for us, shielding us from cultural realities and controversies that we have now relegated to the luminiferous ether of academia.
Ralph Johnson, Iowa City, October 1990