When I moved to Cincinnati from Chicago in 1973,1 found I could gauge the personality of my new city by listing the things I missed about the home I’d left. I missed the bulging Chicago newspapers. I missed being in a place where cynicism competes with humor as the prevailing public attitude and humor often wins. I missed the Cubs. I missed the presence of an irrepressibly vocal populace. (Spend ten minutes with a Chicago South Sider and you’ll learn everything from his views on the state of the world to his mother’s maiden name, and he’ll throw in a recommendation on where to get a brake job on your car.) I missed politics as a contact sport and Mike Royko’s big mouth. I missed Democrats.

I went along like that for about a year and a half, keeping my little list and indulging my grief, until it finally occurred to me that there’s more than one version of paradise. I realized that political boredom can grow on you, especially when it’s accompanied by civic order. I realized that one of the reasons my morning paper seemed skimpy was that it didn’t contain endless stories of horrific crimes from the day before. I discovered that it’s acceptable, even enjoyable, to root for a baseball team that can actually win, and rather soothing to reside in a town where the day’s biggest news might be “Reds Sweep Road Trip.” I found it could be relaxing not to always hear everybody’s opinion about everything. I never stopped missing living in the same city with Mike Royko, bless his angry, funny heart, but I had one consolation: I no longer lived in the same city with Bob Greene. As for Democrats, I stopped missing them when I pretty much stopped being one.

Today, the biggest difference between me, the rooted transplant, and native Cincinnatians is that natives get openly—if politely—defensive when the city is criticized, while I tend toward covert defensiveness. When New York acquaintances come to town on business (and a lot of business is done here) and say to me, sometimes good-humoredly, sometimes not, “What do you people do around here after 11 p.m.?” I tell them that we just try to avoid stepping in cowflop and getting overly excited at the bingo games—and hey, how about that Reds road trip?

But born-and-bred Cincinnatians are not given to leg-pulling, mixing it up, or playing Ht for tat. When big-city Easterners complain that there is no place here to get a seven-course meal at 3 a.m., Cincinnatians don’t say, “So what?” or “Who the hell wants to eat at 3 a.m.?” or “Right you are; so the next time you come to town, pack a snack.” What they say is, “That’s true, but . . .” Then they go on to mention the beloved Reds and the splendid Bengals (See? We’re in the big time), the city ballet, the symphony, and the museums (See? We’ve got culture), the general quality of life, the niceness of living here. You want more? We’ve got a five-star French restaurant (it closes at eleven—sorry) and a great zoo.

So Cincinnatians are defensive, yes, but they’re also earnest. The city is so earnest, in fact, that if it finds itself misunderstood too often or consistently, the whole place breaks out in mental hives, a kind of collective psychological rash.

Defensive and earnest. That’s the phrase that ran through my mind during the course of our latest controversy, the one centering on the now beyond famous Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit. Our last municipal disturbance involved, you’ll recall, Pete Rose and his banishment from baseball. Cincy took its lumps for its response to the Rose episode, deservedly in my opinion (too much defensiveness, not enough earnestness), and took its lumps again for community reaction to the Mapplethorpe show. But this time it was a bum rap. As briefly as possible, here is the program of events. The sequence is important.

1) Amidst a nationwide debate over either “obscene” art or obscene “art,” depending on who was doing the talking (I came to think of it as the war of the quotation marks), Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) makes plans to exhibit the Mapplethorpe retrospective.

2) Citizens for Community Values, a group whose members include local business executives, religious leaders, and various Cincinnati Bengals, objects to the exhibit’s inclusion of seven photographs that are described by the arts group as “Mapplethorpe’s most challenging works” and by the community values group as examples of obscenity. In the background, law enforcement officials, citing local obscenity statutes, begin making threatening noises.

3) The national media pick up on the controversy and cast the story more or less as “Hick Town Has Fit Over Art Fix.”

4) The conflict, which has become an issue, now stimulates a public debate on the questions of censorship and free expression, the definitions of art and pornography, the purpose and limits of community standards. Through the vehicle of their local newspapers’ op-ed pages, countless Cincinnatians participate in the debate by organizing their thoughts, expressing them coherently, and signing their names. The debate takes this form: it is genuinely searching; it is marked throughout, with few exceptions, by civility, sincerity, and restraint; it is undergirded by the assumption that decent people can disagree and is therefore almost completely free of the suggestion by either side that those on the opposing side are, by virtue of their opinions, immoral, unpatriotic, subversive, or evil.

5) The exhibit opens, whereupon city and county officials treat Cincinnatians to the unsettling sight of uniformed policemen clearing out and closing down (for an hour) a crowded art gallery. Immediately, the CAC and its director are indicted on misdemeanor obscenity charges by a Hamilton County grand jury (charges that will still be unresolved when the exhibit closes on schedule seven weeks later).

6) The local debate, still restrained, intensifies; the national Hick Town stories increase; the Washington Post editorializes that what’s going on in Cincinnati, while superficially “amusing,” actually “isn’t funny at all.”

7) Neither the “police raid” on the arts center nor the indictment against it is universally applauded by Cincinnatians, a fact that prompts city and county officials to do their version of The Three Stooges Play Politics: You prosecute the case. No, you prosecute it.

8) Cincinnati breaks out in its everybody-thinks-we’re-rubes rash (defensive), even as it continues to struggle with the issues before it (earnest). The media picks up on the defensiveness and ignores the earnestness. The Hick Town stories continue; the rash spreads. Even Mike Royko is heard from. The legal action against the CAC and its director has made “Cincinnati look like a big rube town, which I never thought it was,” says Royko. “It’s always struck me as being a medium-sized rube town.” (For me, this is a let down. I expected better from Royko—which is to say, I expected worse.)

If your source of information on Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati was the national media, you saw reported or suggested just about everything on the above list, with the glaring exception of number four; the quality and character of the local debate, a debate that was not only an essential part of the story but a remarkable and heartening occurrence in itself, especially in a time when so much public discourse is an exercise in rancor and rhetorical excess. What’s more, the media decided on their Hick Town slant before the hicks themselves had been heard from, and stayed with that slant even after the appearance of abundant evidence that might have challenged it. Why did they do that? One possibility is the constraints of daily journalism. So much news, so little time! Examining assumptions takes effort, therefore stereotypes have their uses. The only other possibility I can think of is that the national journalistic establishment actually believes that any city that would question the public display of sadomasochistic and homoerotic photographs is by definition a hick town.

For their efforts in debating difficult, complex issues with a measure of dignity and good will, Cincinnatians saw themselves trashed on a national scale. The New York Times labeled Cincinnati “[possibly] the most sexually restrictive big city in the country.” On its face that statement is false. Sex is not restricted in Cincinnati, no matter what the New York Times says; in fact, people have sex here all the time. What is restricted is the availability of peep shows, nudie bars, massage parlors, and X-rated movies. The Times also accused Cincinnati, in so many words, of hypocrisy for being located right across the river from Newport, Kentucky, which makes available to Cincinnatians the strip joints their own city forbids—the Times’ point being that some Cincinnatians actually cross the river for that reason. (The article was a doubly cheap shot, in that Newport, its burlesque clubs notwithstanding, has made great efforts in recent years to rid its streets and its image of sleaze.)

Finally, the New York Times reported, more than once, that the Mapplethorpe show had traveled to cities from Hartford to Berkeley “without incident,” while Cincinnati had “nearly gone into convulsions” over the exhibit. Please. This simply isn’t a convulsion-prone city. The only event here that ever came close to being convulsive was Pete Rose’s banishment from baseball, and, for better or for worse, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, stranger in paradise, are no match for that. What the Mapplethorpe exhibit produced in Cincinnati was a community debate (and a good one), accompanied by a community rash.

The exhibit also prompted public demonstrations outside the CAC, the largest of which was estimated at one thousand by the New York Times, five hundred by the local papers. The demonstrations went like this. The anticensorship forces, made up mostly of students, did what college kids (and those who want to act like college kids) sometimes are inclined to do: they pulled out the rhetorical stops by yelling “Fascists!” at the police and carrying signs with warnings about Hitler. The anti-pornography group did its own name-dropping in the form of placards reading “God Is Against Pornography And So Are We.” As public demonstrations go in this country, Cincinnati’s were both typical in character and ho-hum in overall effect—hardly “convulsive.”

Is it any wonder Cincinnatians are defensive? I can’t think of another city in the country in which outside observers confuse the absence of sleaze with the absence of sex. This may be the only city in America that gets stigmatized for having too little commercial vice. Name one other city that is expected to answer not only for what it won’t permit, but for what its neighboring cides will. Name one other city that’s supposed to explain itself for being dissimilar in attitude to Berkeley. Before it was all over, I expected to see a New York Times headline announcing “Impossible to Get Seven Course Meal in Cincinnati at 3 a.m.”

Since no one else bothered (and before I break out in a rash myself), it’s worth taking a look at Cincinnati’s debate over the Mapplethorpe exhibit and asking why that debate was so civilized. I can think of three reasons. First, the concepts of “community standards” and “community values” aren’t worth arguing about unless you actually have a community. And Cincinnati is a community. That is, the things Cincinnatians agree on are more binding than the things they disagree on are divisive. Thus there was during the Mapplethorpe controversy the awareness that even on emotional issues, especially on emotional issues, it is a matter of civic as well as intellectual responsibility to think twice before deciding that one’s neighbors are “the enemy.”

Second, local politicians pretty much kept silent. This was in part a reflection of the nature of the beast—most politicians don’t risk voluntary plunges into sticky issues—and in part an example of the subdued character of Cincinnati politics. In any case, the silence was, in this instance, a help. With public opinion split and most city leaders lacking the nerve or the inclination to try exploiting the controversy for political gain, Cincinnatians had the issue pretty much to themselves, and their discussions were not limited to or by politics.

The published dialogue stimulated by the Mapplethorpe exhibit ran all over the map. It touched on all the obvious questions and many that weren’t so obvious. It included the opinion of a local pediatric specialist that it is dangerous to, make children “the focus of sexual attention or interest,” (“Not for a moment,” he wrote, “not as entertainment; not as art”), and the opinion of others who said that any sexual interest in Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of exposed children is in the mind of the beholder, not the photographer/artist. The debate included complaints about the hypocrisy of corporate executives whose selfpromotional support for the arts suddenly becomes conditional on their personal artistic preferences, and complaints about the arrogance of an arts community that interprets as “financial blackmail” any limits to, or conditions on, corporate generosity. The view was expressed that if Robert Mapplethorpe had used animals or women instead of men as the subjects of his sadomasochistic pictures, some free expression advocates would instantly be on the other side, raising outraged questions about the limits of free expression. And that view was met with the argument that all such what-ifs are irrelevant diversions, entirely beside the point.

The debate gave each side the opportunity to ask its most important question, which happened to be the same question: where do we draw the line? Those opposed to closing the exhibit asked it this way: if we allow these pictures to be censored today, what will be censored tomorrow? Those in favor of closing the exhibit wanted to know: if we allow these pictures to be displayed as art today, what will be displayed as art tomorrow? Rounding things out were a few stubborn citizens who would not be distracted by future implications, insisting that the issue was these pictures in this community at this moment.

Some Cincinnatians were painfully ambivalent about the whole business, not wanting the obscene/challenging photographs shown; but not wanting them seized by the law either. And one or two found it very important that if an exhibit they disapproved of were shut down, they would be denied the opportunity to stay away of their own volition. (If you ban it, I can’t boycott it—I loved that one.) And one fellow even took the time to state his right as an American and a Cincinnatian to be “apathetic” about the entire affair, apparently oblivious to the fact that apathetic people don’t write letters to the editor.

The debate was, then, an exploration of ideas, values, responsibilities, and attitudes, one that did not get hopelessly tangled up in political rhetoric, in large part because it took place in a convenient, if cowardly, political leadership vacuum.

The third factor responsible for Cincinnati’s civility in the midst of controversy was the city’s intrinsic social conservatism. Conservative can be a rash-causing word in Cincinnati, and if you say it in a certain tone of voice, city spokesmen will start getting all blotchy, as they wave surveys of Hamilton County voting patterns (in the national mainstream) and explain the political makeup of the city council (pretty even-steven). So let’s spare them that ordeal and define the term. Conservative in Cincinnati means: moderate, cautious, family-oriented, and tradition-bound. It does not mean: reactionary, bigoted, intolerant, or ignorant. So again: Cincinnati’s intrinsic social conservatism was responsible for its civility in the face of controversy. Of course, Cincinnati’s intrinsic social conservatism was also responsible for the controversy in the first place. But unless you believe that community conflict over the definition of art is in itself repressive or dangerous, the fact of the conflict will mean less than the character and content of the ensuing debate.

Which brings us back to out-of-towners, some of whom did indeed object to the very fact of Cincinnati’s conflict over the definition of art. Prior to the Mapplethorpe opening, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Howard Read, director of photography for the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City, was heading here to view the exhibit. Read went most New Yorkers one better—he formed his negative opinion of Cincinnati before his arrival. The Cincinnati controversy “seems incredibly provincial” he said from New York. “There’s just unbelievable right-wing conservatism there.” Well, we love you too, Mr. Read—and watch out for the cowflop when you get off the plane.

Howard Read’s complaints about provincialism speak volumes about the art world’s elitist contempt for its own patrons or potential patrons. Its attitude is that the general public, for which exhibits like the Mapplethorpe show supposedly exist, is obliged to provide tax support for something it is too ignorant to understand and therefore without license to judge. And when the public—the great unwashed, that very tiresome and intrusive collection of pinheads and philistines—responds angrily to that attitude by saying, “You want freedom? Then foot the bill yourself Until then, we’re art critics,” spokesmen for the arts establishment, fall back on some wordy version of the “no one’s forcing you to go see the stuff argument. If it were that simple, the Howard Reads of the world could dispense with their principles and simply ship all art to Hartford and Berkeley, since no one is “forcing” them to endure the provincialism of Cincinnati. It is beyond me how supposedly intelligent artists—a whole “community” of them—can ignore a basic fact of life in this country, one that everybody else accepts as self-evident: spend Americans’ money, and they’ll stick their nose in your business.

But those opposed to the Mapplethorpe exhibit ignored something too: tell Americans they aren’t or shouldn’t be free to say, see, read, or listen to something, and they’ll make it a matter of principle to prove you wrong. Thus we had in Cincinnati an exhibit of obscene art (put the quotation marks where you will) that was viewed by a record number of people, many of whom had no interest in either art or obscenity, some of whom had reservations about public funding for any art, much less obscene art, and most of whom didn’t like the idea of being told what they were and were not allowed to see. It was a fascinating thing to watch, and I still can’t decide whether my feeling about those people is admiration that they had the energy to match their convictions, or bewilderment that they took such pains to experience something that held no inherent interest for them, something many of them pronounced “disgusting.”

The ironies didn’t stop there. In a move that was both admirable (considering the actual content of the exhibit) and bizarre (considering the supposed content of the exhibit), the CAC decided to bar anyone under the age of 18 from even stepping foot inside the center for the duration of the Mapplethorpe show. With this attempt to display sensitivity to community concerns, the CAC validated those concerns by imposing restrictions on the viewing of the art exhibit that were stricter than those placed on the viewing of an X-rated movie—if Cincinnati had X-rated movies. The final irony was that the age restriction was not strictly enforced. I know two sixteen-year-old girls who breezed into the exhibit with no problem at all. The absurd contradictions of age-restricted art reach their peak when one imagines some irate parent marching into the CAC and shouting, “How dare you allow my underage daughter into an art gallery!”

The review passed on to me by one of those gate-crashing sixteen-year-olds was that the pretty pictures were pretty, the weird pictures were weird, and the other pictures—those pictures—were “not nice, really.” Among adults who saw the exhibit, opinions were far more burdened by qualification and evasion. (“Personally, I found some of the pictures revolting, but it’s not for me to say they shouldn’t be shown” was the most frequently reported comment.) But then, adults sense better than kids the national climate of intellectual terrorism that now surrounds the issue of free expression, a climate in which honorable people with honest questions about the artistic value of sadomasochistic and homoerotic photographs are described in some quarters as “convulsive” and in other quarters as book burners. If you doubt it, I refer you first (and again) to the New York Times, and then to playwright Edward Albee, who came to the University of Cincinnati as a guest speaker and graciously told his audience that in the Mapplethorpe affair Cincinnati was attempting a “kind of Orwellian thought control.” “Democracy is terribly fragile,” lectured Mr. Albee. “It must always be on the lookout for the book burners.” (What a fool. To watch close up as Cincinnati thrashed out the issues raised by the Mapplethorpe show was to get a nice little glimpse of how resilient and sturdy and distinctly unfragile a thing democracy is.) He also announced, “Art cannot be obscene. Only attitudes toward art can be obscene.” If Mr. Albee went on to address the question of whether something obscene can be art, it wasn’t reported.

My favorite appraisal of the Mapplethorpe exhibit came from a woman who, seeking something positive to say about the experience for which she’d just paid five dollars, arrived at this: “At least there was no group sex.” I’ll bet you two tickets to a Reds doubleheader that if the depiction of group sex in art is where that woman draws the line, countless arts militants are already deciding they won’t rest until they have “challenged” and “disturbed” her with depictions of group sex in art. After all, nothing less than our “fragile democracy” is at stake. And when she discovers that she has given them a lot more leeway than they have given her, that any line is evidence of, say, “Orwellian thought control,” what will she say then?

“At least there was no group sex.” Idiotic pontifications from Edward Albee. It’s that kind of stuff that makes me long for a Royko-like voice in Cincinnati, one that can dish it out a little. But that’s a silly longing. Even without his recent “rube” jab, Mike Royko and the city of Cincinnati wouldn’t last a month together. He would start making fun of the Reds, and then we’d really have an uproar. At that point, the New York Times would pick up on the story and report that Royko had once made fun of some beloved Berkeley institution “without incident.” And then . . . well, have you ever seen an entire city break out in mental hives?