gument that all such what-ifs are irrelevantrndiversions, entirely beside the point.rnl l i e debate gave each side the opportunityrnto ask its most important question,rnwhich happened to be the same question:rnWhere do we draw the line? Thosernopposed to closing the exhibit asked itrnthis way: If we allow these pictures to berncensored today, what will be censored tomorrow?rnThose in favor of closing the exhibitrnwanted to know: If we allow thesernpictures to be displayed as art today,rnwhat will be displayed as art tomorrow?rnRounding things out were a few stubbornrncitizens who would not be distracted byrnfuture implications, insisting that the issuernwas these pictures in this communit)’rnat this moment.rnSome Cincinnatians were painfullyrnambivalent about the whole business, notrnwanting the obscene/challenging photographsrnshown, but not wanting themrnseized by the law either. And one or twornfound it very important that if an exhibitrnthey disapproved of were shut down, theyrnwould be denied the opportunity to stayrnaway of their own volition, (If you ban it,rnI can’t boycott it—I loved that one.) Andrnone fellow even took the time to state hisrnright as an American and a CincinnaHanrnto be “apathetic” about the entire affair,rnapparently oblivious to the fact that apatheticrnpeople don’t write letters to the editor.rnThe debate was, then, an explorationrnof ideas, values, responsibilities, and attitudes,rnone that did not get hopelessly tangledrnup in political rhetoric, in large partrnbecause it took place in a convenient, ifrncowardly, political leadership vacuum.rnThe third factor responsible forrnCincinnati’s civilitv in the midst of controversyrnwas the citv”s intrinsic social conservatism.rnConservative can be a rashcausingrnword in Cincinnati, and if yournsay it in a certain tone of voice, cityrnspokesmen will start getting all blotchy,rnas they wave sun-eys of Hamilton Count)’rnvoting patterns (in the national mainstream)rnand explain the political makeuprnof the citv’ council (prctt)- even-steven).rnSo let’s spare them that ordeal and definernthe term. Conservative in Cincinnatirnmeans: moderate, cautious, family-oriented,rnand tradihon-bound. It does notrnmean: reactionar)’, bigoted, intolerant, orrnignorant. So again: Cincinnati’s intrinsicrnsocial conservatism was responsible for itsrncivility in the face of controversy. Ofrncourse, Cincinnati’s intrinsic social conservatismrnwas also responsible for therncontroversy in the first place. But unlessrnyou believe that communitv’ conflict overrnthe definition of art is in itself repressivernor dangerous, the fact of the conflict willrnmean less than the character and contentrnof the ensuing debate.rnWliich brings us back to out-of-towners,rnsome of whom did indeed object tornthe ver’ fact of Cincinnati’s conflict overrnthe definition of art. Before the Mapplethorpernopening, the Cincinnati Enquirerrnreported that Howard Read, directorrnof photography for the Robert MillerrnGallery in New York Cih’, was headingrnhere to view the exhibit. Read went mostrnNew Yorkers one better—he formed hisrnnegative opinion of Cincinnati before hisrnarrival. The Cincinnati controversyrn”seems incredibly provincial,” he saidrnfrom New York. “There’s just unbelievablernright-wing conservatism there.”rnWell, we love you too, Mr. Read —andrnwatch out for the cowflop when you getrnoff the plane.rnHoward Read’s complaints aboutrnprovincialism speak volumes about thernart world’s elitist contempt for its own patronsrnor potential patrons. Its attitude isrnthat the general public, for which exhibitsrnlike the Mapplethorpe show supposedlyrnexist, is obliged to provide taxrnsupport for sonrething it is too ignorant tornunderstand and therefore without licensernto judge. And when the public —therngreat unwashed, that very tiresome andrnintrusive collection of pinheads andrnphilistines—responds angrily to that attitudernby saying, “You want freedom?rnThen foot the bill yourself Until then,rnwe’re art critics,” spokesmen for the artsrnestablishment fall back on some wordyrnversion of the “no one’s forcing you to gornsee the stuff argument. If it were thatrnsimple, the Howard Reads of the worldrncould dispense with their principles andrnsimply ship all art to Hartford and Berkeley,rnsince no one is “forcing” them to endurernthe provincialism of Cincinnati. Itrnis beyond me how supposedly intelligentrnartists—a whole “eommunit)” of them —rncan ignore a basic fact of life in this country,rnone that everybody else accepts asrnself-evident: Spend Americans’ money,rnand they’ll stick their nose in your business.rnBut those opposed to the Mapplethorpernexhibit ignored something too:rnTell Americans they aren’t or shouldn’trnbe free to say, see, read, or listen to something,rnand they’ll make it a matter of principlernto prove you wrong. Thus we hadrnin Cincinnati an exhibit of obscene artrn(put the quotation marks where you will)rnthat was viewed by a record number ofrnpeople, many of whom had no interest inrneither art or obscenity, some of whomrnhad reservafions about public funding forrnany art, much less obscene art, and mostrnof whom didn’t like the idea of being toldrnwhat they were and were not allowed tornsee. It was a fascinating thing to watch,rnand I still can’t decide whether my feelingrnabout those people is admiration thatrnthey had the energy to match their convictions,rnor bewilderment that they tookrnsuch pains to experience something thatrnheld no inherent interest for them, somethingrnmany of them pronounced “disgusfing.”rnThe ironies didn’t stop there. In arnurove that was both admirable (consideringrnthe actual content of the exhibit) andrnbizarre (considering the supposed contentrnof the exhibit), the CAC decided tornbar anyone under the age of 18 from evenrnstepping foot inside the center for the durationrnof the Mapplethorpe show. Withrnthis attempt to display sensitivit)’ to communityrnconcerns, the CAC validatedrnthose concerns by imposing restrictionsrnon the viewing of the art exhibit that werernstricter than those placed on the viewingrnof an X-rated movie —//Cincinnati hadrnX-rated movies. The final irony was thatrnthe age restriction was not strictly enforced.rnI know two 16-year-old girls whornbreezed into the exhibit with no problemrnat all. The absurd contradictions of agerestrictedrnart reach their peak when onernimagines some irate parent marching intornthe CAC and shouting, “How dare yournallow my underage daughter into an artrngallery!”rnI’he review passed on to me by one ofrnthose gate-crashing 16-year-olds was thatrnthe pretty pichires were pretty, the weirdrnpictures were weird, and tiie other picturesrn—f/iose pictures—were “not nice,rnreally.” Among adidts who saw the exhibit,rnopinions were far more burdenedrnby qualification and evasion. (“Personally,rnI found some of the pictures revolting,rnbut it’s not for me to say they shouldn’t bernshown” was the most frequentiy reportedrncomment.) But then, adults sense betterrnthan kids the national climate of intellechialrnterrorism that now surrounds the issuernof free expression, a climate in whichrnhonorable people with honest questionsrnabout the artistic value of sadomasochisticrnand homoerotic photographs are describedrnin some quarters as “convulsive”rnand in other quarters as book burners. Ifrnyou doubt it, I refer you first (and again)rnto the New York Times, and then to play-rn34/CHRONICLESrnrnrn