Dirty Pictures

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This movie missed a good occasion to make a substantial contribution in the discussion about censorship. It's about the law proceedings concerning a traveling exhibition with pictures of renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the year 1990. Some of the exhibits (they are presented in the movie) have a sexual content that a general public may deem shocking. In Washington State the exhibit was not allowed to be shown, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the sheriff started a lawsuit against the curator of the museum in which the exhibition was made accessible to the public in the said town.

The movie gives too much attention to the hysteria on both sides. The accusers are shown as dimwits who want to start a dictatorship, the defendants as ultra sensitive art experts who see themselves as martyrs for a noble cause. "I'm not Larry Flynt", whines the curator of the museum. Being compared with the publisher of pornographic magazines is apparently the worst that could happen to him. And exactly at this point I would have wanted an expose about what art is in our present days – but there is no response at all to that statement. Nobody tells the viewers how one should differ. After all there never was a society in which so many pictures are shoved in people's faces on a daily basis as ours. A picture in itself has ceased to be art a long time ago. All a good photographer has to do, basically, is excluding any unwanted chance elements in a picture. Once you release the shutter you'll get something.

Unfortunately the movie does not treat the art issue in a satisfying manner. It fails to deliver new food for thought. It does not make the acceptance of image content an issue. The curator argues that in old churches you find naked cherubims without anybody complaining – so why should the public be offended by Mapplethorpe taking a picture of a naked boy? I thought that was an extremely bad comparison that should have provoked protest. The presence of cherubims in a church has to do with a specific location. And it has a specific context (which has nothing to do with a democratic society, by the way). I think that's what is missing in displaying contemporary art, a perceptible context (star architects alone won't do the trick). Liberty in expression seems to me insufficient as a purpose for art, if you agree that art needs a public. And the question of censorship should not in every case be ridiculed (how to go about it, that is another story).

Dirty Pictures is a docudrama. It recounts real events from a predictable, uninspired perspective. Instead of including comments of intellectuals (thus strengthening the avantgarde expert angle) including, of all people, Salman Rushide (what on earth has he got to do with graphic art??) the movie should have focused more on the deliberations of the jury who decided in favor of the museum. The opinion of a section of ordinary people would have interested me more.


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