Dirty Pictures

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March 31, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

Dirty Pictures is not a good film. The pacing and focus is scattershot, like a series of half-finished sentences. The editing is to blame here as the insistence on mixing documentary interviews and footage with a courtroom, jury-room, family, political, social etc. drama never allows the film an identity. It’s dramatically and emotionally stilted. The characters are bland, with the worst being one-dimensional caricatures that make the film feel more like propaganda than it was probably intended to be. The acting is amateurish, and even James Woods can’t add any vitality.

But what exactly is it that allows me to pass such judgment on the film to begin with? Is it actually something in the film? Is it just something inside me as a viewer? Is it a mixture? Where do these standards come from, how do they form, and how do we decide what standard to apply to what art and whether or not it falls within any notions of good, bad, or any other categorical adjective you might use? More importantly, as you might be asking, what the hell does that have to do with this film?

In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati and its director, Dennis Barrie (James Woods), chose to show an exhibition of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s entitled “The Perfect Moment”. The piece had already generated controversy for its explicit imagery including nude, underage children and sadomasochistic acts such as Mapplethorpe himself with a bullwhip inserted into his anus, but the Cincinnati showcase brought national attention to it. Ultimately, the police, lead by Sheriff Simon Leis (Craig T. Nelson), seized seven of the pictures and charged Barrie with peddling obscenity, resulting in the trial where the issue sparked a national debate over obscenity vs. art and their relation to the First Amendment.

Like the good/bad issue in art, the entire case was built around exactly how human beings define two words, obscenity and art. Definitions of both are given in the film, but they utterly fail to help us (or anyone) in assigning such labels to Mapplethorpe’s work, relying instead on how people react to it. Reading definitions that attempt to define external or internal phenomena in words, if pursued long enough, can only lead one to the circular problem:

1. offensive to morality or decency; indecent; depraved: obscene language.

1. Offensive to good taste; unseemly.

1. Morally corrupt; perverted.

2. Conformity to prevailing standards of propriety or modesty.

1. The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.
2. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct.

1. Conforming with or conformable to justice, law, or morality.

Everyone knows what these words “mean,” but pinning down precisely what they refer to is another matter. The same issue has followed pornography through its various trials, perhaps most famously leading to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stating “I know it when I see it”. But what happens when we don’t know it when we see it, or when different people think they know different things after seeing it?

The problem is that people make these issues about words when it’s actually about the combination of the ontology—the essentialness—of objects, and our experience of, and reaction to, those objects. Words are just the means by which we try to tie one to the other. The mistake is made when words stop being a link and start being a webbed mess tangled by people who mistake their reactions and, by extension, words, as being one-and-the-same with the objects that provoked them. This has become one of the biggest obstacles in the wake of modern thought, the idea that how we think about things, even when we agree, isn’t necessarily tied to the objective world. The world simply is, but our adaptation to it hasn’t meant perceiving it as what it is, but in ways that promote survival and reproduction. Yet we’ve forged on even after realizing our lack of clear perception, filtering anything we come to know about it right through our biases again, while attempting to reconcile the differences.

What a trial like Barrie’s reveals is that, regardless of the verdict, it doesn’t resolve the essential question of whether the photographs were art or obscenity. The dangling question remains, the same as with the falling tree that nobody hears. It’s because the question is irresolvable. A true rationalist says that once we’ve fully described the qualities of the object and our reaction to those objects then there’s nothing left. To tie one to the other and dump them in a mental folder labeled “obscenity” or “art” and convincing ourselves of the truthfulness of that will never make it one or the other.

So what do we do then?

Perhaps all that’s left is for everyone to make their arguments and let time, or juries, decide, while, in the meantime, finding some measure of comfort in that scary realm of uncertainty. Unfortunately, because our minds are designed to eliminate uncertainty we resort to actions, based on our deluded sense of surety, that are infinitely more obscene and animalistic than any pictures that could ever possibly be taken. The film, for all its flaws, does present this aspect of the process. “None of this has been fair,” Barrie says when he decides to take the stand, referring to the harassment of him and his family over a simple decision to put on an art display. There’s certainly a potent irony in the fact that the people who espouse such moral values are the ones who turn the most violent when attempting to protect them against “threats”, whether those threats are real or just imagined.

The film, while predictable, also ends on a provocative note of uncertain counterpoint. [SPOILER ALERT]After the typical triumphant moment of Barrie’s acquittal[/SPOILER] the mysterious man that has appeared multiple times in the film appears for one last monologue to the audience, stating that whatever battle might have been won by First Amendment activists, the war is still being fought, and perhaps lost, as nobody is willing to put up that same fight. It reveals a dark truth that such wars don’t really end, they just go through moments of getting more and/or less publicity, and that big battles won can easily lead to wars lost if those on either side don’t remain vigilant.

But such wars are the end results of problems forged on a much more personal and epistemological level. One of art’s greatest strengths is its ability to provoke reactions, emotion, thought and discussion. But the best thing would be to stop worrying about answering the questions (is it art or obscenity?) and vigorously pursue the reasons behind why it provokes the question to begin with. Instead of reacting with shocked disgust and labeling the work as obscene, or reacting with shocked interest and labeling the work as art, we should push ourselves to dig deeper to understand what it is in the work and what is in ourselves that has provoked that shock, that disgust, that interest. Perhaps then we can transcend the limiting nature of words and even truth based on human perception, and discover something about ourselves and the world around us.

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