Dirty Pictures (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Dirty Pictures is a made-for-showtime film about the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in Cincinnati. The legal issue was whether the art gallery and its director were guilty of publicly displaying obscenity.

It is clear that he was not legally guilty. It is not possible to argue that the pictures have no artistic merit, an argument which is essential to prove an obscenity conviction, irrespective of the subject matter. The prosecution didn't even present any case that the pictures were obscene!

The national media controversy, however, centered around much more than the narrow legal issues.

  • The religious right simply opposed the exhibition on general moral grounds.
  • Libertarians and conservatives alike used the discussion as a podium to oppose government spending on art, obscene or otherwise. (It's regressive taxation. The people who attend art museums and watch PBS have, on the average, much higher incomes than the average taxpayer. In essence, it's the poor paying taxes so the rich can watch operas. Libertarians consider the subject matter irrelevant, and ask why the government should be involved in art at all.)
  • Many sophisticated Cincinnatians supported the exhibit because they didn't want the world looking on their city as a refuge for backwoods bumpkins.
  • Many supported the museum's right to make an artistic decision.
  • Many minority groups got involved with the case as an extension of the repression that they themselves felt. Mapplethorpe was gay, and many people on both sides of the issue felt it was appropriate to discuss the homosexual implications.

Interesting issue with no real room for common ground for the opposed viewpoints.

The film combines actual footage from real people on both sides of the controversy - President Bush, Salman Rushdie, Barney Frank, William Buckley and others - with a fictionalized "docudrama" re-creation of the events.

I'd say the film's greatest weakness is that it is one-sided. The opponents of the show are generally pictured as corrupt politicians in a good old boy league with one another, or conspiratorial religious zealots with no grasp on reality, or both. The district attorney is pictured as an obese and satanic southern caricature, ala Orson Welles in "Touch of Evil". The judge is pictured as having ignored all law and all common sense to impose his own view on the results.


The film shows every or almost every picture in the Mapplethorpe exhibition.
The other major weakness is that nobody really defends the art on artistic grounds. Even the supporters of the arts, and the museum director himself, even the first amendment lawyers are shown to be embarrassed, often disgusted by Mapplethorpe's work.

The film is really into making the point that freedom of speech must extend even to the most disgusting opposing viewpoints. As Salman Rushdie comments on screen, you believe in freedom of speech only if you believe in the right of people to say what is unpalatable to you. Otherwise, you're only supporting people's right to agree with you. But I'm not sure if Mapplethorpe is so uniformly suitable for this purpose. After all, he isn't the American Nazi Party or Larry Flynt. He was a genuine aesthete, and a brilliant photographer, but the film tends to make a joke of the art experts who defend him on artistic grounds.

The controversial pictures:

  • male child with genitals exposed
  • female child with genitals exposed
  • male fist-fucking
  • finger inserted into a penis
  • a guy with a whip handle stuck in his butt
  • one guy urinating toward another man's mouth

DVD info from Amazon.

It's a standard 4:3 version with a chapter menu. The picture quality is acceptable, but there are no other features.

Additional reviews of the film:

Susan Granger

Culture Vulture

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: No major reviews.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.8, but based on only 30 votes.

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