2 Live Crew and Mapplethorpe’s photos may be legal now, but the fight for decency isn’t over.

Nineteen-ninety may well be remembered as the year when decadence duked it out with decency—and it looked like decadence might win. The champions of decency lost a few rounds as 2 Live Crew and the photos of Robert Mapplethorpe took refuge under the banner of Art, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) told producers of X-rated material they would no longer have to wear that scarlet letter.

After these losses, we are worried that indecency is becoming “decent” in the land. Our courts, Hollywood boardrooms, and fine-arts centers seem increasingly to favor freedom of expression over common decency—and common sense.

Defensible reasons can be found, of course, constitutional and otherwise, for 2 Live Crew to be acquitted, as it recently was, for obscenity charges. The groups’ lyrics are offensive, obnoxious, and misogynist, but the defense marshaled experts who claimed the rappers’ “nasty as they wanna be” grossness had artistic merit. The music, it was claimed, did more than appeal merely to prurient interests, a key factor in applying the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

Much the same line of defense was successfully employed in Cincinnati, where a local jury acquitted the Contemporary Arts Center (and its director) of obscenity charges for exhibiting such Robert Mapplethorpe photographs as one of a man urinating into another’s mouth and of nude children with their genitals prominently featured. The label art, it seems, covers a multitude of sins. Especially when the prosecution fails to mount a persuasive alternate view.

But something more ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.