Today, Sotheby’s New York will be auctioning off a print of a controversial Robert Mapplethorpe photograph entitled Man in Polyester Suit (no, we won’t describe it for you). Twenty-five years ago the work was at the centre of criminal proceedings brought against the Cincinnati Art Center and its director for contravening US obscenity laws after the institution had displayed the work along with six other photographs by Mapplethorpe.
Most western countries continue to have fairly strict obscenity laws. For instance, in England and Wales we have the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964, as well as the common law offence of ‘outraging public decency’, all of which can operate against anyone looking to put on a show of contemporary art (or any art) that may rock the boat a little much. For more on the interplay between art and obscenity laws in the US, the UK and other jurisdictions, we recommend the comprehensive article by barrister Daniel Thomas published in the December 2007 issue of Art Antiquity and Law.