"I really feel like we did the right thing," one of the jurors in the Cincinnati obscenity case said once the acquittal verdict was in. "Dennis Barrie didn't commit any crimes, and neither did the arts center." Right: The jury reached a proper verdict, and for that it deserves our thanks. But post-trial comments by several of the jurors suggest that they did the right thing for the wrong reason; if that is so, then Cincinnati is no famous victory at all, but merely opens the way to new strategies of anti-obscenity prosecution.

Barrie, the director of the Contemporary Arts Center, said after he and the arts museum were let off the hook, "I'm glad the struggle is over here in Cincinnati, but it's not over in the rest of the country." That's not the half of it. Once the jurors' comments have been thoroughly vetted by headline-happy prosecutors and anti-obscenity zealots, we're likely to be in for a new round of trials not merely elsewhere in the country but, should the occasion present itself, in Cincinnati as well.

This is because the jurors indicated that their verdict had less to do with the Robert Mapplethorpe photographs that caused the trouble than with the prosecution's failure to establish that they lacked serious artistic value. One after another, the jurors said that they found the photographs offensive; one said, "We all agreed they were gross -- I think most people would find them so," while another added, "We thought the pictures were lewd, grotesque, disgusting." But in the end they agreed that the pictures were "art," so they voted to exonerate the man and the museum that had shown them.

This is at first glance a wonderful verdict, a triumph for the jury system and for the common sense of ordinary Americans. After all, here you have a jury of eight people only one of whom had gone to college, men and women described by Isabel Wilkerson of the New York Times as "working-class people who had never heard of {the} museum and who were widely expected to rubber-stamp the wishes of anti-pornography groups." Yet they managed to transcend stereotypes, to vote against their own tastes in favor of what they were persuaded to believe were the higher interests of art.

In Barrie's words, the prosecutors "were rejected by the very people they supposedly represent." A lawyer in Cincinnati who is sympathetic to the arts said, "It shows that human beings, even if drawn from a vacuum, who had never seen the exhibit, who hadn't been to a museum in years and were about as homogenized a jury as you can get, that they can learn something." And what did they learn? "They learned what art is."

Oh yeah? Art is a photograph of one man urinating into another man's mouth? Art is photographs of various objects inserted into rectums and penises? Does anybody out there really believe that the defense persuaded this jury that these pictures are "art"? Of course it didn't. It won a far narrower victory; as one juror said, "The defendants were innocent until proven guilty, and they didn't prove them guilty." Why not? Because the prosecution had no "experts" on its side, while the defense had battalions.

The prosecution, which was either naive or incompetent or both, thought the evidence would be enough. Show a jury of eight Cincinnatians good and true "the S&M pictures," as the prosecutor called them, and that would be enough; they'd convict on the basis of what their eyes told them. So the prosecution brought in no one to argue its case save Judith Reisman, a "communications consultant" and former "Captain Kangaroo" songwriter whom Washingtonians with memories going back to 1985 may recall as the director of the Reagan Justice Department's overpriced, underproductive study of the effects on children of Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler magazines.

Reisman wasn't convincing in 1985 and she wasn't convincing in 1990, either. According to the Wall Street Journal she "called the pictures immoral because of their 'anonymous images' and lack of human feeling, but conceded under cross examination that she had not seen any of them on display." That, for the prosecution, was that. But the defense, by contrast, hauled out the art critics for both Cincinnati newspapers and four directors of art museums elsewhere in the country, all of whom sang hosannas to Mapplethorpe and, more to the immediate point, argued that his pictures had artistic merit.

This, to the jury, in the end was all that mattered. Its members agreed that the Mapplethorpe photos appealed to a prurient interest in sex and portrayed sexual acts in an offensive way, which is to say that on two of the Supreme Court's tests for obscenity Mapplethorpe -- and by extension Barrie and the museum -- failed the test. But the Supreme Court also requires that material in question be shown to have no redeeming artistic value; it is to this point that the "experts" for the defense spoke, and it is this that carried the day.

Here is how one juror put it: "All of the {experts}, to a person, were so certain it was art. We had to go with what we were told. It's like Picasso. Picasso from what everybody tells me was an artist. It's not my cup of tea. I don't understand it. But if people say it's art, then I have to go along with it." Another juror said: "If the prosecution could have come up with just one credible witness -- a sociologist, a psychologist, somebody, anybody -- maybe we would have voted differently."

Let's repeat those words, with italics added: " ... sociologist, a psychologist, somebody, anybody ... " One needn't be a sociologist or a psychologist or any other kind of ologist to understand what this man was saying: The jury was prepared to convict, perhaps even wanted to convict, but the prosecution failed to give it the "expert" testimony it needed to support its inclinations. That the witnesses for the defense may as easily have been wrong as right is beside the point; they made an articulate case for the artistic value of the photographs, and the prosecution made none at all in rebuttal.

This is testimony to the touchingly naive faith in "expertise" that permeates American life, nowhere to more telling effect than in the courts of justice, but as to the immediate question at hand it is considerably more than that. It is the key to future obscenity prosecutions of controversial material offered to the public as "art," and it should be seen as a signal that the new wave of legal action has only just begun.

It takes no great genius to see that prosecutors will read the news from Cincinnati and take their cue from it. The battalions of "experts" ready to testify to the artistic merit of material such as the Mapplethorpe photographs will be met on the next testing ground by battalions of "experts" prepared to testify exactly to the contrary. Juries inclined to convict will be given an intellectual excuse to do so; people who think they won't seize that opportunity are deceiving themselves, for the reaction against offensive material is deep and the desire to strike out against it, even if unfairly, is no less so.

Make no mistake about it: A case can be made against the likes of Mapplethorpe, not merely on moral grounds but on artistic ones. Having seen his photographs only in reproduction, not on display, I would not presume to argue that case; but expertise is no one-way street, so surely there are those with legitimate qualifications in art who are prepared to testify as strongly against him as the Cincinnati witnesses testified in his behalf. The battle is far from over; though the triumph of free expression is devoutly to be wished for, it will not be all that great a pity if along the way the arrogant, complacent arts establishment is taken down a peg or two.