BOSTON -- There were times when the Mapplethorpe trial in Cincinnati produced testimony worthy of the title attached to the museum exhibit: "The Perfect Moment."
Perfect Moment No. 1: Prosecutor Frank Prouty holds up two photographs, one of a man with a bullwhip in his rectum. He asks the art director who chose these images for the show: "Would you call these sexual acts?"
She answers: "I would call them figure studies."
Perfect Moment No. 2: Prouty questions museum director Dennis Barrie: "This photograph of a man with his finger inserted in his penis, what is the artistic content of that?"
He responds: "It's a striking photograph in terms of light and composition."
Perfect Moment No. 3: This one occurs when even the most devoted defender of free expression lifts her eyes from the page to offer her own art criticism to the great curator in the sky: "Aaaarggh!"
There was never any doubt in my mind that the trial over Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs would bring a "cultural clash" into the courtroom. Soho meets Cincinnati.
But at the trial, the testimony often sounded like a linguistic battle, a tale of two tongues: one side speaking art; one side speaking English. It sounded less like a case about obscenity than about class, elitism, artistic sensibilities and common sense.
Americans often divide like this when dealing with art. One group thinks that Andy Warhol's Brillo Box is brilliant, and the other thinks it's a scam. Each believes the other a pack of fools, though one may be called snobs and the other rubes. Guess which one is larger?
The divide is bad enough when the argument is about Brillo. But when it's about bodies, watch out.
The seven photographs at issue in this trial contain some grotesque subjects. In one of them a man urinates into another man's mouth. Show me somebody who can look at that photograph and think about the composition, the symmetry, the classical arc of the liquid, and I'll show you someone with an advanced degree in fine arts. This was the sort of thing said in Cincinnati.
In the wake of this, it is remarkable that the verdict was not guilty. A jury without a single museum-goer, artist or student of "What is Art?" decided that the museum was protected turf in the legal quarrel over obscenity.
But the trial in Cincinnati, like the troubles at the National Endowment for the Arts, is partly the result of the art world's own chic insularity. The troubles come because the art community speaks its private language to a circle so small, so cozy and so closed as to be dangerously isolated.
Perfect Moment Number Four: The prosecution asked how art was determined -- was it merely the whim of the museum?
The witness, a museum director, said no, it was the culture at large. And this is how he defined the culture at large: "museums, critics, curators, historians, galleries."
I agree with the decision and with those who defended the museum's right to show these photographs. To leave the dark side out of a Mapplethorpe show would be like leaving the tortured black paintings out of a retrospective of Goya's work. It wouldn't be legitimate to pick and choose the sunny side of the work -- the Calla lilies and celebrities -- and show it as the whole.
Indeed, as the director also said, Mapplethorpe set out to capture the line between the disgusting and the beautiful. There is room in life for the deliberately disturbing. The museum's room -- a glass case in a separate gallery -- was tame enough.
But even in the moment of victory, there is still a warning here. This trial, and the funding woes of the NEA, are not just the fault of Jesse Helms on the rampage. They are the fault as well of an art community whose members prefer to live in a rarefied climate, talking to each other, subject only to "peer review" and scornful of those who translate the word "art" into "smut."
In many cities, there is still the knock of the policeman at the door. Having failed to make its case in public, the art community ends up making it in court. In the history of art, this is not a perfect moment.