SomethingDark
<<
<
Click to view page 0 - cover Click to view page 2 - contents Click to view page 4 - editorial Click to view page 6 - news Click to view page 8 - news Click to view page 10 - photography Click to view page 12 - photography Click to view page 14 - photography Click to view page 16 - photography Click to view page 18 - photography Click to view page 20 - photography Click to view page 22 - photography_interview Click to view page 24 - photography_interview Click to view page 26 - nonfiction Click to view page 28 - nonfiction_feature Click to view page 30 - nonfiction_feature Click to view page 32 - nonfiction_critique Click to view page 34 - nonfiction-reflection Click to view page 36 - art Click to view page 38 - art Click to view page 40 - art Click to view page 42 - art Click to view page 44 - art Click to view page 46 - art_interview Click to view page 48 - art_interview Click to view page 50 - featured-fetish Click to view page 52 - featured-fetish_research Click to view page 54 - featured-fetish_research Click to view page 56 - featured-fetish Click to view page 58 - featured-fetish_article Click to view page 60 - featured-fetish Click to view page 62 - art_article Click to view page 64 - featured-fetish_research Click to view page 66 - featured-fetish_research Click to view page 68 - featured-fetish_research Click to view page 70 - SomethingDark Click to view page 72 - literature Click to view page 74 - literature Click to view page 76 - literature_interview Click to view page 78 - literature_interview Click to view page 80 - inReview Click to view page 82 - inReview Click to view page 84 - inReview Click to view page 86 - inReview Click to view page 88 - inReview Click to view page 90 - something-drawn Click to view page 92 - back-cover
>
>>


Feature

Twenty years later: Mapplethorpe, art and politics

by Daryl Champion

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the first time in American history that an obscenity case was brought against an art museum and its director for the art displayed in its galleries. The museum was the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, its director was Dennis Barrie, and the exhibition was Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment.

The Perfect Moment was curated by Janet Kardon, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia, an insti-
tution of the University of Pennsylvania, and was “the first traveling exhibition and the largest exhibition to date of the works of one of the most important photographers of our time”.1 The exhibition was a major retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s 20-year career, and “feature[d] over 150 silver

prints, platinum prints on paper and canvas…color photographs, Polaroids, photo-collages that incorporate lush fabrics, and sculptural objects. Subject matter focuses on three traditional genres: still lifes, nudes, and portraits”.2 His still lifes notably featured flowers; his portraits notably featured arts, society and cultural figures; his nudes notably included homoerotic imagery; and, straddling the boundaries of portrait and nude were his photo-
graphs of sadomasochism and nude and semi-nude children, the work often described in the art world as “difficult images”, and in the world of reactionary moralism as “obscenity” and “child pornography”.3

Mapplethorpe died of AIDS-
related illness on 9 March 1989 at the age of 42, three months after The Perfect Moment’s opening at the ICA, and not quite two weeks into the exhibition’s showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where it was being greeted with critical acclaim and would go on to “[draw] the highest attendance in the MCA’s history, without a whisper of controversy”.4

While the exhibition was a success in the galleries of the museums in Philadelphia and Chicago, an impassioned debate over federal funding for the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was escalating in Washington DC. Political conservatives had always opposed federal arts funding since before the NEA was established in September 1965, and they had opposed the NEA
at every opportunity.5 By mid-1989, socioreligious conservatives – some of whom were also in federal politics, such as the Republican Senators Jesse Helms and Alfonse D’Amato – were adding their considerable lobbying power to those arguments on the grounds that public money should not in any way be used to support art they characterised as “deplorable, despicable display[s] of vulgarity”, as “trash” and “filth”,6 as “blasphemy” and as “dishonor[ing] our Lord” and “taunting the American people”,7 and as “shocking, abhorrent and completely undeserving of any recognition whatsoever”.8

The initial outrage on Capitol Hill was promoted by the American

Family Association (AFA) and its very active founder and chairman, the Reverend Donald E. Wildmon, over a photograph by New York artist Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, which was exhibited as part of an NEA-supported annual series mounted by the Southeastern

Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), North Carolina.9 The SECCA’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” exhibition had travelled to ten cities without incident, and had closed by the end of January 1989 – three months before the AFA began its campaign against Serrano’s exhibit. Political, social and religious conservatives found common ground and forged a de facto alliance, and the campaign against controversial sociosexual art, and against the NEA, gathered momentum.

Senator D’Amato tore up the SECCA catalogue on the Senate floor on 18 May and announced he was “proud of the [other

Senator D’Amato tore up the SECCA catalogue on the Senate floor…

nonfiction
nonfiction
28
29

Twenty years later: Mapplethorpe, art and politics - Nonfuction - SDk01

Issue Credits

Footnotes:

1 Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. December 9, 1988 – January 29, 1989”, exhibition promotion page, ICA website.

2 ICA, Philadelphia, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment”, exhibition promotion page, ICA website.

3 For the art-world view, see, for example, Mark Jarzombek, “The Mapplethorpe trial and the paradox of its formalist and liberal defense: sights of contention,” AppendX, no. 2 (Spring 1994), pp. 58–81. For the view of the Cincinnati-based moralists, see, for example, Isabel Wilkerson, “Trouble right here in Cincinnati: furor over Mapplethorpe exhibit”, New York Times, 29 March 1990. Edward de Grazia, writing from a First Amendment (free speech) lawyer’s viewpoint, presents the opposing views on obscenity, art, censorship and freedom of expression in his treatment of the events leading up to and situating the CAC–Mapplethorpe controversy in US national sociopolitical, legal and arts-debate context (Edward de Grazia, Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius, New York: Random House, 1992, pp. 622–56). And, for a sober view from Rosie Bowdrey and Jesse McBride, who were the subjects of, and are perhaps the most qualified to offer an opinion on, the contentious Mapplethorpe semi-nude and nude child portraits Rosie and Jesse McBride, see Melanie Rickey, “Revealed (again): Mapplethorpe’s model”, Independent, 15 Sept. 1996 (for Rosie Bowdrey); and Ingrid Sischy, “White and Black”, The New Yorker, 13 Nov. 1989, pp. 141–2 (for Jesse McBride).

4 Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, “History of the MCA”, entry for 1989.

5 See Cynthia Koch, “The contest for American culture: a leadership case study on the NEA and NEH funding crisis”, Penn Public Talk Project online journal, University of Pennsylvania. Koch provides details of particularly savage attacks on the NEA at the beginning of the Ronald Reagan presidency, resulting in a real dollar reduction in funding of around 50 percent through the 1980s. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), established along with the NEA in 1965, was suffering a similar predicament (see Koch, the section “The Reagan crisis”). See also Michael Kimmelman, “Helms bill, whatever its outcome, could leave mark on arts grants”, New York Times, 30 July 1989.

6 Alfonse D’Amato (R-New York), Congressional Record, 101st Congress, “National Endowment for the Arts”, Senate, 18 May 1989, p. S5594.

7 Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), Congressional Record, 101st Congress, “National Endowment for the Arts”, Senate, 18 May 1989, p. S5595.

8 Senator D’Amato’s letter to the NEA, 18 May 1989: Congressional Record, 101st Congress, “National Endowment for the Arts”, Senate, 18 May 1989, p. S5594. The letter was presented to the Senate with the signatures of twenty-three signatures including D’Amato’s.

9 Wildmon, a United Methodist Church minister in Mississippi, founded the National Federation for Decency in 1977 – which became the AFA in 1988. He is described on the AFA website in 2010 as having been “on the frontlines of America’s culture war” for thirty-two years. The AFA today claims to have “approximately 180,000 paid subscribers” to its monthly magazine and “nearly 200 radio stations across the country under the American Family Radio (AFR) banner” (see the AFA website, “Who is AFA?”). For an account of Serrano as an artist and the outrage over his Piss Christ, see Grazia, Girls Lean Back Everywhere, pp. 628–33.

Contributors: Amoxes Anne Tourney Artpunk Arwendur Daryl Champion Eugène Satyrisci Geof Banyard Kedamono Mangy
Resources: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Sardax Tank magazine Washington Project for the Arts