Twenty years later: Mapplethorpe,
art and politics
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 institution 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 photographs 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 –
Senator D’Amato tore up the SECCA catalogue on the Senate floor…
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 twenty-two] Members who in literally a matter of minutes… joined me in signing a strong letter of protest to the Endowment”. The letter,