The Perfect Moment
The show, titled “The Perfect Moment”, could easily have been called “The Perfect Storm”. On June 12nd, 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. announced that it was canceling a traveling exhibition of Robert Mapplethrope photos which was scheduled to open on July 1st. The gallery had been under intense pressure from conservatives to cancel the exhibition, and its Board of Trustees initially supported the cancellation. Eventually they backtracked after the museum membership dropped by 10%, senior stuff resigned, prominment artists forbade the museum to show their work, and another venue in the capital picked up the Mapplethrope exhibition and the profits instead.
When the traveling Mapplethrope show reached Cincinnati, Ohio, the police briefly shut down the Contemporary Arts Centre to examine the pictures. The videotapes taken there would be used as evidence to charge the centre and its director with obscenity in connection with seven photos, five showing sadomasochistic sex and two showing naked children. The ensuing trial was a farce. Eight-member jury, of four men and four women, were mostly blue-collar and suburban, and only three had ever been to a museum. The state so confident that the jury would easily agree that the photos were obscene that the only prosecution witnesses were police officers brought in to testify that the photographs had actually been in the show. This strategy spectacularly backfired when the defense called in expert witness after expert witness for five days. (This included one Philadelphia curator who lectured on how meticulously Mapplethrope positioned the wrist that was penetrating an anus). After just two hours of deliberation, the jury agreed that the pictures could be considered as art and acquitted the museum.
Had he been alive for a few more months, Mapplethrope — who died in March 1989 at age 42, of complications from AIDS — would no doubt have enjoyed the enormous fuss he had caused. Although he was perfectly capable of creating suggestive and beautiful pictures sans sex — like sharply lit and enticing pictures of flowers — Mapplethrope pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable and what was not. His explicit photographs are of homosexual S&M, blunt images of rough sex, men urinating into others’ mouths, fists in anuses; the photos were as one critic noted, “a calm Apollonian framework for wild Dionysian content”. Although many family-value conservatives were deeply offended in D.C. and Ohio, the show opened without fuss in Philadelphia and Chicago and the offending material was confined in an age-restricted “X” portfolio.
But in that summer of 1989, media circus over Piss Christ poisoned the political atmosphere. Unlike Piss Christ and its creator, the Corcoran, the CAC or Mapplethrope never received any federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, but the conservative war on the NEA was only just beginning. Despite the NEA’s best efforts to placate its critics, the GOP cut its funding by more than a third after unsuccessfully trying to axe it altogether. Artists angered by new NEA decency rules took their grievances to federal courts, whose rulings were often narrow and vague. In 1998, one such case reached the Supreme Court, only to result in a hair-splitting decision that satisfied no one. The NEA funding never recovered from these fights in the early 90s. In 2008, President Obama’s first budget allocated $161.3 million fro the NEA. That figure is $8 million less than what the agency got in 1989.