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The Perfect Moment

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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.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 23, 2011 at 8:28 am

11 Responses

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  1. men urinating into others’ months .

    Shouldn’t it me mouths


    January 23, 2011 at 10:08 am

  2. (This included one Philadelphia curator who lectured on how meticulously Mapplethrope positioned the wrist that was penetrating an anus).

    If that’s not the stupidest statement I’ve heard in my life, I don’t know what is. Homosexual, heterosexual, hermaphrodite, etc. How the hell could anybody have a sensible conversation about that subject, much less a damn lecture. Idiotic.


    January 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm

  3. The correct spelling of the artist’s name is Mapplethorpe.

    Arthur Clemens

    January 23, 2011 at 12:36 pm

  4. @Davis: please explain what you mean. I don’t understand how you get to the idea that it is impossible to have a normal conversation about anal fisting, or how there is no sensible way to talk about the artistic elements therein, as opposed to, say, other renditions of human hands.

    But I am interested- please explain your theory.


    January 23, 2011 at 6:16 pm

  5. Creepy fucked up “country”!

    The sooner the ghastly nonsense that is Amerika is wiped from the earth the better!

    Catholic Boy

    January 23, 2011 at 11:52 pm

  6. Excellent post. I also don’t understand davisoftheapes1’s comment. The fact that wrist-positioning in anal fisting is not a generally discussed subject makes it that much more interesting, no?

    I continue to love this blog. Keep up the good work.


    January 24, 2011 at 12:30 am

  7. I, too, enjoy the vast amount of this blog but the Mapplethorpe entry got me thinking.
    I know that a measure of a civilization’s ‘greatness’ is it’s art; but at what point does art turn to debauchery? Isn’t the point of art to force the viewer to contemplate another way to see (or hear)? Viewing M’s work, there just isn’t anything there but raw sexual content. Even the picture attached does nothing to force one to see shade and shadow beyond the ridiculous model.
    The US is currently in a debate about the funding of the arts, as intimated by the author. Shouldn’t artists be forced to work to gain credibility in the marketplace rather than sit around on the public dole and make-up drivel like this? Artists of this sort are very well employed in the porn business…it seems a better vocation for this kind of vision.


    January 24, 2011 at 8:09 pm

  8. I’m a pretty active student of photography and not easily put off, but I’ve never been a fan of Mapplethorpe and could see canceling an exhibition of his simply because it did nothing for the art of photography and was seriously offensive to far to many people. Has nothing to do with liberal or conservative in my mind. His art lacks value to a broad swath of society.


    January 26, 2011 at 6:43 pm

  9. The point with Mapplethorpe is that the execution of the work is exquisite and reveals the artist to be a master of his medium.

    This contrasts nicely with the subject matter which hitherto has been the reserve of underground pornographers.

    Mapplethorpe exposes an unseen side of the human
    experience and that alone makes it worthy of inclusion.


    January 29, 2011 at 8:24 pm

  10. I heard a great radio program on this show on BBC Radio 4 in the last few years. It focused on the ‘underage’ element so to see one of the other images is great. Love your blog. XXX

    Mrs Gorman

    February 10, 2011 at 11:58 pm

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