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"Real" Homosexuality: Robert Mapplethorpe's Photography in a Political Landscape

Deborah Sosower


At each moment, the question boils down to this: dignity on whose terms? Increasingly, the answer is that to have dignity gay people must be seen as normal.
--Michael Warner


No medium or arena is free from political assimilation. Perhaps this is why the term "the personal is political" is so reverberant in such a multitude of communities. In the fine arts community, every art piece reflects a personal decision or touch; what medium to best describe a subject or idea in, or the physical shape and making of art by an artist, for example, are ways in which each artist has ownership over their own work. When art is displayed for an audience, the very act of placing a personal piece into the public sphere creates a forum for interactive and political dialogue and judgment. To present artwork in a public arena authorizes the audience to construe interpretation and assessment on that art. The policies and politics that dictate the arrival of art for the public purview are not immune to the authority and judgment-making that occurs once the art is on display. There are foundations and organizations that are founded and funded by the government for the promotion and distribution of fine arts, which of necessity are bound by the legal and litigious dictates of the governing bodies and the public it represents. When artwork or an artist is controversial, it becomes a political issue due to the governmental involvement in funding, and thus approving, of the contentious art or art-maker. For artists who work in the photographic medium, controversies arise more readily due to the realism of the images. In the case of Robert Mapplethorpe, a prominent and sensationalist photographer of the '70s and '80s, his photography was the site for which conservative senator Jesse Helms was able to symbolize the misinterpretations of visual representation for 'real' action.


Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was a gay male artist who died at the age of 43 of AIDS. His technically brilliant and stylistically scandalous images sparked both controversy and contemplation. He was both praised and derogated by his stark and honest appraisal of the erotic male nude, sadomasochism culture and practices, and homoerotic and multiracial portraits. "Mapplethorpe's work has a 'shocking' quality both for his choice of subject matter and the fact that the photograph is intrinsically more realistic than painting because the images are 'real'." (Cooper, 285). North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms advocated an amendment for the defunding of the National Endowment of the Arts in response to their funding of Robert Mapplethorpe, citing that Mapplethorpe's work was "homoerotic" and "sick" due to the homosexual nature of the artist and subject matter. "'Homoeroticism' is, I take it, a term that concedes the indeterminate status of this sexuality, for it is not simply the acts that qualify as homosexual under the law, but the ethos, the spreading power of this sexuality, which must also be rooted out." (Butler, 195). Three months after Mapplethorpe's death, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. dropped his show due to conservative pressures in Congress. The following year the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center was prosecuted with obscenity charges for showing Mapplethorpe's works, the first time that an art gallery has been brought to court for any controversial work they have shown. The charges against the gallery and the director were eventually dropped, but the questions of censorship, homophobia and federal funding are still echoing from the contentious affair. Helms' criticism raises the question of what can be considered obscene or unworthy of public acclaim, and who has the authority to determine it? "The Helms amendment reinforces the category of identity as a site of political crisis; who and what wields the power to define the homosexual real?" (Butler, 199). Helms' portrayal of the offensive art collided with his insistence on the indecency of the artist himself, "...the figure of Mapplethorpe is already a stand-in for the figure of the homosexual male, so that the target is a representation of homosexuality which, according to the representational theory Helms presumes, is in some sense the homosexual himself." (Butler, 195). This serves to illustrate that attacking the art as obscene translates into an attack on the artist, which many members of society give authority and credence to due to their disapproval and ignorance of homosexuality.


Judith Butler links Helms with Mapplethorpe through the fantastic level of representation to real, construed especially through his use of photography. She writes that it is the homosexual identity that Helms is policing and categorizing. It is the photographic and seemingly documentary quality of the work that allows Helms this interpretive access.

"Helms not only extends those legal precedents that categorize homosexuality as obscenity, but, rather, authorizes and orchestrates through those legal statutes a restriction of the very terms by which homosexuality is culturally defined. One interpretation could claim that this tactic is simply an occasion for Helms to assault the gay male artistic community, or gay men generally, as well as the sexual practices phantasmatically imposed upon them. The political response is then to develop a political resistance to this move by simply reversing the argument, claiming that gay men are not as he says, that Mapplethorpe is more significant and more properly artistic. It is not merely that Helms characterizes homosexuality unfairly, but that he constructs homosexuality itself through a set of exclusions that call to be politically interrogated." (Butler, 197)


How does Senator Helms achieve the authority to question and interrogate Mapplethorpe or his work? "Political groups that mediate between queers and normals find that power lies almost exclusively on the normal side." (Warner, 44). By attacking Mapplethorpe as being abnormal and defiantly alien, Helms is asserting his own status as an opposite of Mapplethorpe, and thus, normal. It is through his assertion of his own normalcy and championship of the ideals of normal and moral society that Helms proliferated his opinions and legislation. However, in his call for the censorship of what he deemed "depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, and the exploitation of children," (Butler, 195), he is actually giving political and media importance to Mapplethorpe's work and vision. "...what Helms performs...is a kind of representational violence.....if prohibitions invariably produce and proliferate the representations that they seek to control, then the political task is to promote a proliferation of representations, sites of discursive production, which might then contest the authoritative production produced by the prohibitive law." (Butler, 197). Negative exposure is still exposure, which is particularly apt in talking about a famed photographer. Through Helms' vigorous attacks of Mapplethorpe, the artists' photography became even more accessible to the mainstream and thus had an increased potential for public education and elucidation.


I am positing that it was not necessarily that nature of Mapplethorpe's sexuality or appraisal of images that enabled him to be so easily villainized by Helms, but rather his use of the photographic medium to capture masculine eroticism. "It is photographers who have mapped out this terrain [of the growth and extension of machismo] most precisely. Their point of view has become one of involvement and participation rather than observation." (Cooper, 284). In its nature, photography reflects a more realistic interpretation of what the artist views in such a way as to allow easy identification for an audience. Due to the clarity of photographs, the separation of real from the representational is easier to collapse. "The anti-pornography effort to impute a causal or temporal relation between the phantasmatic and the real raises a set of problems...by establishing causal lines among representation, fantasy, and action, one can effectively argue that the representation is discriminatory action." (Butler, 192). Therefore, if one interprets a photograph, which is a visual representation, as something that is real and consequently agent, it is logical to assume that there will be real consequences from viewing the photograph. However, this logic is refutable in that no matter the realism of the image, a photograph is not a window into current reality, "The reason why representations do not jump off the page to club us over the head...is that even pornographic representations as textualized fantasy do not supply a single point of identification for their viewers, whether presumed to be stabilized in subject-positions of male or female." (Butler, 193). Mapplethorpe's photography specifically used elaborately staged lighting and posing of models, which belie any immediacy of sexual action in the first place. This is not to say that the effect of Mapplethorpe's depictions are unauthentic or disingenuous, "His particular aesthetic involves crystal clarity which has nothing to do with the snap-shot and flash gun technique of commercial pornography. Thus the most extreme S&M scenes...soon take on a 'natural' quality which can be objectively studied even if some people find the subject matter overwhelming." (Cooper, 286). What is appreciable in this critique is the acceptance of the artistry despite the potentially offensive images. Mapplethorpe's personal preferences or professional interests are explored due to their impact on his art and not for the sake of categorizing him as normal, real, or even homosexual. The understanding of the art form and the process supercede concerns over representation or realism.


An intervention is necessary in order for the art world , the government, or any social movement to fight back in the face of censorship or discrimination in art. A call for education is needed, to better understand the medium of photography and the articulation of queer culture and sexuality therein.

"When you begin interacting with people in queer culture...you unlearn [the] perspective [that the gay and lesbian people have become part of a gay trend.] You learn that everyone deviates from the norm in some context or other, and that the statistical norm has no moral value...you begin to recognize that there are other worlds of interaction that the mass media cannot comprehend, worlds that they can only deform when they project images of...deviant scenes. To seek out queer culture, to interact with it and learn from it, is a kind of public activity. It is a way of transforming oneself, and at the same time helping to elaborate a commonly accessible world." (Warner, 70-71)

Mapplethorpe's personal story stands as a testimony of the power that photographic art has on government policies and political expressions. In order to promote the continuing federal support of artists independent of discrimination more queer community outreach and arts education is indispensable. To continue to discriminate against a homosexual artist, homoerotic art or the photographic medium is a disservice to the necessary art and artists who contribute to our cultural growth.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. "The Force of Fantasy: Mapplethorpe, Feminism, and Discursive Excess." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 2:2 (1990), pp. 105-25.

Cooper, Emmanuel. The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the last 100 Years in the West. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Warner, Michael. Chapter Two: "What's Wrong with Normal?" The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life. New York: Free Press, (1999), pp. 41-80.


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