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"[Mapplethorpe] assaulted the New York avant-garde with his camera, and won.' Edward Lucie-Smith smiled. 'Robert Mapplethorpe was a cultural terrorist.'"
- Jack Fritscher
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait, 1978
Ken & Tyler, Self-Portrait
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 his or her 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 assess 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. In order for galleries, museums, or universities to display artwork, their high level officials must approve the works. Furthermore, when the work is on display it reflects back on the institution it is in, the leaders of that institution who approve it, and ultimately the artist who made the work herself. There are foundations and organizations that are funded by the government for the promotion and distribution of fine arts, which of necessity are bound by the legal dictates of the governing bodies and the public it represents for these reasons. When artwork or an artist is controversial, it becomes a political issue due to governmental involvement in funding of --and thus universally approving-- 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. Homoerotic photographic art in particular is the site of political and social stigmatization, as exemplified by Robert Mapplethorpe's life and work. Mapplethorpe's photography was the catalyst from which conservative senator Jesse Helms was able to symbolize the misinterpretations of visual representation for "real" or authentic action and criticize his work as "obscene" due to its homoerotic content.
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was a gay male artist who died at the age of 43 of AIDS. His technically brilliant and stylistically disreputable images sparked both controversy and contemplation. He was equally praised and derogated by his stark and honest appraisal of the erotic male nude, his depiction of sadomasochistic culture and practices, and his own and others' 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). He is an iconic artist for gay culture because his photography beautifully and publicly portrayed what had previously only been represented in underground depictions of homoeroticism. Mapplethorpe is a celebrated artist in the realm of photography and freedom of expression due to his posthumous involvement in one of the most important censorship debates in America. "Although the Stonewall riots which marked the beginnings of gay liberation occurred in 1969, photographs addressing gay culture became internationally important only in 1980. These photographs were made by Robert Mapplethorpe" (Hulick & Marshall, 248). Mapplethorpe's photographs shaped not only his own life and career but also the face of photography as a medium itself. "Photographers have been the pioneers of the new homosexual eroticism...Mapplethorpe has...taken photographs of the world in which he himself is involved...his is not the objective view of the camera, but the active and subjective mood of the participant" (Cooper, 285). This participation inspired this crisis of censorship in 1989.
North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms advocated an amendment to terminate the funding of the National Endowment of the Arts in response to their indirect sponsorship of a posthumous retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe's work. "[Mapplethorpe] was an artist certified by galleries, museums, critics, celebrities, and indirectly by the National Endowment for the Arts, which funded galleries showing Mapplethorpe, who himself never received an NEA grant" (Fritscher, 66). Helms cited Mapplethorpe's work as "homoerotic" and "sick" due to the homosexual nature of the artist and his 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). Helms was incensed that Mapplethorpe –and by extension, those galleries who displayed him and the foundations who funded the displays—had the audacity to claim that work of such an explicit homoerotic flavor deserved the same recognition and acclaim as any other piece of "high art".
In displaying and supporting Mapplethorpe's work, the art world was arguing that "form carries us to the [sexually explicit] content of [Mapplethorpe's] work, and all subjects are morally alike" (Hulick & Marshall, 248). It was the sponsorship of the homoerotic and unapologetic content of Mapplethorpe's work that inspired the censorship debate. "This dialogue also was about censorship and the public's reaction toward a newly visible sexuality that had never until now appeared with such entitlement in such a public arena" (Hulick & Marshall, 248). The homosexually explicit work challenged and problematized the face of American values and morals in the eyes of many politicians and people. Three months after Mapplethorpe's death, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. dropped his show due to conservative pressures in Congress. Judith Tannenbaum justified canceling Mapplethorpe's show in her role as the chief spokesperson for the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in saying "[her] priorities were to uphold the institution's integrity and identity in the face of serious scrutiny and possible financial losses and to evaluate how [the ICA's] situation related to the most basic values and tenets of American democracy" (Hulick & Marshall, 288). The following year the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center was prosecuted with obscenity charges for displaying Mapplethorpe's works, the first time that an art gallery has been brought to court for any work it has shown. The charges against the gallery and the director were eventually dropped, but the questions of censorship, homophobia and federal funding still echo in the present moment 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 inflicts his own narrow interpretation on Mapplethorpe's work to shape what he sees into what he recognizes as true or actual. Instead of allowing the work to speak for itself and its author, Helms sought to control its accessibility from his own stance as a government official to serve his own needs as a conservative individual. He usurped the authority given to him to legislate better laws in order to propagate his own conservative agenda. To carry out this agenda, Helms needed a scapegoat. Helms spoke out against Mapplethorpe in order to present a binary opposite and enemy that, through its very existence, promotes and esteems Helms' own values as normative and therefore more worthy then the alternative.
"Prohibitions work both to generate and to restrict the thematics of fantasy. In its production, fantasy is as much conditioned as constrained by the prohibitions that appear to arrive only after fantasy has started to play itself out in the field of "representations." In this sense, Mapplethorpe's production anticipates the prohibition that will be visited upon it; and that anticipation of disapprobation is in part what generates the representations themselves. If it will become clear that Helms requires Mapplethorpe, it seems only right to admit in advance that Mapplethorpe requires Helms as well...Helms operates on the precondition of Mapplethorpe's enterprise, and Mapplethorpe attempts to subvert that generative prohibition by...becoming exemplary fulfillment of its constitutive sexual wish" (Butler, 194).
By insisting that Mapplethorpe's work upset and insulted his sense of decency, Helms allows the photographs to insult his sense of self and beliefs. He is, in effect, concerting his efforts to convince society at large and the art world in specific that Mapplethorpe's work has the power and agency to injure its viewers. What he does not realize is that in allowing the work to affect his psyche he is illustrating the power he has over the images in his ability to rationalize and analyze Mapplethorpe's body of work.
"The other way to argue that representation is discriminatory action is to claim that to see a given representation constitutes an injury, that representations injure, and that viewers are the passive recipients of that visual assault.... and yet, if this were true, there could be no analysis of pornography...no interpretive distance could be taken from its ostensibly injurious effects; and the muted, passive, and injured stance of the...viewer would effectively preclude a critical analysis of its structure and place within the field of social power" (Butler, 192).
Butler's argument supercedes Helms' assertion that the sight of photographic representations can hurt its viewers involuntarily. Art exhibits are maintained in public spaces yet have distinct and discriminate entrances. Audiences who are likely to see Mapplethorpe's shows are those patrons who seek out the opportunity. Although the NEA helps create opportunities for shows such as Mapplethorpe's to be more widely accessible, the agency of the viewer is still necessary in constructing interaction between him- or herself and the work of art. An advisory label warning potential viewers that Mapplethorpe's show held adult content was in fact added to the galleries on the tour, yet this was unable to quell Helms' insistence on censorship.
Helms didn't distinguish between the images he purveyed and the artist who created them. His portrayal of the art he found offensive 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). Helms turns Mapplethorpe into an archetype of Homosexuality. This serves to illustrate that attacking the art as obscene translates into an attack on homosexuals, 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 medium 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 deviant, Helms is asserting his own status as an opposite of Mapplethorpe, and thus, normal. This also allows him to appeal to others in society who want to view themselves as normal and are easily swayed to pit themselves against the idea of deviancy to achieve this aim. It is through Helms' assertion of his own normalcy and championship of the ideals of a 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 gave 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). Helms must continue to promote the exposure of Mapplethorpe's work in order to disparage it, yet this practice only serves to perpetuate the accessibility of Mapplethorpe's work to the public. However, though more people and institutions could be punished and policed for reproducing Mapplethorpe's work in response to Helms' attack, 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 not only to the mainstream but to all possible audiences and thus had an increased potential for public education and elucidation, and ultimately little was done to most of the sites Mapplethorpe's work was displayed. Most gallery and museum directors respected Mapplethorpe as an artist enough to override Helms' censorship insistence. In their minds, "Altering the show would have seemed like an admission of guilt—that there was something wrong with exhibiting Mapplethorpe's photographs. [They] did not want to play into the hands of the conservative groups who believe they must protect the American people from material they deem unwholesome" (Hulick & Marshall, 291). Arguing for the value of Mapplethorpe's controversial work has yet to be employed by museum directors or curators, but they are credible in their appreciation and integrity towards Mapplethorpe's art. That the nature of his work is photographic is all the more reason for approbation due to its recency as a medium of "high art".
Photography is the key that perpetuates this discourse. Homoeroticism has existed in many mediums, whether recognized officially or not; yet it is in the realm of photography that the stakes are higher and artistic integrity is questioned. Sexually explicit materials can take the form of graphic "nakedness" when subjected to photography, as opposed to a more painterly form of the classical "nude" enacted in an older medium.
It was not necessarily the nature of Mapplethorpe's sexuality or appraisal of images that enabled him to be so easily villianized by Helms, but rather his use of the photographic medium to capture masculine eroticism. No other issue was nearly as compelling to Helms as the realistic erotic interaction between men in Mapplethorpe's photographs. "By focusing on homoeroticism of the photographs, the anxiety over interracial homo- and heterosexual exchange is contained and permanently deferred...[although this is] perhaps the most offensive dimension of Mapplethorpe's work, it is never that which is explicitly named as the offense by Helms..."(Butler, 197). For a North Carolina senator, race relations should be a lightning rod for criticism and controversy; yet Helms does not use this at all in his critique of Mapplethorpe. He hones in on the photographic sex and sexuality inherent in the subject matter of Mapplethorpe's work because they convey a sense of realism and interaction that is in truth simply fantasy.
"I would suggest that the legal equivalence between representation and action could not be established were it not for an implicit and shared conception of fantasy as the causal link between representation and action, or between a psychic act that remains within the orbit of a visual economy, and an enacted fantasy in which the body literally enters what was previously a purely visualized or fantasized scene... 'Fantasy' and 'real' are always already linked..." (Butler, 191).
Helms holds the belief that the act of photography enables action or authorization on behalf of the viewers due to the life-like qualities attainable through photography. In Helms' view, "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 effects 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 gay. The understanding of the art form and the process supercede concerns over representation or realism. To oppose homosexuality in art is to undermine the purity or artistic expression and merit of the artist or subject. Critical examination of works that are exciting due to their explicit and challenging content is the standard for true appreciation of art. Observing that Mapplethorpe's photography is able to touch and affect so many different lives, it becomes apparent how important his genuine content is for the perpetuation of fine arts and public discourse in general.
Mapplethorpe's work is also contentious as a basis of "high art" in the lack of development in his complete body of work. His images are consistent in their appraisal of symmetry and classical composition style, yet his work is conservative in its frank but monotonous portrayal of simple portraits or still lives. The selling point of Mapplethorpe's work was his own ambitious self-promotion and the shocking and honest nature of his subjects.
"Lucie-Smith's view from abroad offers insightful perspective on the young photographer... 'Robert Mapplethorpe was an extremely interesting American phenomenon,' he said. 'Robert was not a great artist, he was a great salesman.'...The courts judged not at all if he were a great artist. Somehow, the media and the public presumed posthumously that Mapplethorpe's work must be great art because the great furor it caused made it famous for being infamous" (Fritscher, 66).
The importance of Mapplethorpe's work should not necessarily be judged based on the genius comparable to masters of sculpture such as Rodin, painting such as Raphael or printing such as Mapplethorpe's icon, Andy Warhol; but rather on the social ramifications and influences that informed Mapplethorpe's work. Like the famous French photographer Robert Doisneau striving to capture the perfect moment on film, Mapplethorpe captured the perfect time in the American politics that enabled gay culture and activists to have a public voice against discrimination backed by the art community. "Art is...the first and ideal weapon of those groups who seek to establish new cosmologies that will legitimize that group's particular values" (Saslow, 262). Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographic art served as a weapon to combat the oppression and homophobia present in Helms' public outcry against his work. Ultimately, Helms' arguments failed due to the nature of society's innate inquisitiveness about what comprises the actual censored material. "The effort to enforce a limit on fantasy can only and always fail, in part because limits are, in a sense, what fantasy loves most, what it incessantly thematizes and subordinates to its own aims. They fail because the very rhetoric by which certain erotic acts or relations are prohibited invariably eroticizes that prohibition in the service of a fantasy" (Butler, 190). Helms' fantasy is of a post-homosexual society that places value on discrimination and censorship of individuals and sites of difference. My fantasy is a post-heterosexist society that embraces all aspects of art and life and values integrity and character above stereotypes.
Mapplethorpe's body of work encompasses a vast amount of personal and political power that insists on being viewed as beautiful and worthy of esteem in spite of or because of its homo- and autoerotic content. 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.
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.
Fritscher, Jack. Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera. New York: Hastings House Book Publishers. 1994.
Hulick, Diana. Photography 1900 to the Present. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 1998.
Saslow, James. "Closets in the Museums: Homophobia and Art History." The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, & Politics. Ed. Larry Gross and James Woods. New York: Columbia University Press. 1999.
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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