Robert Mapplethorpe played a key role in having photography accepted as a legitimate art form. In the course of the 70s and 80s his work ranged from basic collage to black-and-white photographs of celebrities, nudes and flowers.
Towards the end of his life, 175 of his photographs were brought together for a major retrospective. These were drawn from three specific groups. The first group was his “X portfolio“, a series that included a number of sexually explicit images such as a naked Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip inserted in his anus and another depiciting a finger being inserted into a penis.
The second group – his “Y portfolio” – was made up of far more innocuous photographs of flowers. And the “Z portfolio” was essentially nude portraits of African-American men.
The assembled collection was called The Perfect Moment and it began its tour of the USA at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia in December 1988. In January 1989 it moved on to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Both exhibitions proceeded without controversy or incident but, in the background, trouble was brewing in the form of the American Family Association (AFA).
This conservative organisation began a campaign against what they considered to be ‘indecent’ art. Given that this was a period when the Right – and particularly the religious Right – were in the ascendancy in US politics, they had no difficulty in getting their voices heard. And central to their argument was the issue of public funds being used to support ‘obscene’ material.
The public funding came from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEA is a non-governmental body that funds a vast array of projects across the country. These range from inner city choirs and drama productions in rural elementary schools to higher profile art exhibitions. The NEA had contributed $30,000 towards the Mapplethorpe tour.
Within a matter of weeks the AFA and its supporters managed to create a considerable public outcry about The Perfect Moment. So much so that the next venue scheduled to host the exhibition – the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington – pulled out. The director, Christina Orr-Carr,cited concerns that the Gallery might lose its NEA funding (they received $292,000 in 1988.)
At the same time, right-wing Republican senator Jesse Helms introduced a bill into the Senate seeking to prevent the NEA from funding certain types of art. Specifically, these were those that:
“promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent material, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children or individuals engaged in sex acts, or material which denigrates the objects of beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion.”
The bill was passed, although another of Helms’ bills – to abolish the NEA altogether – did not.
Meanwhile, the Mapplethorpe exhibition was mounted by another Washington gallery – the Washington Project for the Arts – instead. Its director, Jock Reynolds, had been outraged by the Corcoran Gallery’s decision to pull the show.
“It is an outright cave-in to conservative political forces who are once again trying to muzzle freedom of expression in the arts. The Corcoran should look at the inscription that is carved over its entrance: “Dedicated to Art”.”
Mapplethorpe never got to see or hear any of this; he died of AIDS-related complications in March 1989. However, the controversy continued to rage long after his death.
In 1990 the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center mounted the exhibition. Police closed it down on the first day and charged the Center’s Board and directors with criminal obscenity in relation to seven of the exhibits. The trial went on for a number of days – but it took the jury less than two hours to clear the defendants of all charges.