Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment Controversy

Updated: Feb 15

American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) is widely considered to have been one of the world’s most important artists of the second half of the 20th century. His representations made the hidden visible, not merely by documenting taboo content for the very first time, but by depicting this content in a way that makes it desirable and appealing. Any analysis that highlights only the representation’s depiction of previously undocumented content, without recognizing how they prepare their viewers to see anew the power of image-making and representation, not only fails to acknowledge Mapplethorpe’s full role as a social critic. It also fails to recognize Mapplethorpe’s amazing input as a photographer. However, to look after the reproduction’s formal brilliance that can be seen in an incredible understanding of light, shadow, and composition exclusively, without thinking about what the form actually does to the content, is to miss out a big part as well (Brintnall, 2011: 131).

With the help of Robert Mapplethorpe, shortly before his death of AIDS-related complications, Janet Kardon organized the retrospective exhibition The Perfect Moment. For the very first time it opened on 9th of December 1988, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The show covered a career barely exceeding two decades, during which time Mapplethorpe had risen from “avant-garde punk” status to the art world’s successful “bad boy” (Lang, 1995: 1). Among the 150 photographs and objects there was also the infamous X Portfolio –– thirteen photographs which depict men whom had Mapplethorpe met on the S&M scene in New York and San Francisco and invited to his studio, where they could pose in their own preferred sadomasochistic costuming (Mahon, 2005: 216). Thirteen representations were smaller in scale than the other photographs in the exhibition and were displayed in a special case designed by Mapplethorpe and Janet Kardon. The case presented however did not only display the X Portfolio’s sexually explicit photographs, but also the Y Portfolio’s flower still lives, and the Z Portfolio’s African American portraits. The Perfect Moment closed in Philadelphia without any incident on 29th of January 1989 and was ready to travel to five other cities in the United States, as it was scheduled (Brintnall, 2011: 109; Danto, 1995: 151; Lang, 1995: 1; Morrisroe, 1995: 371).

I suppose everything would also have gone smoothly in the other cities if the American Family Association, a conservative watchdog group led by the Reverend Donald Wildmon, had not initiated a campaign to censor “blasphemous” art in April 1989. Originally, the AFA targeted Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), which had been exhibited several months earlier at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem. The show had been partially funded by a grant received from the National Endowment for the Arts. In order to show what kind of art had been supported financially, Wildmon sent a letter and reproduction of Piss Christ to every member of Congress (Danto, 1995: 151; Lang, 1995: 1–2; Morrisroe, 1995: 371–372).

His effort was fruitful as thirty-six senators on 18th of May 1989 signed a letter indicating the need for changes in the NEA’s grant-making procedures so “that shocking, abhorrent and completely undeserving art would not get money” (Morrisroe, 1995: 372).

Since the ICA received a $30,000.00 grant from the NEA for The Perfect Moment, on 12th of June 1989 Christina Orr Cahall, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, decided to cancel The Perfect Moment, which was scheduled to open on 30th of June. [1] Before that, the exhibition had already been shown at Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It had attracted record crowds and caused no protests (Adler, 1990: 1370; Danto, 1995: 4, 15–16, 151–152; Kendrick, 1996: 245–246; Lang, 1995: 1–2, 5; Morrisroe, 1995: 372; Petry, 2004: 66).

As an answer to cancellation of the exhibition, on 30th of June 1989 its supporters projected slides of Mapplethorpe’s photographs onto the facade of the Corcoran Gallery as part of a protest. A crowd of approximately seven hundred people waved banners and shouted “shame, shame, shame” at the Corcoran (Danto, 1995: 152; Lang, 1995: 2; Morrisroe, 1995: 372). Moreover, “ten percent of gallery members cancelled, major bequests to the gallery were withheld, artists withdrew upcoming shows, staff members integral to the gallery quit, and Orr Cahall submitted her resignation in December” (Lang, 1995: 2).

Almost one month later, on 26th of July 1989, the Senate affirmed regulations suggested by Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, which would bar the NEA from supporting obscene or indecent work including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or material which denigrates the object or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion; or material which denigrates, debases, or reviles a person, group, or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age, or national origin (Congress Votes for New Censorship, 1989: 33; Lang, 1995: 4; Morrisroe, 1995: 372–373).

At the same time, the Senate also made the decision to reduce funds to the ICA and SCCA as a punishment for exhibiting the Mapplethorpe and Serrano shows. By showing a selection of Mapplethorpe photos, including Mr. 10½ (1976) to Senator Robert Byrd, the powerful Democrat of West Virginia, Helms had arranged a voice vote on the amendment. When Byrd saw the photos, he replied: “Whoa! We funded that? I’ll accept your amendment” (Lang, 1995: 4; Morrisroe, 1995: 372–373).

What had surprised Senator Byrd so much? The relatively small squarish format of Mr. 10½ (1976) depicts model Mark Stevens bent over the pedestal. He wears only leather assless chaps, an item of clothing associated with the gay community, which leave the butt and in this case crotch exposed. The line of the model’s torso, the back of his upper arm, which is tattooed with a little devil, and the platform of the pedestal together visually create a showcase for the erected penis. The diagonals of the belt and rib cage invite the viewer to confront it. There are also two apparent triangles behind the model’s outer part of upper arm: one lower and smaller, created by the shadow of an arm; and one upper and bigger triangle, established by the light coming from the right. Like an arrow they both point at the sexual organ in state of physical sign of arousal and make it the center of the photograph. [2]

At the end of September 1989, Jesse Helms’s amendment to restrict federal grants for “obscene or indecent” art was voted down by the Senate. Once again, Helms had come to the debate equipped with Mapplethorpe photographs saying: “It is an issue of soaking the taxpayer to fund the homosexual pornography of Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS while spending the last years of his life promoting homosexuality” (Congressional Record, 1989a; Kendrick, 1996: 246; Smith, 1990: C28). Senator Danforth’s comments “These are gross. These are terrible /…/ I do not think they are art…and my guess is that not a single resident of my state would like them /…/,” [3] (Adler, 1990: 1372; Congressional Record, 1989b) did not bode well for Mapplethorpe either. Senators, however, rebuffed the amendment, and later agreed on milder restraints that would preclude the NEA from supporting “obscene” art for one year, based on the guidelines set by the 1973 decision of the Supreme Court, Miller v. California. In other words, the US Congress has chosen to restrict Federal financing for any sexually explicit art that failed Miller’s “serious value” test (Adler, 1990: 1370; Kendrick, 1996: 246; Morrisroe, 1995: 373).

Aware of the upcoming Mapplethorpe exhibition, Cincinnati’s law enforcement authorities, anti-pornography organizations, and business leaders in March 1990 started an active campaign to apply pressure on the Contemporary Arts Center. [4] Lawrence Whalen, the police chef of the city, promised to assess the exhibition and seize any photographs deemed obscene (Danto, 1995: 152; Kendrick, 1996: 246; Lang, 1995: 5; Morrisroe, 1995: 373–374).

The Perfect Moment exhibition opened at the Contemporary Arts Center on the 6th of April 1990 with a special announcement that sexually explicit representations would be shown in a separate space with its own warning sign, and that visitors under the age of 18 would not be allowed to enter without an adult (Lang, 1995: 5).[5] The police chief of Cincinnati kept his word anyway and ordered his officers to temporarily close the exhibition during the opening in order to videotape Mapplethorpe’s photographs as evidence to support obscenity charges. He also announced that if the courts found the photographs obscene, they would be seized and destroyed. An angry crowd of four hundred visitors, which had to leave the exhibition, shouted from outside, “Gestapo, go home” and “Sieg heil” (Danto, 1995: 152; Lang, 1995: 5–6; Morrisroe, 1995: 374).

The director of the CAC, Dennis Barrie, was charged with obscenity and misuse of a minor in pornography and faced a maximum six months in prison. Seven works in the exhibition were namely recognized as offensive, among them portraits Rosie (1976) and Jesse McBride (1976), and five photographs from the X Portfolio (Danto, 1995: 152; Lang, 1995: 6; Morrisroe, 1995: 374; Petry, 2004: 66).

One of the five problematic photographs from the X Portfolio, Jim and Tom, Sausalito (1977), depicts two men engaged in a very specific sexual activity. While Jim dressed in S&M regalia–the leather pants, the boots, and a menacing leather hood, with zippered eye slits and mouth opening, and gauntlets stands with slightly bended legs, which causes the distinctive diagonal of his body. Tom kneels in front of Jim, leaning forward in such a way that his torso mirrors diagonal of Jim’s body. A stream of urine, coming from Jim’s penis to the open, bearded mouth of Tom, connects their bodies. Tom’s posture and facial expression, which is emphasized with heavenly light coming from the upper left, demonstrates his willing participation in this act. [6]

On the 19th of June 1990, Judge David J. Albanese commanded Dennis Barie and the CAC to stand trial on obscenity charges (Danto, 1995: 152; Morrisroe, 1995: 374).[7] The Mapplethorpe obscenity trial opened on 28th of September 1990. The jury consisted of four males and four females, having working-class backgrounds and little art expertise. Their task was to determine “whether the average person, applying community standards, would find that Mapplethorpe’s pictures appealed to prurient interests, depicted sexual practices in a patently offensive way, and lacked serious artistic value” (Lang, 1995: 6; Morrisroe, 1995: 374). That is to say, the jury needed to decide if Mapplethorpe’s pictures passed the Miller test.

While only four witnesses were called to the stand by the prosecution, those being three police officers and a member of the American Family Associations, the defence presented a group of world experts in art who testified that Mapplethorpe was a brilliant artist. For example Janet Kardon, curator of the exhibition The Perfect Moment, explained when she was asked about Helmut and Brooks (1978) that it was a “figure study, emphasizing the photograph’s lighting and symmetrical composition as its most important features (Brintnall, 2011: 131; Jarzombek, 1994: 67–71; Lang, 1995: 70; Merkel, 1990: 47; Wilkerson, 1990b: A22).”[8]

Cincinnati v. Contemporary Arts Center affair got its epilogue on the 5th of October 1990. Since no credible witness had been found by the prosecution to persuade the jury that Mapplethorpe’s photographs lacked artistic merit, the photographs passed the Miller v. California test of obscenity. [9] Consequentially, Dennis Barrie and the CAC were acquitted (Brintnall, 2011: 113; Kendrick, 1996: 246–247; Lang, 1995: 6; Morrisroe, 1995: 374–375; Petry, 2004: 66).

In this case, the Miller test awarded the sexually explicit artworks (those being Robert Mapplethorpe’s portraits of men in homoerotic or sadomasochistic positions) with a status of erotic art, which more or less successfully brought social prestige and institutional recognition and made them a legitimate object of interest for the mainstream press and academia. Today, almost thirty years after The Perfect Moment exhibition became a point of debate, the controversial photographs are being celebrated in a major new exhibition at NYC’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum without any problem (Peers, 2019).


[1] Christina Orr Cahall, director of the Corcoran Gallery, on the 19th of September 1989 expressed regret at offending members of the arts community with her cancellation of The Perfect Moment. In a written statement she promised: “Our course in the future will be to support art, artists and freedom of artistic expression” (Morrisroe, 1995: 373).

[2] For a similar and more precise analysis, see Danto, 1995: 107–109.

[3] Despite his distaste for Mapplethorpe's work, Danforth nonetheless proceeded to vote against the Helms amendment (Adler, 1990: 1372).

[4] In that intense period, The Perfect Moment had been shown in Hartford and Berkely, where it caused only few small complications (Morrisroe, 1995: 373).

[5] Financial support for the show was acquired only from local businesses and raised admission charges.

[6] For a similar and more precise analysis, see Brintnall, 2011: 110–111; Danto, 1995: 87–93.

[7] CAC was the first gallery in the United States to face prosecution for the art it displayed.

[8] By defending sexually explicit artworks of Mapplethorpe with a discourse solely linkedto artistic style, the expert witnesses participated in a not-too-subtletype of intellectual and professional intimidation and wasted a chanceto help the community think about the capacity of art to address taboo contents (Barrie, 1990: 63–64; Brintnall, 2011: 113; Yenawine, 1999:19.). As their remarks after the trial show, the jurydid not come to comprehend or enjoy Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit photographs; theysimply handed power over to the specialists, expressing disappointment that theprosecution did not present a better case by calling experts of its own (Brintnall, 2011: 113–114; Mapplethorpe Photos, 1990: n. p.; Wilkerson, 1990a: A12.).More importantly, however, this move to the formal unfortunately failed to join the discussionon homosexuality (Brintnall, 2011: 113–114). According to art historian Douglas Crimp,inscription of the Mapplethorpe’s photographs within a “museum discourse,” was tactically successful. However, it reduced photographs to “abstractions, lines and forms, light andshadow,” and made “no case at all for the rights of sexual minorities to selfrepresentation” (Brintnall, 2011: 114; Crimp, 1993: 10–11). To ignore the content of a representations and glorify its formal characteristicsis to silence their political dimension. Sischy is one of the scholars who noticed that, the photographs’ big“revolt against the idea of the sexual secret” is the reason why “they are masterpiecesand [why] they really matter” (Sischy, 1988: 84). Nevertheless, since he believes that this defence of Mapplethorpe’s images as an apology for gay male sexual practices—a defense grounded in the content of the photographs—is also a limited, even paltry, explanation of their political importance, Brintnall went even one step further: Mapplethorpe’s photographs are not solely—perhaps not even primarily—noteworthy because they make a claim for the right to engage in particular forms of sexual conduct or because they display the practices of a hitherto invisible subculture, but rather because they reveal the strategic power of representation. Mapplethorpe’s photographs are politically valuable not so much for what they depict as for how they depict. In a slightly diff erent sense than the expert witnesses, then, I also identify the “redeeming social value” with their formal, aesthetic features (Brintnall, 2011: 115).

[9] However, the jury was unanimous in deciding that Mapplethorpe’s pictured appealed to a prurient interest in sex, and that they were patently offensive (Morrisroe, 1995: 375).

Literature and sources

  • (1989). “Congress Votes for New Censorship.” Art in America, 77(9), p. 37.

  • (1989a). Congressional Record (daily ed. 28th of September 1989). Quoted in Smith, R. (1990). “A Giant Artistic Gibe at Jesse Helms.” New York Times, p. C28.

  • Adler, A. M. (1990). “Post-Modern Art and the Death of Obscenity Law.” Yale Law Journal, 99, pp. 1359–78.

  • Brintnall, K. (2011). Ecce homo: The male-body-in-pain as redemptive figure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Danto, A. C. (1995). Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Jarzombek, M. (1994). “The Mapplethorpe Trial and the Paradox of Its Formalist and Liberal Defense: Sights of Contention.” Appendix, 2, pp. 58–81.

  • Kendrick, W. (1987). The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. New York: Viking.

  • Lang, K. (1995). Freezing “The Perfect Moment”. Retrieved on 29th of March 2019, from: file:///C:/Users/uporabnik/Downloads/ubc_1995-0476.pdf.

  • Mahon, A. (2005). Eroticism & Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Merkel, J. (1990). “Art on Trial.” Art in America, 78, 12, pp. 41–51.

  • Morrisroe, P. (1995). Mapplethorpe: A Biography. London: Papermac.

  • Peers, A. (2019). “Robert Mapplethorpe’s Perfect Moment.” Art + Auctions. Retrieved from 27th of July 2019, from https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/robert-mapplethorpe-guggenheimexhibition.

  • Petry, M. (2004). Hidden Histories: 20th Century Male Same Sex Lovers in the Visual Arts. London: Artmedia.

  • Smith, R. (1990). “A Giant Artistic Gibe at Jesse Helms.” New York Times, p. C28.

  • Wilkerson, I. (1990a). “Obscenity Jurors Were Pulled Two Ways.” New York Times, 10, p. A12.

  • Wilkerson, I. (1990b). “Clashes at Obscenity Trial on What an Eye Really Sees.” New York Times, p. A22.



Neja Kaiser


F: Dobran Laznik


Neja Kaiser (SLO, 1994) je dodiplomski študij filozofije in umetnostne zgodovine zaključila na Univerzi v Mariboru in svoje izobraževanje nadaljevala na Univerzi v Groningenu, Nizozemska. Zanima jo moderna in sodobna umetnost s politično in/ali etično dimenzijo. Trenutno je kot kustosinja zaposlena v Koroški galeriji likovnih umetnosti.

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