Art, Morals, and Politics

I mean to ramble over matters of art and morality, censorship, politics, and public institutions. And to make things worse I am going to start with an event which is certainly emblematic, but which you may have heard altogether too much about already—namely, the scandal over Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs a couple of years back.

To me, the interest of the Mapplethorpe affair lies in its stark display of colliding American values—but not much else. Despite the enthusiasm of his fans, I have never been able to think of him as a major photographer. I first visited his New York studio in 1970; at the time his work, such as it was, consisted of fetishistic but banal collages of beefcake photos with the addition of things like a leopardskin jockstrap or a gauze patch with a pus stain on it. If you had told me, as I was going down the stairs forty minutes later, that this small talent would be as famous as Jackson Pollock within twenty years, and that the scandal produced by his work would threaten the equilibrium of the whole relationship between museums and government in America, I would have said you were crazy.

I saw quite a lot of his work, though not of Mapplethorpe himself, over the ensuing years: the heavy, brutal S&M images of the X portfolio, the elegant overpresented photos of Lisa Lyons, the icy male nudes in homage to Horst and Baron von Gloeden, the Edward Weston flowers. It was the work of a man who knew the history of photographs, for whom the camera was an instrument of quotation; the mannered, postmodern chic of his images was then, sometimes, slammed back into a dreadful immediacy by the pornographic violence of the subject matter. But I don’t think chic is a value, and I felt at odds with the culture of affectless quotation that had taken over New York art, and my notions of sexual bliss did not coincide with Mapplethorpe’s; and so when he asked me to write a catalog introduction to his show—the show that caused all the trouble—I had to tell him that since the X portfolio was obviously the key to his work and constituted his main claim to originality, and since I found the images of sexual torture in it too disgusting to write about with enthusiasm, he had better find someone else. Which he did. Several, in fact.

Now most of us know, at least in outline, what happened to Mapplethorpe’s retrospective in 1988–1990. It was shown at the Whitney Museum in New York to scenes of enthusiasm rivaling the palmiest moments of his mentor, Andy Warhol, and then, under the title The Perfect Moment, without the slightest incident at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. But when the show was about to appear at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, it came under heavy attack from conservatives …

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