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This pop culture memoir contains sex, lies, greed,
perversion, murder, deceit, infidelity,
drugs, sex, immorality, scatology, ambition,
equivocation, character assassination, slander, blasphemy,
aspersion, betrayal, distortion, racism,
ungodliness, sodomy –
and that’s just the critics
'>-The first page of Jack Fritshcer’s book, Mapplethorpe: Assault with a deadly camera.
So I am asking myself, what is it about this guy Mapplethorpe that upsets everybody so much? My interest was sparked by an oral performance piece by Laurie Anderson entitled, “Large Black Dick” in which she says:
Washington, D.C.? It was a town that wasn’t big enough for the senator and the artist Mapplethorpe. Yeah, Jesse liked pictures of snowy landscapes, art that made you feel good. And Mapplethorpe? He was after big taboos, things like: What do sex and religion have in common? So the senator looked at the artist’s photographs and they were pictures of men with no clothes. And there were lots of chains and black leather and crosses. But the picture that bothered the senator the most was a very large black dick sticking out of a business suit. So he made a law that said:
WE’RE NOT GOING TO LOOK AT THIS, AND YOU’RE NOT GOING TO LOOK AT IT EITHER…And the issue of control, who controls what, has started to blend in with a whole new brand of puritanism. (Russell)
The incident that Laurie Anderson is referring to takes us back to a time not so long ago when most of us were wearing legwarmers and high-tops and being entertained by the likes of He-Man and Rainbow Bright. In the late eighties and early nineties, things that were once understood as the status quo became history; Women entered the workplace in throngs, single parent families proliferated and AIDS/HIV, an acronym that only years ago was totally foreign, were some of the hot topics of the day.
Unbeknownst to many students in my generation, mounting hostility towards public arts funding also marked the cultural and political climate of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Debates had escalated over a number of National Endowment for the Arts grants, targeted at artists who violated sexual and cultural norms in their art, whether it was in painting, oral performance, writing, or photography. Most famous of these NEA outlaws was gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs became the center of a national debate over the function of art, who should fund it, what is considered obscene and, as Laurie Anderson states, “the issue of control…and who controls what.
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I would first like to present the actual incident, and explain who are some of the major actors involved. Then I will look at Cincinnati as the space where the controversy occurred and lastly, I would like to conclude with a theoretical framework, which presents homophobia and racism as a lens in which to view opposition against Mapplethorpe’s work.
Our story begins on April 7, 1990, when Dennis Barrie becomes the first museum director in American history indicted for hanging an exhibition-Robert Mapplethorpe’s retrospective “The Perfect Moment” in Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center. Police stormed the building the morning of the opening with a warrant issued by Sheriff Simon Leis who deemed some of the photographs included in Mapplethorpe’s exhibit as “criminally obscene” before the exhibition had even arrived in the city (Carr). Thousands of patrons looked on, shocked at what they saw as police rushed in and barricaded the doors while other officers arrested Barrie, the museum’s director. Barrie emerged shortly thereafter to address the thousands waiting outside the gallery. Covering his face with his hands, he told the crowd, “This is a very dark day (Carr).”
The grand jury charged the center and its director, Dennis Barrie, with two separate misdemeanor counts. The first account was the use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, evidently applied to a photo of a young girl whose dress is pulled above her waist. The second account, pandering to obscenity, may have applied to several homoerotic or sadomasochistic photographs (Anderson and Lewis).
The deeper question that needs to be asked is not so much “why the controversy?” but “where the controversy?” The traveling show had made uneventful stops in Hartford, Berkeley, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, among others. Other major cities barely batted an eye when the exhibit came to town. So why wasn’t Cincinnati perfect for “The Perfect Moment”? The answer lies in countless factors including economics, city history, demographics, issues of space and due not in any small part to a man by the name of Jesse Helms. Before we get back to Cincinnati, let’s make sure that we all understand a few things about Mr. Helms.
Once dubbed “the Right Wing’s Cultural Warrior,” Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, had been a senate staple since 1972. Helms has a history of riding the wave of controversial topics. He has made a career out of coasting to the top on hot-button issues. In 1972, it was school busing; in '78, the Panama Canal treaty; in '84, the Martin Luther King holiday. Though they were all lost causes on Capitol Hill, they helped Helms win elections in conservative North Carolina (Clift and Smith). In 1990, he was banking on the obscenity issue to win him a fourth Senate term.
There is nothing subtle about a Helms campaign (Clift and Smith). The Mapplethorpe photos became Helms’ electoral issue. Helms was quoted, as suggesting that "perverted art" is just a half step away from a homosexual takeover. On Capital Hill, Helms was often a strike force of one. He terrorized and harassed colleagues by threatening to portray them as pro-obscenity if they did not support his particular views (Clift and Smith). Helms was known to carry Mapplethorpe photos around with him so that if asked, he could produce the offending images. He even kept a small stash of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs in his office. He often made viewing them a condition for news interviews.
Helms was bred, born and raised in North Carolina. Helm’s tradition bound roots are a result of growing up as a fervent Baptist in the small Southern town of Monroe, N.C. It seems that it is this dogmatic upbringing which stands to be one of the major causes behind Helms’ moral crusade against homosexuality and particularly, in the early nineties, Mapplethorpe’s photos. Beneath that surface, though, lurk other possibilities. There was, for example, Big Jesse, his policeman father. He was an authoritarian fundamentalist, revered by his son and hated by local blacks and aristocratic whites for his staunch law-enforcement techniques (Baer). The father, a family friend once said, had "the sharpest shoe in town" in terms of his aggressive treatment of lawbreakers (Baer). Later, as a young man in Raleigh, Helms met a series of conservative mentors, one of whom actually committed suicide in despair at the world's leftward tilt.
If people truly are a product of their environment then it seems that Senator Helms was taught to believe that homosexuality was wrong and quite possibly that blacks where inferior to whites, a lesson taught to him in two fold by the space in which he grew up. A police officer, Jesse’s father was known for his harsh treatment of local blacks. North Carolina, long a member of the historic Confederacy was segregated throughout Jesse’s childhood. By incorporating this potent mix of taboos and “moral evils” in his photography Mapplethorpe had successfully documented a polar opposite to Helm’s right wing philosophies. Kobena Mercer and Richard Meyer will later argue that it is Helms’ fear of racial equality and homosexuality that bothered him the most in the photographs, not the “obscenity”.
Helms has objected most forcefully to those photographs that he and others regard as pornographic. The senator has a standard packet of four Mapplethorpe photos he shows to reporters questioning him about his stance on "obscene" art. These include "Man in Polyester Suit," depicting the polyester-clad torso of a black man, his uncircumcised penis dangling from his fly, and "Rosie," a two- or three-year-old child caught, shocked, on film -- her crotch exposed. Helms claims the latter is a clear example of child pornography. Both photographs are part of “The Perfect Moment” collection (Levinston par. 4).
By using a very minor representation of Mapplethorpe’s photography, Jesse Helms nearly single handedly brought the late photographer’s last exhibit into the national spotlight. In trying to suppress the scene of homosexuality, Helms continually returns to it. He photocopied pictures such as Mark Stevens, Mr. 10 ½, a picture of a very large penis for fellow Senators, and denounced Mapplethorpe to the press. Throughout the NEA controversy, Helms publicized and re-circulated the very images he claimed to despise. It seems that the River City was just the place to jump on the bandwagon.
Cincinnati, a town that historically has been home to both Dorris Day and Ted Bundy, has been a town long involved in controversies. It is the city that most famously persecuted Hustler publisher Larry Flynt in the seventies. Simon L. Leis, Jr., the retired judge and former prosecutor who won the Larry Flynt case is the also the chief who declared some of the Mapplethorpe photos “criminally obscene” (Newsweeks, “Furror”).
The center knew that the exhibition would cause a storm in conservative Cincinnati. It was the same exhibition that was canceled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington that June amid a furor over public funding of "obscene or indecent" art works. To avoid that particular controversy, the Contemporary Arts Center voluntarily withdrew from the Cincinnati Arts Fund, which in the prior provided the center with $ 300,000 of its $ 1.2 million budget. The center also sought to head off Cincinnati authorities who have made prosecuting smut a popular local crusade (Anderson and Lewis).
"This has always been a town of strong moral values," said Mayor Charles Luken. "I make no apology for that." "There are no raving Neanderthals running amok in the streets of Cincinnati," Police Chief Lawrence Whalen added as emotions ran high in Cincinnati during the indictment (Anderson and Lewis). However, interestingly enough it appears that what was also running strongly was local support for the arts. In the 10 days before the indictment, Cincinnati’s “Neanderthals” helped to raise the center's membership, which rose more than 40 percent, and over 80,000 people visited the exhibit in seven weeks time (Carr).
Cincinnati’s population must be truly torn on the issues if the numbers then are true! In this city space we have the Citizens for Community Values, a locally based organization who in previous years had successfully enstalled strict anti-pornography laws. Supporting them was the Christian conservative American Family Association, a large and powerful National committee whom backed Jesse Helms. After touring several other cities in the Northeast and West parts of the country, which have historically been more democratic and socially liberal, without event the show became a target of an anti-pornography crusade in Cincinnati (“Furror”).
With their constant rhetoric about “porn”, right-wing activists had turned the nonprofit art world into one big adult bookstore waiting to happen. The Mapplethorpe trial upped the ante considerably (Carr). Cincinnati did not have adult bookstores; it was a town without Hustler. Once local reporter was quoted in 1990 as saying, “You can be arrested for thinking of a banana and a donut in the same thought.” So Barrie faced up to a year in jail for hanging a show that had already toured four other cities without any problems.
Cincinnati then is a space that possesses an odd mix of values and social ideas. It is the type of space that would result maybe if you mixed the political affiliations and social ideologies of California and North Carolina. Ohio is a state that is not yet west, too far north to be south, and to far West to be north. This ambiguity of regional identity doesn’t give it a default as to political party or religious affiliation. The Perfect Moment, which hardly had a showing in any Southern art museums, would be to offensive to get a showing in a conservative state and not offensive enough to stir emotions in a more liberal state.
Cincinnati was a place where the two worlds came together. It can be seen through the contradictory behavior of the community as a whole during the indictment and the trial. Citizens for Community values tried to keep the show from coming and the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts museum brought it in spite of them. The local police shut down the show claiming it violated “community standards” and yet this same community comes out in droves to see the exhibit and support the museum. It is supposed to be abundantly clear to the community at large that the seven pictures in dispute were pornography and yet a grand jury consisting of Cincinnati residents acquits Dennis Barrie and the gallery.
Speaking of the galley and the trial brings to mind other very important aspects of space, which were of utmost importance. One of the most striking exhibits of the The Perfect Moment was also consequently the one that contained all the “obscene” photographs in question. In this exhibit Mapplethorpe displays his X, Y and Z portfolios. Each portfolio contained 13 photographs. The 39 photographs were then arranged in a three by thirteen grid all evenly spaced on a stark white table. In his signature black and white technique Mapplethorpe compared and contrasted self-portraits, still lifes of mostly flowers, nudes, and s/m (sadomasochist) pictures.
The curatorial display of the X, Y and Z portfolios on this tabletop neatly capture the ‘compare and contrast’ logic of Mapplethorpe’s work (“Living Room” 303). Richard Meyer suggests that, “once leather man and carnation inhabit the same photographic lexicon, even the most audacious of sadomasochist can be ‘tamed’ into elegant abstraction and the gentlest of floral arrangements freighted with a sexual charge. This, in any case, would seem to be the logic proposed by the coordination of Mapplethorpe’s alternate photographic practices into matching portfolios (“Living Room” 302).”
The X, Y, and Z table is a space full of conflict, a tabletop where worlds, ideologies and politics collide. It caused in many viewers a moral panic of sorts, as they were not able to look at the portraits of the flowers without associating them with s/m equipment. To which Mapplethorpe replied to an interviewer in 1979, “I don’t think that there’s that much difference between a photograph of a fist up someone’s ass and a photograph of carnations in a bowl (“Living Room” 302).”
The closeness of the pictures, the implied relationship between something so beautiful and something so strange, or something so natural and something so unnatural made people slightly uncomfortable, but when seen in context with other pictures on the table the exhibit worked together. Mapplethorpe explained his intentions, “I’d have a picture of fruit or flowers next to a picture of sexuality next to a portrait of someone socially prominent. My interest was to open people’s eyes, get them to realize anything can be acceptable. It’s not what it is, it’s the way it’s photographed.” When seen as a whole and placed within context of the other pictures on the table Mapplethorpe’s work seemed to have an internal logic. All five obscene photos were taking from this exhibit.
Within the context of the Cincinnati trial, these five photographs along with the two portraits of children were viewed as autonomous pictures. Which meant that the pictures were not viewed as a whole, which was indented by the artist so that now “jurors would see only, for example ‘a man urinating into the mouth of another-man’. No flowers. No context (Carr).” By defining Mapplethorpe’s work in terms of the “separate identity” of seven photographs, the court distorted both the viewing conditions of The Perfect Moment and the structuring logic of Mapplethorpe’s photography (“Outlaw” 214).
And that’s just the way Jesse Helms liked it. Who needs context, when you are simply wrong? Kobena Mercer and Richard Meyer both suggest that it is fears of homosexuality and race are the major factors at play in Helms repulsion when viewing Mapplethorpe photographs. During a 1989 interview with the New York Times Helms said, “There is a big difference between The Merchant of Venice and a photograph of two males of different races in an erotic pose on a marble table top (“Living Room” 292). However, curiously enough no such picture actually exists in any of Mapplethorpe’s photography catalogue.
Two photographs of inter-racial male couples are present in the Perfect Moment and in fact were both photocopied and distributed by Helms, but no picture involves a marble table. “Helms does not describe an individual Mapplethorpe photograph so much as conjure a space of homosexual difference and depravity, a space of tables and table tops on with ‘indecent’ pleasures unfold (“Living Room” 296).” Helms attempt to restrict Mapplethorpe’s art was also an attempt to repress the fantasies and fears provoked by that art, for Mapplethorpe proposed homosexuality as a space of “powerful difference and luxuriant pleasure” as a space in which the relationship between bodies, objects and surfaces might be dramatically re-imagined.
Kobena Mercer suggests that Mapplethorpe’s work reveals the political unconscious of white ethnicity, that in social, economic and political terms, black men in the United States today constitute one of the “lowest” social classes: disenfranchised, disadvantaged and disempowered. In Mapplethorpe’s photographs, men who were in this class are elevated onto the pedestal of the transcendental Western aesthetic ideal. “Rather than reinforce the fixed beliefs of white supremacist imaginary, Mapplethorpe’s work began to undermine the foundation myths of the pedestal itself (Mercer 200).”
Mapplethorpe’s art pictured homosexuality not simply as a sexual act or an individual identity but also as set of spaces, surfaces and objects. “In remapping the spaces of both home and homosexuality, Mapplethorpe proposed a set of unforeseen relationships among bodies, objects and desires, relationships which had not heretofore been rendered visible within the art museum or the auction house (“Living Room” 312).” When this space was rendered visible in the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center, it became the perfect controversy for an already conflicted community. While Jesse Helms acted as a catalyst and teased out the issues of race and homosexuality in the photographs based on his own internalized fears, he also was able to ignite the controversy in Cincinnati. The tricky thing about controversies is that you need two sides. Knowing the regional sentiments of the South one would have cause to believe that the Mapplethorpe exhibit would not have garnered enough support to tour there, resulting in no controversy.
Cincinnati became the city that was not conservative enough to prevent the exhibition from coming, but not liberal enough to let it pass through without event either. It is probable that without Helms’ deep seeded fears of homosexuality and race and his need for reelection that the Cincinnati controversy would have never erupted without his cattle prod. But as Laurie Anderson said “it is the issue of control, and who controls what…” Helms couldn’t forcibly keep the space between race, and homosexuality and perversion and flowers, and sex far enough apart. He and the citizens of Cincinnati sought to control the images and ideas that Mapplethorpe presented by controlling the public space in which they appeared.
Karen Finley, one of the primary victims of the ‘decency test’ applied to NEA, says, “Americans are a puritanical people, with approach avoidance feelings about sex. Provocative or sexual imagery thus becomes an obvious source for social problems…violence, drugs, unwed mothers, rising welfare…We have a penchant for quick fixes; we believe that if we ban the bad pictures, we will be rid of the bad acts.”
An anxious community in Cincinnati assessed Mapplethorpe pictures, under the weight of several right-wing groups, and Jesse Helms himself. However, unlike the unanimous support that Jesse Helms may have gotten at home opposing Mapplethorpe’s art; Cincinnati was reminded by her citizens that although they may subscribe to “community values”, it was never specified whose values constituted community values. Thus the saga of Cincinnati continues, a city that was looking for an identity through the Mapplethorpe verdict. Were they conservative people, or not? Were they religious, family people, or not? Could the appreciate art or not? If the trial and controversy situated there tells us anything about Cincinnati it’s that she is not ready to settle comfortably into a pre-fabricated regional identity anytime soon.
It is only going to be when, as Meyer says, “leather man and carnation” can inhabit the same space that communities will be able to come together and build relationships that cross cultural, political, and sexual boundaries. Relationships that will exist and be supported by the shared community interest that they were formed upon and no longer thrive on mutual indifference.