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The cover of Artforum's September 1989 issue showing a self portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe projected onto the Corcoran Gallery's facade

Cover of Artforum, September 1989

Frank Herrera's photograph shows Robert Mapplethorpe's Self-Portrait, 1980, as projected by laser artist Rockne Krebs on the facade of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on June 30, 1989, as part of a demonstration protesting the museum's cancellation of the Mapplethorpe retrospective that had been scheduled to open there that evening.

Censorship in The Arts

THE CANCELLATION OF “ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE: The Perfect Moment,” a retrospective that had been scheduled to open on July 1, 1989, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington (following exhibitions in Philadelphia and Chicago), came down amid an effulgence of right-wing activism: several disastrous civil rights rulings by the Supreme Court, and a widespread demagogic reaction to the Court’s single intellectually reputable decision of the season (which decriminalized flag-burning), gave the Corcoran’s act of self-censorship an especially ominous resonance.

The Corcoran’s stated purpose was to avoid a confrontation with congressional zealots during a sensitive moment when National Endowment for the Arts funding was being deliberated. Given the content of Mapplethorpe’s work, the gallery was anticipating trouble from the “morality brigade.” There had already been a hue and cry over the NEA’s funding of SECCA, which had given a grant to Andres Serrano, a photographer whose works include a picture of a crucifix in urine. As in the flag controversy, the symbolic meaning of the crucifix for some people was touted by politicians as somehow equivalent to physical reality; in effect, a less-than-reverent use of a piece of cotton or a block of wood with a sculpted figure on it was thought to deserve hard time in a federal prison, or at least a loss of income. (Someone who used the flag in the usual emotional fashion while raping the Constitution—Oliver North, for example—might logically get probation for any number of crimes while acquiring a fortune in lecture fees.) New York Senator Alphonse D’Amato, in a Hitlerite tirade on the Senate floor, ripped up Serrano’s catalogue, while Senator Jesse Helms, an infamous bigot from North Carolina, referred to Serrano as “a jerk” in the Congressional Record. Over 100 members of Congress signed a letter condemning Serrano’s grant, signaling their intention to block NEA funding of “blasphemous” and/or “pornographic” works of art. And in fad, the House of Representatives underlined the incredible pettiness behind the entire uproar by deleting $45,000 from the NEA appropriation, supposedly the amount spent in support of the two “offending” artists. What is operating here has nothing to do with concern about culture, and everything to do with provincial spite.

What was accurately viewed by the entire cultural community as the Corcoran’s dangerous cowardice in the Mapplethorpe case became “courage” in the mouths of racists and homophobes, a principled bow to “the laws of decency.” But while the Corcoran has never been exactly on the cutting edge of contemporary art, its decision seems to have been motivated by genuine fear rather than anything deeper. It was widely noted, no doubt truthfully, that the atmosphere of sodden hypocrisy which marinates our nation’s capital lends itself perfectly to this flagrant mauling of the First Amendment. And, as if to underline this perception, several prominent Republicans figured in a bust of a male prostitution ring the week after the Mapplethorpe cancellation.

Numerous publications of the gay community, many of which had viciously denounced Mapplethorpe’s work for assorted reasons during his lifetime, charged to his posthumous defense in this instance, lamenting the suppression of a “gay artist” by miserable hate-mongers. This expedient embrace of Mapplethorpe as an avatar of the cause struck those of us who knew Robert well as the kind of grotesque irony that only politics can foist on an already wacky world. As Robert told me in a 1988 interview, “I’ve had reviews and such, especially in the gay press, where they’ve . . . attacked me as a person, and decided I was a certain kind of person because only a certain kind of person would take those kind of pictures.” Gay groups were correct in declaring that pressure on the Corcoran came from virulently homophobic individuals. However, attacks on erotically oriented gay art and literature regularly occur in gay publications, on grounds that some artists give the “wrong” impression of homosexuality to straight people, lack sufficiently grave concern about AIDS, or are, to put it bluntly, the wrong sort of homosexuals. I mention this here because it’s precisely the kind of nuance Robert Mapplethorpe was keenly aware of—and victimized by—during his lifetime. The point that seems to have dawned quite belatedly on various gay activists is that bigots don’t care what kind of homosexual you happen to be: they hate you for what you are, not just for what you do. And no amount of making nice or civic rectitude is going to change their minds.

As for the guardians of public decency, the far right was, as usual, invited to offer its delicate reflections in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. Samuel Lipman, publisher of The New Criterion, expressed the wish that “public art support might more fully concentrate on . . . the championing of the great art of the past, its regeneration in the present and its transmission to the future.” For Lipman, obviously, the only good art is dead art, preferably the kind he and his Heritage Foundation cronies easily recognize from years of drooling over portraits of royalty and the medieval collection at the Cloisters. In this scheme of things, no doubt, a panel of octogenarian John Birch Society members would be entrusted with public money to preserve their personal tastes on behalf of the nation. Even so, I doubt they could stretch a dollar that far. The total NEA budget requested under Bush is $170 million—enough, perhaps, for three or four indisputably ancient masterpieces to be strung along the walls of the National Gallery, bedecked with the awesome, heart-tugging symbol of our liberties, the Red, White, and Blue: which our children and grandchildren, long bankrupt by follies like SDI, can gaze at proudly as crocodile tears moisten their uplifted orbs. $170 million may seem a trifling sum for the entire cultural endowment of the United States, but the $193 million proposed in the budget for military bands will buy a great deal of compensatory patriotic uplift.

The irrepressibly awful Hilton Kramer, another New Criterion grudge-monger and tireless hoister of the flag, tried to illustrate for readers of the Times just how indecent certain Mapplethorpe images were. Like half a dozen other pundits, Kramer declared that such images could not be described in a decent publication. “ . . . it is doubtful,” he assured decent Americans, “that this newspaper would agree to publish such a description even if I could bring myself to write one.” (When the controversy was rather long in the tooth, the Times offered a more balanced presentation by Grace Glueck.)

For the record, the two pictures that seemed most to excite Kramer, Lipman, et al. were: a self-portrait in which the photographer offers his bum to the camera, having inserted into said bum the handle of a bullwhip; and a portrait of two men in leather, one pissing in the other’s mouth. As far as Jesse Helms is concerned, I imagine that any erotic depiction of the black male nude (there are many in Mapplethorpe’s work) would inflame him, since Helms is, not to mince words, a complete racist. Further, any graphic display of the male sexual organ presses panic buttons on emphatically heterosexual men, especially ones who wield power on Capitol Hill. This is not simply a matter of homophobia, but reaction against the use of males in the objectified, eroticized, and, yes, exploited pictorial role reserved for females in Western art.

So-called lawmakers consumed by questions of public morality and decency can only apply such questions to entirely benign and harmless operations of the federal government like the NEA; when it’s a question of suppressing an unpopular example of self-expression, “the public interest” is supposedly served by upholding the “values” of a hypothetical consensus. Precisely the opposite notion gains precedence when a general moral revulsion would seem to militate against economic relations with South Africa, Israel, China, and other countries that grossly abuse human rights; in such cases, the overall interests of the nation are defined as the absence of decency. “Rights” are measured against “national self-interest,” while in the largest kinds of public issues, such as the maintenance of a nuclear arsenal, military insanity has completely preempted the idea of accountability, public interest, or public decency.

In passing, we should note that the New York Times delayed reporting on the AIDS epidemic until pressure to do so became insurmountable. When Hilton Kramer assumes that “the laws of decency” can be defined by what the New York Times will agree to publish, all this really demonstrates is that words like “decency,” “morality,” “desecration,” and “sacrilege” can only serve people cynical enough to use them against other people’s right of free expression. Crying “shame” at people who have none—a tactic currently popular with gay protest groups—doesn’t really constitute a sophisticated opposition, either.

Gary Indiana is a novelist living in New York. His most recent book is Horse Crazy, 1989.