Hands down one of the most controversial artists of all time, Robert Mapplethorpe, has a modest exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim sat on this collection for 25 years. In 1993, they received an incredibly generous gift of approximately two hundred photographs and unique objects from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. They waited a while to show it to the public. One can ponder the reason why but it’s easy to blame the potential beef it might have caused if the public wasn’t ready for his work.
His unique black and white photography and his meticulous sense of composition are easily recognized. If not that, his transgressing sexual subject matter will do the trick. Although he shot some breathtakingly beautiful (self)portraits and florals in his career, he is first and foremost famous for his depictions of male nudity and/or S&M. Regardless of the subject matter, penis or lilies, his work is defined by an elegant stark contrast of black and white; shadow and light. The artist has said: “For me, S&M means sex and magic, not sadomasochism.” He intended to make people realize that anything can be acceptable. The importance is how it’s depicted. If sexuality can be subject matter in art, which it has been since the dawn of time, every kind of sexuality on the spectrum should be able to be subject matter, right? Nevertheless, his work became the culprit of the culture wars, i.e. mixed up in discussions about censorship of the arts, what kind of art should receive public funding and social mores.
But first, a little bit about the artist’s career before we get to the juicy stuff. Mapplethorpe started his career creating assemblage constructions that incorporate images of men from pornographic magazines with found objects and painting. He turned to photography as part of this artistic practice during the time photography as a means of art making was still in the early stages. In the seventies, Mapplethorpe began capturing his circle of friends and acquaintances—artists, musicians, socialites, film stars, and members of the S&M underground culture. Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, Patti Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger (he’s fine), Blondi, Grace Jones, I mean the list is endless. In the late 70s, his career began to flourish. He had his first substantial in New York: an exhibition of photographs of flowers and one show of male nudes and S&M imagery and he participated in the prestigious Documenta 6 in Kassel. Throughout the 1980s, Mapplethorpe created images that simultaneously test and support classical aesthetic standards and conventional subject matters: stylized compositions of male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and portraits. Despite his AIDS diagnose in 1986, he continued to thrive. The Whitney Museum of American Art organized his first major American museum retrospective in 1988, one year before his death in 1989.
A travelling retrospective Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment organized by The Institute of Contemporary Art continued to travel after Mapplethorpe’s death. Although the exhibition had sparked no controversy at its first two venues, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., cancelled the show two weeks before its scheduled opening. Why you ask? The exhibition was going to open in Washington during turbulent times. Whether one calls it the “culture wars,” “art battles,” “Helms controversy” or “NEA controversy” it refers to a debate about the public art funding. As you might know, the NEA is funded by the federal government of the United States, so it’s funded by “tax money.” So, you can see where this is going. The organisation is directed by Chairman which gets appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress for a four-year term. Each year, the budget for the NEA has to pass by Congress and signed by the President. The organisation financially supports all kinds of arts, from visual arts to theatre and arts education.
The beginning of the struggle against the NEA is usually pinpointed at May 1989 when Reverent Donald Wildmon got wind of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix emerged in the artist’s urine and sent a letter to every member of Congress. His artwork was recently shown in The Virginia Museum as part of a tour partially funded by an NEA grant. As a reaction, senators Jesse Helms and Alphonse D’Amato took to the floor “to question the NEA’s funding procedures” and called the work “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” This triggered over 50 senators and 150 representatives to contact the NEA to complain and resulted in a quest to eliminate the NEA at large. So afraid of more backlash, the Corcoran Gallery chickened out.
What’s quite poetic is that during the what would have been the opening of “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,” more than 900 artists and supporters gathered outside the Corcoran Gallery of Art to protest the cancellation of the exhibition. Huge ass enlargements of Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white photographs were projected onto the street facade of the gallery.
So fast forward exactly 30 years later, is Mapplethorpe’s work still shocking the crap out of people? The answer is no. As the Observer has pointed out: “Many of the nudes he produced […] are chaste by today’s standards.” Moreover, what the exhibition makes clear, is that the “shockingly sexual” material is only a small part of the artist’s artistic output. There is humour, there is beauty, he cleverly refers to and subverts classic art history, there are artistic risks. And yes, his S&M images are still provocative, and would still be able to stir up the Senate. But that hasn’t happened yet.
Check out Robert Mapplethorpe: Implicit Tensions at the Guggenheim to decide for yourself whether it’s provocative or vulgar. More information here.