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Mapplethorpe and the new obscenity


Dustin Kidd

Robert Mapplethorpe is now widely known as one of a pair of artists, along with Andres Serrano, who catapulted the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) into the crisis that is widely referred to as the "culture wars of the arts." (1) As a result, Mapplethorpe is now generally associated with a particular kind of obscene art. The association is unfair for at least two major reasons. First, the key decisions that implicated the NEA in the funding of "obscenity" were made not by the artist, and not even by the NEA, but by mediating arts organizations-specifically, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, that used a $30,000 NEA grant to mount a retrospective of Mapplethorpe's photography. Second, it is important to recognize that Mapplethorpe's relationship with "obscenity" was a development of the culture wars and not a fundamental dynamic of his work. His photographs also dealt with the still life or portrait as their subject, and his own records indicate an uneasiness about including his sexually explicit, homoerotic, and sadomasochistic photographs amongst artistic collections of his work. (2)

When the Mapplethorpe retrospective Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment first appeared in Philadelphia in the fall of 1988, under the curatorship of Janet Kardon, the images in the exhibit were largely critiqued by the art world in terms of overly formalist principles, with little application of the term of obscenity. In Kardon's essay "The Perfect Moment", which was written as a guide and introduction to the exhibit, she describes Mapplethorpe's work as follows:

There is a drama in each photograph; edges are used as the perimeters of a proscenium, with subjects strategically sited within those boundaries and caught at a moment of absolute stasis. Most sitters are portrayed frontally, aligned with the camera lens, in direct eye contact with the photographer and, in turn, the viewer. Nudes generally assume classical poses. (3)

This is the language of formalism, a perspective that emphasizes the analysis of form over and above the issues of content or social context. (4) Kardon is reacting to Mapplethorpe's skill and creative decision-making as a photographer. Her remarks range from comments about the composition of the photographs to comparisons of Mapplethorpe's subjects to traditional forms, such as the classical pose. Regarding Mapplethorpe's use of homoeroticism and sado-masochistic sexuality, she says, "although his models often are depicted in uncommon sexual acts, the inhabitants of the photographs assume gestures governed by geometry, and they are shown against minimal backgrounds" (5) Again, the language is that of formalism. Kardon turns, for support to Roland Barthes's earlier writings about Mapplethorpe's work. Barthes's collection of notes on photography, Camera Lucida, identifies certain kinds of photographs as unary. Unary photographs capture the visual image of particular moments, but they do nothing more. They are flat photographs with singular interpretations. The photographer in the case of the unary photo is not an artist and imparts no artistic or creative decisions. Journalistic photography often exemplifies the concept of the unary, but Barthes points to pornography as well.

Another unary photograph is the pornographic photograph (I am not saying the erotic photograph: the erotic is a pornographic that has been disturbed, fissured). Nothing more homogeneous than a pornographic photograph. It is always a naive photograph, without intention and without calculation. Like a shop window which shows only one illuminated piece of jewelry, it is completely constituted by the presentation of only one thing: sex: no secondary, untimely object ever manages to half conceal, delay, or distract...A proof a contrario: Mapplethorpe shifts his close-ups of genitalia from the pornographic to the erotic by photographing the fabric of underwear at very close range: the photograph is no longer unary, since I am interested in the material. (6)

Barthes moves into the first person at the end of this discussion to suggest how a viewer would experience photographs by Mapplethorpe. Within the genre of nude photography, the distinction between the pornographic and the erotic serves to establish the boundaries of art--what sociologists call symbolic boundaries. For Barthes, the erotic is a deeper cultural form. It allows for many interpretations and it results from innovative and creative decisions on the part of the photographer. Barthes's distinction between pornographic and erotic photography plays a greater role than simply recognizing the different intentions of the photographer, the different photographic practices, or different kinds of content. He is actually defining the boundary of art. Art has a sacred place in American society, and indeed in most societies. By separating erotic photography from pornography, he is protecting the sacred status of the former from the intrusion and contamination of the latter. The significance is made clear when B arthes offers a viewer response to unary photographs, "I am interested in them (as I am interested in the world), I do not love them." (7)

To return to Kardon's essay, I turn to her discussion of Man in Polyester Suit (1980) for a more specific examination of the photographs that were implicated in the arts culture wars. This photograph portrays a man's torso dressed in a suit with his penis extending from an open zipper, and is part of the "X Portfolio" that was at the center of the later controversy. Kardon discusses the work as follows:

The presentation mode is that of a clothing advertisement, which makes the appearance of the penis even more unsettling. The photograph catches the viewer in a binary pull: the action cannot be perceived unless the eye constantly darts in opposite directions as in a tennis match, or, in this instance, between the mundane polyester suit and what outrageously protrudes from its trousers. (8)

What I find striking in this quote, as in the earlier quotes from Kardon's essay, and in the distinctions made by Barthes, is what is missing--the term "obscenity". Kardon does refer to the "outrageous" manner in which the penis projects from an open zipper. But she is not calling Mapplethorpe's photograph outrageous, or even the idea of photographing a penis outrageous. Rather, she seems to refer to the specific penis in the picture-- which many concur is abnormally large for a flaccid penis. Her use of the term "outrageous" is far from an invocation of obscenity, which is more than just a normative term used to classify those aspects of the world that we disdain. Obscenity has sociological and legal implications.

At the social level, obscenity defines a social realm that is contrasted with both the everyday and the sacred. Emile Durkheim first identified the social process of separating everyday things--the mundane--from sacred things; those things that are associated with God and reserved for special times and locations. (9) Obscenity is the other realm that is socially carved out and separated from the mundane. Obscene things, like sacred things, are experienced only on certain occasions and in particular spaces, but they are generally designated by religious systems as taboo and forbidden, and they are considered degrading not just of the sacred, but indeed of everyday life. Mapplethorpe's photographs of homoerotic nudes, sadomasochistic practices and naked children--though they constitute but a sliver of his opus--would seem to invoke the obscene for their violation of many American moral systems, ranging from the prohibition of homosexuality in many Christian churches to the widespread association of sadomasochism with the taboo and the general distaste for any association of children with sexual objectification.

In legal terms, obscenity constitutes a form of speech that is not protected by the first amendment in the U.S. Constitution and is therefore frequently sanctioned by federal, state and local laws. The content of obscenity is somewhat harder to determine. Generally, it is left to law enforcement, and later to judges and juries, to determine whether any given cultural object constitutes obscenity. However, some mediation is provided in the form of legal precedent. The law, like society, leaves little room for overlap between art and obscenity. Congress, for instance, has defined obscenity as follows:

The term "obscene" means with respect to a project, production, workshop, or program that--

1. the average person, applying contemporary community tandards, would find that such project, production, workshop, or program, when taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;

2. such project, production, workshop, or program, depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and

3. such project, production, workshop, or program, when taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. (10)

The word "and" that appears at the end of the second clause is particularly important because it indicates that all three requirements must be met for an object or practice to be deemed obscene. What of the artistic value of the photograph that appeals to the prurient interest by portraying sex in a patently offensive way, but which is also formally exquisite with advanced composition techniques? Do "dirty pictures" have any artistic value? Based on the "and" at the end of the second clause, such a work could not be considered obscene.

In the culture war that erupted over NEA-funded works, including foremost those of Mapplethorpe, these works were implicated in obscenity at both the social and legal levels. Religious groups became incensed that an art museum would exhibit works of this nature, blending the obscene (homosexual acts, S&M) with the sacred (art). And at the same time, legal officials stepped in not only to reevaluate the legality of NEA practices, but also on one occasion to seize some of the photographs and arrest the exhibitors. But in the discussion of his work prior to the controversy, as we have seen, Mapplethorpe was not associated with obscenity. Rather, his photographs were discussed as art, on artistic terms. Not art instead of obscenity, or art as obscenity, but merely as art. As her quotations indicate, Kardon is fully cognizant of--and directly addresses--the material that later came to be discussed in terms of obscenity. But she does not problematize it, or any possible obscene characteristics of Mapplethorpe's wor k. Also, it is worth noting that the exhibit enjoyed record attendance in Philadelphia, and again later in Chicago, and in both venues experienced no controversy whatsoever.

Obscenity only became a problematic in the summer of 1989, as the exhibit moved from Chicago to Washington D.C. There, Senator Jesse Helms was already leading a campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts in reaction to the NEAis funding of Andres Serrano and his photograph Piss Christ (Serrano's photograph depicts a crucifix that is submerged in a vial of urine). Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment was scheduled to appear at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. However, the Corcoran director, Christina Orr-Cahall, realized that one segment of the exhibit, "X Portfolio," might provoke further anti-NEA sentiment in Washington. As mentioned earlier, the NEA had been one of the funders for the exhibit's opening in Philadelphia, but it did not fund the installation of the show at the Corcoran. Orr-Cahall canceled the exhibit in order to avoid controversy, not because of any shared sentiment with Jesse Helms, but rather as a strategic defense against the work of Helms. She was hoping to avoid adding more fuel to the fire of the NEA debates.

Instead, Orr-Cahall only rekindled a new and escalated chapter of these debates. In response to the cancellation of the exhibition, protesters gathered outside the Corcoran and projected the Mapplethorpe images onto the wall of the museum, using a slide-projector that was installed across the street. The protest and spectacle attracted the press, which only served to bring the Mapplethorpe works to the attention of Jesse Helms, as well as such anti-NEA groups as the American Family Association and the Christian Coalition. Mapplethorpe became linked with Serrano as the dual icons of everything that was wrong in the American art world, and specifically everything that went wrong at the NEA. Orr-Cahall would later apologize for her decision and resign from her position.

A move by the Washington Project for the Arts to take on Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment in lieu of the Corcoran did nothing to lessen the controversy. Now, another record-breaking audience could attend the show. But unlike the audience in Philadelphia, the Washington audience was drawn in part by controversy and viewed the images within the question of obscenity. In fact, a study by two scholars concludes that even though attendance at all installations of the Mapplethorpe exhibit was larger than that for the average show, audience size grew even more after Congress, and then the media, took note of the controversial works. (11) This happened precisely as the exhibition arrived in Washington. By the time the exhibit reached Cincinnati, the works were so strongly situated within this frame of obscenity that the protest was led by anti-pornography groups. These groups, with the help of local business leaders, pressured city prosecutors to shut down the exhibit.

On opening day at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), police froze admittance while they reviewed the works. Of the 150 photographs on exhibit, seven were deemed by the police to be obscene. These works were seized and the curator, Dennis Barrie, was arrested. Barrie and the CAC were tried on obscenity charges. At the end of the trial, the jury made a decision that had important implications for the distinction between art and obscenity. They determined the works that were on trial are obscene, but they could not determine that the works have no artistic merit. For this reason, Barrie and the CAC were acquitted. Although they did not explicitly state that Mapplethorpe's photographs do have artistic value, the jury at least implied that the photographs might have such value. In other words, an object might be both artistic and obscene.

While the outcome of the trial was a victory for Barrie, for the CAC and perhaps, symbolically, for Mapplethorpe's reputation, it also changed the terms in which art is understood in contemporary America. The charges against Barrie and the CAC had been based on an assumption that a cultural object could be art or obscenity, but not both. But the verdict then made those boundaries much more ambiguous, such that the concepts must now be recognized as overlapping. As a result, formalist principles for artistic interpretation have come into question. Formalism can no longer be used to separate art from obscenity if some works are found to be obscene as well as formally accomplished. The symbolic boundary between the two spheres--art and obscenity--is lifted. Although in the trial of Barrie and the CAC this meant that an obscene work was able to receive artistic protection, it also means that in other cases, art may face the same negative sanctions as obscenity.

At this point, Congress began discussion of new standards for selection of NEA funding awards. Essentially, they were looking for standards that would prevent the future funding of works like those of Mapplethorpe. As a result the art world realized that formalist principles would no longer be sufficient for protecting its practitioners, a point highlighted by an article written by the art critic Hilton Kramer:

Are these disputed pictures works of art? My own answer to this question, as far as the Mapplethorpe pictures are concerned, is: Alas, I suppose they are. But so, I believe, was Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" a work of art. This is not to say that either "Tilted Arc" or the Mapplethorpe pictures belong to the highest levels of art--in my opinion, they do not--but I know of no way to exclude them from the realm of art itself. (12)

Kramer recognized that formalism had failed to distinguish art from obscenity, and could not serve that purpose in the future. To this, art critic Arthur Danto responded:

By the formalist standards of critical appraisal that prevailed in museum-and art-historical circles until the most recent times, Mapplethorpe's work ought by rights to qualify as art of the highest level."" But those standards had badly eroded by the 1990s, all at once exposing Mapplethorpe to criticism from an unanticipated direction. (13)

Danto, responding to the erosion of formalism, and in defense of the American art world, fused aesthetics with identity politics in order to create an art-critical framework by which Mapplethorpeis work, and similar works, can be judged. The result was a "perspective of gayness" that allowed Mapplethorpe's artistic merit to be determined on art world terms, while also justifying the art/obscenity overlap. Danto explains how he eventually went to a Mapplethorpe retrospective held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, after he had declined an earlier opportunity to go to the opening and had at first felt that Mapplethorpe's work was not worth seeing:

I finally went, at some point well into the show's run, largely in consequence of a conversation I had at a party attended by some people from the Whitney. One of them, asking whether I was going to review the show, said, when I expressed doubt, that he felt it was important to. He felt that there was a kind of gay sensibility in the work which it would be worth dealing with. That all at once gave me a reason to think about the show. There was, then as now, a great deal of talk about the art of this or that group--of women, or of African-Americans and the issue seemed important and in fact urgent enough to justify writing about Mapplethorpe's art from the perspective of gayness. (14)

Danto allows this perspective to guide "Playing with the Edge," an essay on Mapplethorpe's work that appeared first in The Nation, and was later reprinted in a book. Danto's development of a homosexual framework for interpreting Mapplethorpe's art was no historical coincidence. Danto had, since the mid-1980s, asserted the primacy of art criticism over aesthetics as the key mode of art interpretation for the postmodern period. Aesthetics, Danto believed, relied upon a division of the beautiful from the practical, and a division of form from content. Danto argues in After the End of Art that Duchamp's invention of readymade art--which appeared first in the form of Fountain, a purchased urinal that Duchamp signed and placed on exhibitohad revealed to the art world that art can be made from mundane, everyday items, and that judgment of this art must consider content alongside form. Speaking about art since the 1960s, which he labels as "art after the end of art," Danto says:

[C]lassical theory could not be appealed to with iart after the end of arti precisely because it seemed to scorn aesthetic quality altogether: it was precisely in terms of classical aesthetics that the refusal to call it art was grounded. Once its status as art was established, it was fairly clear that aesthetics as a theory was badly in need of repair if it was to be helpful in dealing with art at all. And in my view that was going to mean overhauling the distinction between the aesthetic and the practical as the default basis of the discipline. (15)

Like Barthes and Durkheim, Danto is highlighting the association of art with the sacred, and its distinction from the mundane. Danto had been seeking a new set of terms by which the art world could debate the question of artistic merit, and specifically a language that was post-formalist. He had already found his foundational case in the example of Andy Warhol's Brillo

Box, but with Mapplethorpe, Danto-had found the case that would demonstrate to the art world the necessity of abandoning formalist aesthetics in favor of a more socially contextualized art criticism, completing the arc of formalismis fall that began with Duchamp and continued with Warhol. At the end of that arc, not only is formalism sufficiently broken, but also replaced; not by a single narrative about art, but by many. In the case of Mapplethorpe's work, the narrative is one of homosexual identity politics. While Duchamp found art within the realm of the mundane, Warhol found art in both the mundane (Brillo Box) and the obscene (see, for instance, the film Flesh), and Mapplethorpe finally entrenched the artistic in the realm of the obscene (Man in Polyester Suit; Jim and Tom, Sausalito; Honey). I do not mean to suggest that no previous artist had experimented with these boundaries, but only to map out the social consequences of specific artists who have done so in the twentieth century.

To close, let us return to the Congressional definition of obscenity, in hopes that this will complete my circling through the legal, social and finally artistic significance of obscenity. That definition specifies that the realm of obscenity does not include those objects and practices that have literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Four very different forms of value are invoked. In practice, the significance of artistic value has given way. Artistic value no longer protects creative works from being attacked on grounds of obscenity. As a result, the art world has been looking to the other categories for protection. Literary value cannot be used because literature is often exposed to the same dilemmas as the visual arts and science is too distant from the contemporary art world to have weight. But politics is already a central dynamic of twentieth-century art. What the art world has done--recognizing that art alone is an insufficient shield--is to protect itself behind the dual shields of art an d politics. In the case of Mapplethorpe, the politics in question is a sexuality-based identity politics.

For years the art world was able to justify its activities and claim value for its productions through the safety net of aestheticism and formalism. But once the tenets of formalism were no longer sufficient justification, the principle of political value had to be added in order to defend current art trends. One wonders what further justifications will have to be appropriated in the future in order for artistic production to continue without incomprehension or censure.

[I wish to thank Bethany Bryson, Kristine Harmon, and Bruno Chalifour for their insightful comments on successive drafts of this paper.]

DUSTIN KIDD is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia and a dissertation fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. His dissertation is titled the NEA Controversies," and explores the debates about public funding for the arts from the perspective of democratic theory.


(1.) See Richard Bolton's collection Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent Controversles in the Arts (New York: New Press, 1992); and Chapter 9 "Media and the Arts" in James Hunter's Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991), pp. 225-249.

(2.) Arthur Danto comments that many of Mapplethorpe's more explicit photographs were kept in a box marked SEX and stored separately from his other works. Danto comments on the "artlessness" of many of these photographs in Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethrope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), pp12-13.

(3.) Janet Kardon, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1988), p.9.

(4.) I am paraphrasing the Getty Institute's Art & Architecture Thesaurus, available online at ""

(5.) Ibid., p. 10.

(6.) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), pp. 41-42. Ellipsis in original.

(7.) Ibid., p. 41.

(8.) Kardon, Robert Mapplethorpe, p. 11.

(9.) Emile Durkhelm, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: The Free Press, 1995 [1912])

(10.) Public Law 101-151, November 5, 1990. Reprinted in Richard Bolton, ed., Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts (New York: New Press, 1992), p. 286.

(11.) Douglas M. McLeod and Jill A. MacKenzie, "Print Media and Public Reaction to the Controversy over NEA Funding for Robert Mapplethorpe's The Perfect Moment Exhibit." Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 75 (1998):278-291.

(12.) Hilton Kramer, "Is Art Above the Laws of Decency?" in The New York Times (July 2, 1989). Reprinted in Richard Bolton, ed., Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts (New York: New Press, 1992), pp. 51-56.

(13.) Arthur Danto, "Looking at Robert Mapplethorpe's Art: Two Moments in History," in Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 18.

(14.) Ibid., p. 3.

(15.) Arthur Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 85-86.

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