Helms Claims Photographs Are Indecent

The homoerotic and otherwise controversial images of photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, and the work of other artists, became flash points in a cultural and legislative battle over public funding for the arts in the United States.

Summary of Event

By the late 1980’s, the Christian Right Antigay movement had gained significant influence in U.S. politics and had become increasingly critical of what it considered excessive liberalism and permissiveness in American culture. Cultural battles raged around religion in public life, homosexuality, and the arts. [kw]Helms Claims Photographs Are Indecent (1989-1990)
[kw]Photographs Are Indecent, Helms Claims (1989-1990)
[kw]Indecent, Helms Claims Photographs Are (1989-1990)
Photography, Robert Mapplethorpe controversy
Arts;and indecency[indecency]
Homoeroticism, in publically funded arts
Funding of the arts
National Endowment for the Arts;and homoeroticism[homoeroticism]
Censorship;of the arts[arts]
[c]Arts;1989-1990: Helms Claims Photographs Are Indecent[1910]
[c]Government and politics;1989-1990: Helms Claims Photographs Are Indecent[1910]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1989-1990: Helms Claims Photographs Are Indecent[1910]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1989-1990: Helms Claims Photographs Are Indecent[1910]
[c]Religion;1989-1990: Helms Claims Photographs Are Indecent[1910]
Mapplethorpe, Robert
Serrano, Andres
Wildmon, Donald
Helms, Jesse
Barrie, Dennis
Frohnmayer, John E.
Orr-Cahall, Christina

In early 1989, the Reverend Donald Wildmon, head of the conservative American Family Association American Family Association;and Andres Serrano[Serrano] headquartered in Tupelo, Mississippi, began a campaign against Piss Christ, Piss Christ (Serrano) a photograph by artist Andres Serrano depicting a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. Wildmon called the work an example of “anti-Christian bigotry.” Critics were particularly incensed that Serrano had received $15,000 in indirect funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal government agency founded in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson “to create and sustain…a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry.”

The furor over Piss Christ soon expanded to include works with homoerotic content and those deemed anti-American. Among the critics’ main targets was a retrospective exhibition of the work of gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of complications from AIDS in March, 1989. Titled The Perfect Moment, Perfect Moment, The (Mapplethorpe) the exhibition was created by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, funded in part with $30,000 from the NEA. The show included a representative sample of Mapplethorpe’s fine-art photography, much of which featured flowers, classical nudes, and portraits of celebrities (including bodybuilder Lisa Lyon and Mapplethorpe’s former roommate, singer Patti Smith). Among the selections, however, were candid photographs of young children with their genitals visible, as well as the X Portfolio, X Portfolio (Mapplethorpe) a collection of several images showing gay-male sadomasochism, including one of the artist with a bullwhip protruding from his anus. Even with these images, The Perfect Moment had already shown in Philadelphia and Chicago, garnering little notice outside the art world.

After Wildmon held a press conference in the spring of 1989 denouncing Serrano’s and Mapplethorpe’s work, the controversy moved into the halls of Congress. One the Senate floor, senators Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY) criticized the work, with D’Amato deriding Piss Christ as a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” Helms had previously raised the ire of GLBT activists in 1987, when he proposed an amendment—which came to be known as “no promo homo”—that prohibited the use of federal funds for AIDS education Education;on HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS] and prevention materials or activities that “promote, encourage, or condone, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities or intravenous use of illegal drugs.” In May, Helms, D’Amato, and more than two dozen other senators sent a letter of outrage to outgoing NEA chairman Hugh Southern. More than one hundred members of the House of Representatives, led by Representative Dick Armey (R-TX), soon followed suit, demanding that the NEA end its sponsorship of “morally reprehensible trash” and requesting new grant guidelines that would “pay respect to public standards of taste and decency.”

In June, 1989, Christina Orr-Cahall, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. in Washington, D.C., canceled a scheduled showing of The Perfect Moment, hoping to avoid exacerbating the NEA controversy and endangering the museum’s funding. However, the move had the opposite effect. Artists, students, civil libertarians, and GLBT activists were angered by the cancellation. Several artists vowed to boycott the museum, and activists (including members of ACT UP) held pickets and projected some of Mapplethorpe’s most controversial images onto the facade of the Corcoran building. A small arts organization called the Washington Project for the Arts Washington Project for the Arts (which in 1996 merged with the Corcoran) took on the exhibition, which was attended by some fifty thousand people. The furor generated by the cancellation ultimately led to Orr-Cahall’s resignation.

Throughout the summer and fall, debate over the NEA and the nature of appropriate public art continued in the legislature and in the media as Congress considered reauthorization of the agency. Southern defended the NEA’s practice—mandated in its authorizing legislation—of allowing grantee organizations to select funding recipients based on artistic criteria, “even though sometimes the work may be deemed controversial and offensive to some individuals.” Although conservatives such as Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) demanded that the NEA lose all funding, arts champions including Representative Sidney Yates (D-IL) and Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) prevailed, and the agency retained its funding level of about $170 million—less a deduction of $45,000, representing the combined amount of support for Serrano and the Mapplethorpe exhibition.

Cultural conservatives were not satisfied, however. That summer, Helms introduced an amendment in the Senate, which passed on a voice vote, banning the use of NEA funding to

promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion.

The House of Representatives did not adopt the Helms amendment Helms amendment, and obscenity in the arts as written, but in October, the two houses approved compromise legislation that retained much of its language and intent. The compromise measure (passed by a vote of 382-41 in the House and 62-35 in the Senate) mirrored U.S. Supreme Court legal language, banning “obscene” Obscenity;and the arts[arts] but not “indecent” Indecency;and the arts[arts] materials, and only those which “taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” To implement the new restrictions, the NEA began requiring that prospective recipients certify in advance that the money they received would not be used to produce obscene materials.

Controversy continued to surround Mapplethorpe’s work the following year, as religious and antipornography groups opposed the exhibition of The Perfect Moment at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (CAC). On opening day, April 7, 1990, the Hamilton County sheriff arrested CAC director Dennis Barrie and seized seven photographs deemed to be obscene, as demonstrators protested outside the museum. Barrie and the CAC were indicted by a grand jury for pandering obscenity and for “illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material,” but U.S. District Court judge Carl Rubin issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting local authorities from interfering with the exhibition, which ran for several weeks and drew record-breaking crowds.

The case against Barrie and the CAC went to trial the following fall. The city prosecutor, Frank Prouty, argued that communities had the right to determine their own standards for acceptable art. The lawyers for the defense, H. Louis Sirkin and Marc D. Mezibov, countered that the works were constitutionally protected in the light of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Miller v. California ruling. Several art experts and museum directors testified for the defense, while antipornography consultant Judith Reisman acted as a witness for the prosecution. On October 5, after two hours of deliberation, a jury acquitted Barrie and the CAC. The jurors found that although the images on trial “appeal to the prurient interest” and were “patently offensive,” they did not lack literary, artistic, political, or scientific value, and thus were protected under the First Amendment.

The events in Cincinnati transpired against the backdrop of continued controversy over funding for the arts. In 1990, Congress required the NEA to take into account “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when awarding grants. A number of additional artists, institutions, and exhibitions came under fire, including bisexual performance artist and former porn star Annie Sprinkle (who invited audience members to view her cervix with a speculum as part of her Post-Porn Modernist show), and Witness: Against Our Vanishing, an exhibition of AIDS-related art with catalog copy by gay artist David Wojnarowicz (who sued the American Family Association for using his work in their propaganda without his permission).

In June, 1990, appointed NEA chairman John E. Frohnmayer withheld grants from four solo performance artists, Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller—respectively, a feminist, a gay man, a lesbian, and a gay man—because of the sexual content of their work. The NEA Four, NEA Four as they came to be popularly called, sued the federal government, setting off a long legal battle. In 1993, a federal judge in Los Angeles struck down the NEA decency clause as unconstitutionally vague, a decision that was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996. The Clinton administration appealed, and NEA v. Finley
NEA v. Finley (1998)[NEA v Finley] made its way to the Supreme Court, which, in June, 1998, reversed the lower court ruling and allowed the decency provision to stand.


The controversy surrounding Mapplethorpe’s work sent shock waves through the art world. According to William Ivey, NEA chairman from 1998 to 2001, the Mapplethorpe controversy “let the genie out of the bottle and demonstrated the power of images in creating political conflict around artistic work.” Yet, rather than suppressing homoerotic art, the controversy made Mapplethorpe a household name and launched representations of gay male sexuality, interracial sex, sadomasochism, and AIDS into the spotlight. While some mainstream arts organizations succumbed to the chilling effects of censorship, many radical artists became more defiant, producing ever more explicit and challenging work. In the years to come, homoerotic, sadomasochistic, and AIDS-related imagery would become a staple of consumer advertising, Advertising;homoeroticism utilized by companies such as Calvin Klein, Benneton, and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Also, the controversy over sacrilegious and homoerotic art occurred at a time when the United States was undergoing a profound cultural debate. At the 1992 Republican National Convention Republican National Convention, and declarations of “cultural war” in Houston, Texas, Christian Coalition Christian Coalition founder Patrick Buchanan went so far as to declare a religious and cultural war. The conservative upsurge peaked in 1994 with the election of a Republican majority in Congress for the first time in decades. The combined influence of the Christian Right and fiscal conservatives concerned about the bloated federal budget succeeded in slashing the NEA budget by nearly 40 percent in 1995-1996. Grants to individual artists were discontinued, a larger proportion of funding was disbursed through local and state arts councils, and more money was devoted to arts education programs for children.

Conservatives never succeeded in gutting the agency as some had hoped, however; after hitting a low in 2000, the agency’s funding slowly rebounded, reaching $120 million in 2004. Since the mid-1990’s, a bipartisan consensus has emerged in favor of the NEA and public arts funding. Controversy over sexually explicit material has largely shifted to the Web, which has been the focus of indecency and obscenity legislation since the mid-1990’s.

By highlighting what was at stake, the Mapplethorpe controversy brought artists, academics, and GLBT activists together to oppose censorship and demand continued public funding for the arts and humanities. Faced with the grassroots strength of the Christian Right, progressive and cultural activists became politicized themselves, and they formed a united front to oppose the conservative agenda. Photography, Robert Mapplethorpe controversy
Arts;and indecency[indecency]
Homoeroticism, in publically funded arts
Funding of the arts
National Endowment for the Arts;and homoeroticism[homoeroticism]
Censorship;of the arts[arts]

Further Reading

  • Bolton, Richard. Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts. New York: New Press, 1992.
  • Danto, Arthur. Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Dubin, Steven. Arresting Images. New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Duggan, Lisa, and Nan D. Hunter. Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • Frohnmayer, John. Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
  • Meyer, Richard. Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Vance, Carol S. “The War on Culture.” Art in America, September, 1989.
  • Wallis, Brian, Marianne Weems, and Philip Yenawine, eds. Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  • White, Edmund. Arts and Letters. San Francisco, Calif.: Cleis Press, 2004.

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1990-1993: Artists Sue the National Endowment for the Arts