Mapplethorpe’s Photographs Provoke Controversy

The debate over federal funding of controversial art was heightened when the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art canceled a planned exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, citing concerns that the exhibition would incite a backlash from Capitol Hill.

Summary of Event

Although debate concerning the federal funding of provocative art had been raging since 1982, a 1989 exhibition of erotic art by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, titled The Perfect Moment, had been presented in Philadelphia and Chicago without arousing controversy. An uproar began when the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Christina Orr-Cahall, canceled the Corcoran’s scheduled showing of the Mapplethorpe exhibition. The Corcoran was engaged in a battle over federal funding, and Orr-Cahall was worried that the exhibition, which included a series of photographs depicting homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes, would draw fire from Capitol Hill. She thus decided to impose censorship on her own gallery. Corcoran Gallery of Art
Arts, government subsidies for
Perfect Moment, The (art exhibition)
[kw]Mapplethorpe’s Photographs Provoke Controversy (June 14, 1989)
[kw]Photographs Provoke Controversy, Mapplethorpe’s (June 14, 1989)
[kw]Controversy, Mapplethorpe’s Photographs Provoke (June 14, 1989)
Photography;Robert Mapplethorpe[Mapplethorpe]
Corcoran Gallery of Art
Arts, government subsidies for
Perfect Moment, The (art exhibition)
[g]North America;June 14, 1989: Mapplethorpe’s Photographs Provoke Controversy[07280]
[g]United States;June 14, 1989: Mapplethorpe’s Photographs Provoke Controversy[07280]
[c]Photography;June 14, 1989: Mapplethorpe’s Photographs Provoke Controversy[07280]
[c]Arts;June 14, 1989: Mapplethorpe’s Photographs Provoke Controversy[07280]
[c]Government and politics;June 14, 1989: Mapplethorpe’s Photographs Provoke Controversy[07280]
Mapplethorpe, Robert
Orr-Cahall, Christina
Helms, Jesse

Outraged by this action, artists demonstrated in front of the Corcoran, and protesters gathered there the night before the show was scheduled to open. Laser artist Rockne Krebs Krebs, Rockne projected a gigantic image of Mapplethorpe against the stately museum. An artists’ boycott followed on the heels of the protests. Six sculptors and a conceptual artist all canceled their exhibitions so as not to appear to endorse the museum’s actions. Lowell Nesbitt, Nesbitt, Lowell a New York artist who had twice exhibited at the Corcoran, revoked a bequest of $1.5 million that was to go to the museum on his death. In addition to artists’ protests, one-tenth of the museum’s members terminated their membership.

To offset this tide of emigration, Orr-Cahall sent ten thousand letters to artists and museum members in which she beseeched them to fight Senator Jesse Helms’s call for a ban on federal funding of indecent art. Shifting the blame did not appear to have any effect on the flight of patrons or artists, however, and three months after the turmoil began, Orr-Cahall issued a meek apology. Most viewed this as too little, too late. The museum had done the unforgivable; it had caved in to political pressure.

Controversy continued to rage, as Helms proposed (and Congress rejected) broad restrictions on federal funding for the arts and humanities. The National Endowment for the Arts National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) also forced its grantees to make an antiobscenity pledge in order to ensure that none of the proceeds from the NEA would go to finance any project considered obscene. Several artists had already decided that NEA grants were not worth the price. The most famous vocal opponent of the pledge was Joseph Papp, Papp, Joseph then producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival in Manhattan, who turned down two grants, one for $57,500 and another for $371,000. Others, such as performance artist Rachel Rosenthal Rosenthal, Rachel and choreographer Bella Lewitzky, Lewitzky, Bella also refused to take the pledge and consequently lost grants.

Another local gallery, the Washington Project for the Arts, did present the Mapplethorpe exhibition that summer, and the exhibition went on to break attendance records at galleries in Chicago, Berkeley, and other U.S. cities. Only two pieces were deleted from the exhibition, and those were noncontroversial works withdrawn by their owner.

The works in the exhibition reflected a hodgepodge of influences. They included fashion and magazine illustrations, theater and dance photography, and portraits of celebrities, including William S. Burroughs, Donald Sutherland, Louise Nevelson, Cindy Sherman, Doris Saatchi, Francesco Clemente, Alice Neel, and Laurie Anderson. Lastly, there was the sadomasochistic and homoerotic art, which was all that Middle America knew of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe reportedly said that for him “S&M” stood for “sex and magic,” not “sadomasochism.” His Erotic Pictures
Erotic Pictures (Mapplethorpe) series included photographs of men clad in leather, often with exposed genitalia, performing various sexual acts or posing with paraphernalia such as whips and chains. His models were not hired; rather, they were friends doing what they normally did. Mapplethorpe sought to instill dignity and beauty in subjects that were outside the norms of accepted behavior. Although his subject matter had shock value, his photographic composition was symmetrical, his backdrops conventional, and his lighting precise. In those respects, he was a conservative artist, yet works such as Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 ½) (1976), in which a man arches over a ledge in order to display his genitals, and Self Portrait (1978), which shows Mapplethorpe bent over inserting a whip into his own rectum, did not seem so conservative to the general public.

An interest in eroticism and homoeroticism is evident even in Mapplethorpe’s early works. His Untitled (1972) features an image of two boys kissing, with a highlighted rectangle placed around their lips. Portrait (1973) depicts an early sadomasochistic image, with Mapplethorpe dressed in a leather vest without a shirt and with a clamp attached to his right nipple. Mapplethorpe was trying to project in these photographs the reaction he had experienced when he got his first glance at male pornographic magazines in New York City’s Times Square in the late 1960’s.

Mapplethorpe himself missed the NEA controversy surrounding his exhibition at the Corcoran. He died on March 9, 1989, three months before the scheduled opening. The controversy he sparked with his few photographs from the Erotic Pictures series will likely be Mapplethorpe’s most memorable legacy to the art world; the debate about whether he was an artist or a pornographer will probably continue for decades.


When the Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Corcoran was abruptly halted, the foundation of the art world rocked from the jolt. Protests raged in front of the Corcoran, artists canceled their exhibitions, and the museum’s top curator, Jane Livingston, quit her affiliation of fifteen years. The very existence of the Corcoran Gallery was thrown into question. Even an apology by the museum, which most observers considered to be rather muted, did little to stop the outbound flow of members or the erosion of donations. Photography;Robert Mapplethorpe[Mapplethorpe]

Jesse Helms and his supporters deemed the cancellation of the Mapplethorpe exhibition a victory. The NEA’s funding of exhibitions containing provocative photographs by Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano Serrano, Andres had ignited the controversy over federal arts and humanities funding, and Helms continued to press for broader restrictions on such funding. After hours of stormy debate on September 28 and 29, 1989, a joint House and Senate conference committee voted down the Helms proposal and instead adopted a compromise. The compromise legislation omitted the original Helms references to art that was indecent or that denigrated any religion, race, ethnic background, age group, or handicap, but the bill retained a ban on federal funding of obscene art. The compromise amendment forbade the use of NEA funds to “promote, disseminate or produce obscene materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts.”

The two institutions that organized the Serrano and Mapplethorpe exhibitions, Winston-Salem’s Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, were both placed on one-year probation by the NEA. Any NEA grants to either organization were to be brought to the attention of two congressional committees that oversaw the NEA.

The NEA also adopted a restriction that required all grant recipients to sign a no-obscenity pledge; artists saw this move as a threat to the principle of artistic freedom. Joseph Papp, who turned down two large grants, stated that he would continue to do so as long as the no-obscenity oath remained a requirement. Bella Lewitzky, a Los Angeles choreographer, refused a $72,000 NEA grant to her Lewitzky Dance Company, claiming that the episode reminded her of the McCarthyism of the 1950’s, when she had refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Cincinnati, Ohio, became the next battleground for the deceased Mapplethorpe. In advance of the exhibition’s April 7, 1990, opening at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, Contemporary Arts Center (Cincinnati) Citizens for Community Values, Citizens for Community Values, a powerful and well-funded organization with sixteen thousand members, sponsored full-page ads in local papers and an extensive letter-writing campaign opposing the use of taxpayers’ money to fund obscene art. As a result of the pressure, the chairman of the Contemporary Arts Center stepped down from his post, and another board member quit outright.

Conservatism has deep roots in Cincinnati, and the city has purged sex shops, peep shows, X-rated theaters, and nude-dance clubs from its neighborhoods. The Contemporary Arts Center had scheduled the Mapplethorpe exhibition two years prior to its arrival and long before the controversy at the Corcoran. Following the opposition to the upcoming show mounted by the Citizens for Community Values, law-enforcement officials urged the museum to cancel the exhibition, announcing that, if it opened, they would seize any photographs they deemed obscene.

Dennis Barrie, Barrie, Dennis the director of the Contemporary Arts Center, felt ethically and legally committed to the exhibition, but he made several concessions, including placing the sexually explicit photographs in a separate room with posted warnings about their content and not allowing children to view the works without an adult companion. On opening day, however, anonymous members of a grand jury toured the museum and ruled within a few hours that 7 of the 175 photographs on exhibit were obscene, either because they showed sexual acts between men or because they showed children with their genitals exposed. Consequently, at 3:00 p.m. on opening day, police raided the gallery, ejected about five hundred viewers, closed the museum for ninety minutes, videotaped Mapplethorpe’s work as evidence, and arrested Barrie. On the following day, the museum was successful in bringing its case to federal district court, and law-enforcement officials were forbidden to seize any pictures, ensuring that the exhibition would continue until its scheduled closing date.

Barrie faced a $2,000 fine and up to a year in jail if convicted; the museum faced a $10,000 fine. An eight-member jury, however, returned a not-guilty verdict. The antiobscenity lobby had suffered an important setback, but the decision was viewed as good news for the NEA. The NEA had provided a $34,500 grant for the Mapplethorpe exhibition, which would have made for bad publicity had the verdict been guilty.

At the time of the Cincinnati trial, the NEA’s mandate was under consideration for a three-year renewal from the federal government. David A. Ross, Ross, David A. director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, maintained that the preoccupation of some legislators with rooting out obscenity in art had much to do with a prevailing climate of homophobia in the country. In June, 1990, on a recommendation of the National Council on the Arts, a presidential advisory body, the NEA chose not to award grants to four performance artists, three of whom were gay. All four had received NEA funding in the past, and a panel of their peers had already approved the grants.

The controversy over “art versus pornography” will no doubt continue to rage. The debate involving the question of whether depicted homosexual acts are automatically pornographic resurfaced with particular vigor with the closing of the Mapplethorpe show at the Corcoran. The exhibition had been seen in other cities without much fanfare, but the media attention given to its closing in Washington, D.C., prompted heated congressional debates and angry protests on the street. Some, such as Jesse Helms and the Citizens for Community Values, insisted that the exhibition included pornographic smut. Others, such as Dennis Barrie, saw something else. At his trial, Barrie stated that the photographs alleged to be obscene were artistic illustrations of the “homosexual subculture of New York City in the 1970’s.” Barrie said of Mapplethorpe, his “intention was to take a sometimes tough, sometimes brutal subject matter and bring beauty to it.” Photography;Robert Mapplethorpe[Mapplethorpe]
Corcoran Gallery of Art
Arts, government subsidies for
Perfect Moment, The (art exhibition)

Further Reading

  • Gwynne, S. C., and Barbara Dolan. “Eruptions in the Heartland.” Time, April 23, 1990, 26-32. Discusses the controversy in Cincinnati over the exhibition of works by Mapplethorpe.
  • McGuigan, Cathleen. “Corcoran Showdown: The Thwarted Mapplethorpe Show Has Bedeviled Congress and Is Tearing Apart a Museum.” Newsweek, October 9, 1989, 111-112. Addresses the future of the Corcoran in the aftermath of the cancellation of the Mapplethorpe exhibition.
  • Merkel, Jayne. “Art on Trial.” Art in America 78 (December, 1990): 41-46. Discusses the acquittal of Dennis Barrie in the Mapplethorpe exhibition case.
  • Mey, Kerstin. Art and Obscenity. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007. Examines reactions to the works of twentieth century artists who have created art that some deem obscene or unacceptable. Includes discussion of Mapplethorpe’s controversial photographs.
  • Wallis, Brian. “Can Crippled Corcoran Survive?” Art in America 77 (November, 1989): 41-42. Discusses the future prospects for the Corcoran after its cancellation of the Mapplethorpe exhibition.
  • _______. “Museum Director Threatened in Mapplethorpe Brouhaha.” Art in America 78 (September, 1990): 59-61. Discusses the fate of Dennis Barrie and the obscenity charges stemming from the Mapplethorpe exhibition.
  • Young, Pamela. “Art and Obscenity: The Anti-obscenity Lobby Has Its Day in Court.” Maclean’s, October 15, 1990, 74-82. Reports on the movement against obscenity in art.

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