The Half-life of Censorship

With retrospectives at both the Getty and  LACMA and a new HBO doc about his life and work, Mapplethorpe sparked this editorial from writer/curator Simon Herbert:

Given the current tone of political discourse in an election year, it’s tempting to think that we’ve hit new lows in civility; yet rewind to 1989, on the floor of Congress, where NC Senator Jesse Helms was striding up and down the floor, trying to make political hay out of banning federal funds to the National Endowment for the Arts. Back then, the “culture wars” between right and left were beginning to metastasize for the first time; and Helms, in his inflated piety, had decided to focus on whether public money should not be directed to the funding of “obscene” artworks. At a time when HIV funding was being denied; and 28 years before the White House (as of this month) installed a gender-neutral restroom in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; it’s hard to reimagine the level of vilification that alternate sexual orientations aroused at the time (or, unfortunately, maybe not…). Helms chose one particular artistic icon to funnel his outrage through…

… the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe is currently the focus of both a HBO documentary ”Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”; and two-tier simultaneous retrospective exhibition: “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium,” at the Getty Center, Los Angeles (March 15-July 31); and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (March 15-July 31).

We all know Mapplethorpe’s photographic works so well, that there’s little need to describe them in this article: they live in the public imagination in a way that Helms would despise, were he (or Mapplethorpe) still alive today. Especially since Helms’s symbolic gesture, on the floor of Congress, actually contributed to Mapplethorpe‘s “infamy”: his action was to, literally, rip up a Mapplethorpe photograph: one single print that, presumably in Helms’s mind, stood testament to all of the other bullwhips, rectums, cocks and polyester suits that hovered out there as part of a society where gender and sexual behaviors were being challenged.

Let’s think about that for a minute: a US Congressman used vandalism and destruction to make a point about his own personal preferences, and did so in front of a group of men and women who are supposed to be the best and brightest minds of our land: the people who ‘manage’ us; who legislate for us; who take our hopes and fears and carve them into either trickle down economics, or FEMA aid, or tax cuts…

… and the best that Helms could do that day was a violent gesture not far distant from Nazi book burning.

Of course, it was always meant as a snake oil gesture – an act of political circus – on Helms’s part; but what is truly interesting about the causality of Mapplethorpe’s work is that, 27 years later, the idea of destroying a single print is even more futile. Our society has changed, mainstream sexuality has changed; and the valences between what was once taboo and is now ‘acceptable’ has mutated way beyond the narrow strictures of Helm’s rigidity. His gesture was futile then, but in the explosion of digital information, and access, since then, Helms seems, in the prism of history, even more pathetic; trying to hold the pictorial waves at bay, even as they lap up around his feet in a rising tide of pixels. History, and technology, and art, and social change, have rendered Helms an irrelevance: a museum curio, interesting only for the futility and savagery of his performance art.

The great (and delightful) irony is that, long after Helms has retreated to a Wikipedia footnote, the legacy of Mapplethorpe has only increased in currency; both cultural and monetary (a print of “Man in a Polyester Suit” recently sold for nearly a half a million dollars at Sotheby’s last year). The museums that Helms and his rabid brethren were trying to shut down, still have open doors; citizens of all stripes pass through them in their millions every year; consuming new and old art; and many of these institutions will doubtless also – like the White House –be installing gender-neutral restrooms.

Museum visitors will be funneled through the exit, to the inevitable gift shop where postcards of Mapplethorpe’s photographs sit in revolving stands. His work will be forever cemented, centuries from now, in “high art” culture; next to the the Warhols and the Koons and the Harings; all inheritors of the legacies of the Van Goghs and the Monets.

Now that’s a most excellent way to repudiate tyranny.

For more information on the HBO documentary, and the Getty Center/LACMA exhibition:

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