Robert Mapplethorpe started out as a painter, taking Polaroid pictures only with the intention of incorporating them into his artwork. Gradually, as he awakened to the potential of the medium, he began to document the world around him, particularly the art world, and the world of sex. Many of his photographs from the 1970s are frank documents of homosexuality as well as the sado-masochism subculture. “I was in a position to take those pictures,” he told ARTnews in 1988. “I felt an obligation to do them.”
His nudes from the 1980s, many of them crafted to look like classical statuary, were technically sophisticated and attracted increasing attention from the art world. His 1988 show at the Whitney in New York drew rave reviews. Two years later, however, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington cancelled a retrospective that contained virtually the same photographs. The “culture wars” were heating up in the United States, and the right-wing targeted Mapplethorpe’s work as “indecent.” When the exhibit opened in Cincinnati, the police seized seven of the artworks and arrested the museum’s director (he was subsequently acquitted).
Critics derided Mapplethorpe’s work as pornography. Dick Armey (R-TX) criticized the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) for providing $30,000 to the traveling exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work. In 1994, when Republicans seized control of Congress, they cited Mapplethorpe among other artists as part of the rationale for slashing the NEA budget by 39 percent.
NEA funding has recently gone back up. Mapplethorpe, dead now for more than fifteen years, had his first exhibit at the esteemed Hermitage in St. Petersburg in 2004. But the culture wars have not subsided in the United States, or elsewhere. In 2001, Scotland Yard raided the renowned Saatchi Gallery in London and demanded that two of photographer Tierney Gearon’s pictures of her own (nude) children be removed or they would be confiscated as child pornography. Sexuality is powerful, so it is not surprising that it can provoke explosive collisions between art and politics.
The line between pornography and erotica, between sexuality that is “safe” for consumption and sexuality that is too “dangerous” for the general public, is not easily drawn. The word pornography derives from porne, Greek for prostitute, associating sexuality with tawdry commerce. Erotica, on the other hand, is the portrayal of human sensuality and sexuality with high-art aspirations. At least, that’s the conventional distinction. Novelist Dorothy Allison and others argue that the difference between pornography and eroticism boils down not to commerce versus art but to the class and politics of the observer and the participants. Anais Nin’s sexually charged fiction Delta of Venus and Goya’s painting “Nude Maja,” whatever the high art claims of their wealthy consumers, are as much part of the commercial world as the dime novels and “sexploitation” movies so often portrayed as pornographic.
Sexuality becomes political not only through its representation in art and literature. Though libertarians will insist that the government has no right to interfere in what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes, sexuality inevitably spills over into the public sector. The future of abortion in the United States lies in the hands of a few Supreme Court justices. Teenagers need open and frank discussion of sexuality in school, if only to correct their misapprehensions and sometimes dangerous ignorance. Marriage has become a political battleground between religious fundamentalists and proponents of equal rights for all.
Backlash aside, the GLBT community – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender – has successfully extended the language and practice of human rights/equal rights to the sphere of human sexuality. Thus, the controversy around the Mapplethorpe exhibit started out as a dispute over representation (eroticism versus pornography) but ultimately became a symbol of much more, namely how a society discusses sexuality and attempts to regulate what is and is not “normal.”
Even if we have difficulty defining pornography, do we, as Justice Lewis Powell famously said in a Supreme Court Decision, know it when we see it? Does pornography have a malign influence on women and society in general such that it should be censored, as Andrea Dworkin, Catherine McKinnon, and the 1984 Meese Commission argued, or does freedom of speech trump such arguments? Has there been an upswing in pedophilia in recent years or were all the reports of Satanic rituals and child abuse, often revolving around child care centers, cases of mass hysteria comparable to the Salem witch trials? Why were sexual relationships between men and boys acceptable among the ancient Greeks but are taboo in most societies today? Is there such a thing as asexuality in human society? How is it possible to be sex positive in a sexually dangerous age?
On a trip to Provisions, you can read Tamai Kobayashi’s lyrical exploration of the loves and lives of Asian-Canadian women in the short story collection Exile and the Heart, read what activist and playwright Larry Kramer has called the intellectual journal of the gay and lesbian community,The Gay and Lesbian Review, go on-line to get your safe sex questions answered, leaf through Annie Sprinkle’s tell-all memoirs of her life as a porn star and political activist in My 25 Years as a Multimedia Whore, log on to hear broadcasts of the Houston radio show Queer Music Heritage, and watch the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America that chronicles love and death and politics in the AIDS era.