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Robert Mapplethorpe

Lifespan: 1946 - 1989

Related: American censorship - homoeroticism - erotic photography - National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) - fetish photography - transgressive art

Black Book - (1988) Robert Mapplethorpe
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"Mapplethorpe wants to photograph everything; that is , everything that can be made to pose. What he looks for, which could be called Form, is the quiddity or isness of something. Not the truth about something, but the strongest version of it...Certain People are, mostly, people found, coaxed, or arranged into a certainty about themselves. That is what seduces, that is what is disclosed in these bulletins of great photographer's observations and encounters." --Susan Sontag

In his lifetime, Mapplethorpe did not need government assistance; he became a millionaire by selling his photographs in the marketplace. Jesse Helms, however, did bring Mapplethorpe his current fame. -- Tyler Cowen


Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946 - March 9, 1989) was an American photographer, famous for his large-scale, highly-stylized black & white portraits, photos of flowers and male nudes. The frank, erotic nature of some of the work of his middle period triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of artworks. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Mapplethorpe [Jun 2005]

Censored [...]

Robert Mapplethorpe's acclaimed X Portfolio photographs depicting gay sex achieved world-wide notoriety when American senator Jesse Helms criticised the state funding of a Mapplethorpe retrospective in 1989. Helms came to epitomise the reactionary, religious, and conservative contempt for any remotely challenging artworks; he could best be described as the American equivalent of Mary Whitehouse. Mapplethorpe's most startling image, singled out for condemnation by Helms, is Helmut & Brooks (1978), which depicts a man's arm inserted up to the elbow into another man's anus. It was shown on television in Channel 4's documentary Damned In The USA (Paul Yule, 1991). In contrast to the raw, black-and-white images of Mapplethorpe, the photographic series A History Of Sex (1998) by Andres Serrano is bright, glossy, and stylised. Serrano explores the full gamut of human sexuality, with images featuring golden showers, fisting, a man licking his own penis, and even a woman fondling a horse's erection (Red Pebbles).--Matthew Hunt

Government Funding

Whether government funding for the arts should be discontinued, maintained, or extended brings two sets of incommensurable values into conflict. On one hand, the case against funding makes two valid points. First, tax-supported funding forces consumers to forgo goods and services which they would prefer more than art. Second, many individuals believe it is unjust to force conservative Christians to support an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe, to draw an example from the U.S. context. On the other hand, funding supporters point out that more money will support more artists, more art, and, if done with reasonable care, will improve our artistic heritage. Neither side has succeeded in showing that its favored values are more important than the values favored by the other side. -- Tyler Cowen


Public choice theory suggests that government arts funding cannot be restructured to avoid this clash of artistic vs. non-artistic values. Artistic buyers must be liberated from account ability to the masses, if they are to have a chance of influencing the market in a positive direction. Art and democratic politics, although both beneficial activities, operate on conflicting principles. In the field of art new masterpieces usually bring aesthetic revolutions, which tend to offend majority opinion or go over its head. In the field of politics we seek stability, compromise, and consensus. This same conservatism, so valuable in politics, stifles beauty and innovation in art. -- Tyler Cowen

NEA [...]

The current American political debate has confronted the NEA with an impossible task. The NEA is supposed to deliver the benefits of privileged spending while receiving its funding from a democratic system based on political accountability. The result is an agency whose best and most innovative actions - such as funding exhibits of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano - are precisely those that offend its taxpaying supporters. Ironically, the massive publicity generated by NEA critics may have done more for the arts than the NEA itself. Jesse Helms, with his virulent, prejudiced attacks on Robert Mapplethorpe, did far more for that artist than the Washington arts establishment has. Mapplethorpe's name is now a household word. -- Tyler Cowen


In his lifetime, Mapplethorpe did not need government assistance; he became a millionaire by selling his photographs in the marketplace. Jesse Helms, however, did bring Mapplethorpe his current fame. The American government has done a good deal to support the arts, but most of the successes have come from outside of the NEA. The entire NEA budget, at its peak, fell well short of the amount of money required to produce Kevin Costner's Waterworld epic. NEA expenditures have never exceeded seventy cents per capita, and the NEA has never been vital to American artistic success. Before 1965, when the NEA was created, American culture - even the preservation of high culture - flourished. The best American symphony orchestras and museums were created well before 1965 and without NEA involvement. -- Tyler Cowen


  • Pictures: Robert Mapplethorpe - Robert Mapplethorpe [1 book, Amazon US]
    Mapplethorpe, whose name is now synonymous with controversy, was renowned for his refined aesthetic and his willingness to confront taboos. In contrast to his classical portraits, nudes, and still lifes, his sex photographs and the reactions they engendered have been much discussed but less frequently seen. Edited and designed by Levas, this compilation of images (made between 1976 and 1980) showcases 103 beautifully reproduced duotone plates and demonstrates Mapplethorpe's intimate, personal vision of homosexuality and fetishism. Interview editor Ingrid Sischy provides a brief introductory essay that concisely contextualizes the work, explaining that while they may be shocking the photos are not pornographic. "Explicit pictures of homosexual sex don't make up a huge proportion of his work, but they are its underbelly." This handsome book is a welcome addition to the 100 books and articles listed in its bibliography, offering valuable documentation of an important artist. Highly recommended for specialized collections. --James E. Van Buskirk, San Francisco P.L. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information, Inc via amazon.com

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