Originally Posted on June 24, 2008
Remember Robert Mapplethorpe? Boy, did he cause a stir!
For those of you who may have forgotten the late artist/photographer, Mapplethorpe created a huge brouhaha by posting homoerotic photos in public gallery spaces…on the government’s dime. Many court cases, postures by politicos and celebrities later, the face of the art world has changed to a ethical dilemma of global proportions. The quandary of exhibiting or performing “risky” works has inhabited the arts world in force. It still scares the living daylights out of many mainstream arts organizations.
On the second night of the Ethics and Arts Law class, we were presented the case of Robert Mapplethorpe. It still represents the ultimate ethical conundrum of whether a particular piece of work can make or break an artist’s reputation or the reputation of the place of performance or exhibition.
This case also has a contemporary context. In late May, two gallery showings of the works of Australian photographer Bill Henson were taken down in the Sydney area. One of the photos included a young female nude sparked a huge debate between politicians the Australian public. The outrage, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, caused the debate to deepen, though gallery owners argued that Henson’s works were “not pornography.” The state government in New South Wales decided not to press charges against Henson, which Arts Minister (and former lead singer of Midnight Oil) Peter Garrett applauded stating that the courts were “not the appropriate forum for resolving strongly held views in a debate which I think is much wider than just the impact or otherwise of works of art.”
It is as Mapplethorpe has risen from the dead.
Though Federal or State monies were not used to fund the Henson exhibitions (local council money was used in the installation in Albury, NSW); the outrage and ethical quandary are the same. The major difference between the two cases was in using the NEA’s money to fund the Mapplethorpe exhibition back in the late 1970’s. After what the Mapplethorpe exhibition went through in Cincinnati, the debate of what is considered appropriate was amplified in every subsequent visit of the exhibition.
The basic question comes down to “should art that seem ‘edgy or risky’ be allowed to be viewed or performed in public spaces?” If so, should public monies be used to fund it?
As someone who is looking into programming and marketing, this quandary is in the forefront of everyone’s minds. As a writer/poet/blogger, the legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe and the explosion of the Henson issue in Australia also haunt me. It seems that it would easier as an artists to give context while making decisions on what “goes” or not. The juggling act of selecting poems to read at an event presents a problem for me. I try to play it safe, but I always been advised to take the risk and go for it. This is an ethical quandary that still pervades today.
In tonight’s class, I am interested in how we will wrestle with the issue of Mapplethorpe’s legacy in the arts. Henson’s latest controversy aside, the ethics of content is something to never take for granted, but it is worth exploring when you want to get your name and your works out in the world.