Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mapplethorpe Redux

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.

1 comment:


    Gregory Carlin: The Henson issue, is simple, it is about the alleged right of an individual, who compares himself to Caravaggio, to market naked photographs of children via the internet, it is very disturbing

    and, if that was not ba enough, to sell full frontal nudes of little boys, to rich men, in the basements of third rate galleries in Australia.

    The latter, is restricted to Australia, and nowhere else. If you can’t legally sell it in London, then one is either not talking about art, or talking about something very difficult to understand.

    Henson isn’t difficult, his corpse nudes are derived from ‘Silence of the Lambs’, that is his trash inspiration, or retro 1880′s child pornography, he really isn’t Caravaggio, he just isn’t

    as if a technical artist, ever could be, particularly one, favored by a technique derived from ‘still’ out-takes, it is accidental or sampled faux cine art.

    Henson is a cult, which doesn’t really travel, the question we ask, is not whether it is shocking, but whether it is legal, and in many jurisdictions it just isn’t.

    The ad hoc rule in Burbank/Hollywood, is that before you can compare somebody to Orson Welles, he has to be the best of his kind. It is perhaps, enough to say, the Vatican isn’t looking to hire Australians in the near future.

    And nobody, excepting Sebastian Smee at his new job at the Boston Globe, takes Henson seriously, well except the police in London, who have been searching for contraband material via electronic transfer.

    So the Henson, debate will ultimately be decided at the UN, by the FBI, Interpol, and by a realization, if it can’t be sold, it has no white-money value.

    What we really have, is an Australian, with local immunity and a Thomas Harris paperback in his carry-bag.

    Henson, is a problem looking for a solution. Child protectionists, have to deliver that answer, not the art world, the problem will ultimately be addressed by the police.

    He was lucky in Australia, he has to be lucky always, he only has to lose once for it to be over.