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Censorship in the Arts  
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Mapplethorpe had his first gallery show in 1976; his association with many well-connected art world personalities accelerated his successful career as a "bad boy" in the art world. He quickly became known for his photographs in three classic genres: still lifes, celebrity portraits, and male and female nudes.

A strong current of sexuality runs through much of Mapplethorpe's work (including his still lifes of flowers often anthropomorphized into figures teeming with erotic power), but mortality, the fragility of beauty, and even innocence are also recurring motifs throughout his work.

In early 1989, a retrospective of Mapplethorpe's work was organized by the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art, which had received $30,000 for the show from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The retrospective, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, included 150 of Mapplethorpe's images: formal portraiture, flowers, children, and carefully posed, sexually explicit, erotic scenes, some of which were sadomasochistic. The exhibit was scheduled to tour seven cities throughout the United States.

As the show traveled, there were widely disparate responses to the same material. For example, in Philadelphia and Chicago, early in the tour, the show went largely unremarked and generally received positive reviews. In Chicago, the show attracted record-breaking crowds at the city's Museum of Contemporary Art.

By the summer of 1989, however, with the show heading to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., outrage over Mapplethorpe's work and the use of federal money to fund the exhibit grew to a fever pitch. Although most of the controversy focused on the gay sexual content of several of the photographs, many conservative leaders and critics also purported to find Mapplethorpe's portraits of Black men racist and branded the nude studies of young children (both male and female) child pornography.

The outrage over Mapplethorpe's work was fueled mainly by such conservative politicians as Jesse Helms, Dick Armey, and Alfonse D'Amato. Conservative cultural critic Richard Grenier, writing in the Washington Times, labeled Mapplethorpe "the great " and fantasized about dousing the body of the photographer with kerosene and burning it.

But it was columnist Patrick Buchanan who launched the most sustained attack, through a series of virulent syndicated newspaper columns. Declaring a cultural war, Buchanan detected a struggle for the soul of America in the battle over the arts.

Ultimately, a letter signed by over 100 congressmen was sent to the chair of the NEA denouncing the use of federal money to fund the Mapplethorpe exhibit (as well as other federally-funded and so-called "obscene" work, such as Andres Serrano's photograph Piss Christ, which depicts a crucifix submerged in a vat of the artist's own urine; it is important to note, however, that Serrano is not gay and his photograph was denounced for religious, rather than sexual, reasons).

The letter threatened to seek cuts in the agency's $170,000,000 budget that was up for approval, and demanded that the NEA end its sponsorship of "morally reprehensible trash," and provide new grant guidelines that would "clearly pay respect to public standards of taste and decency."

Amid these attacks on the NEA, the director of the Corcoran Gallery announced that it would be unwise for the gallery to go forward with its commitment to host the Mapplethorpe retrospective. The Corcoran's director felt that the appearance of such controversial images could jeopardize the future of the NEA. The Corcoran itself was also vulnerable since it has no endowment of its own and is dependent on federal funds for a significant portion of its yearly budget.

The artistic community, both gay and straight, reacted with outrage. Three days after the cancellation was announced, up to one hundred protesters demonstrated outside the gallery. Later that week, close to one thousand demonstrators viewed slides of Mapplethorpe's work projected on the facade of the Corcoran. Students at Corcoran's school of art demonstrated several times. Several artists also boycotted the gallery, withdrawing from scheduled group and solo shows.

The Mapplethorpe retrospective continued to generate heated debate, and legal action, when it moved to Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center. Within days of the exhibition's opening, the Center and its director were indicted on charges of pandering, obscenity, and the illegal use of a child in nudity-related material.

The arrest and subsequent trial were a first in the history of American art museums. The director of the Center faced up to one year in jail and a fine of $2,000, and the Center itself could have been fined $10,000. Several months of legal wrangling followed, during which time the exhibit was allowed to remain open. The Center and its director were ultimately acquitted of all charges, but only after a humiliating spectacle.

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