]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]     MAD ABOUT MAPPLETHORPE       [[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[
                           Andrew Ferguson
              Assist. Manag. Editor, National Review
             [Extracted from NATIONAL REVIEW, 8/4/90]

     Washington, D.C. -- Bureaucrats in the arts, like their brethren 
elsewhere, are the Greta Garbos of democratic society:  all they want 
is to be left alone.  They labor in a tiny vineyard, a hermetic 
subculture of thousands of artists and dozens of customers; here, a 
show of fingerpainted toilet seats hung on the walls of a county 
welfare office; there, a nude dance performed in the basement of a 
Presbyterian church.  Their obscurity is their happiness--that, and 
the $150 million they annually dispense through the National Endowment 
for the Arts.
     Every so often, however, there's a leak in security.  
Controversy--the bureaucrat's nightmare of nightmares--inevitably 
ensues.  There was the flap this spring, for example, when Senator 
Alfonse D'Amato discovered that a photographer called Andres Serrano 
had used $15,000 of NEA money to finance Piss Christ, a photograph of 
a crucifix submerged in urine.  And then Congressman Dick Armey of 
Texas heard about Robert Mapplethorpe.
     Mapplethorpe died in March of AIDS, celebrated, as he had been 
for a dozen years or more, as a major artist.  The Christian Science 
Monitor (even!) had early on tagged him "one of the most original of 
America's younger photographers."  Mary Baker Eddy, phone your arts 
desk:  Mapplethorpe's leitmotif was "homoerotic and sadomasochistic 
imagery"--one of his more celebrated pieces, for example, showed a man 
urinating into a pal's mouth, while another featured the artist 
himself, doubled over and pantless, with a bullwhip dangling from his 
orifice of choice--as well as photos of "children in erotic poses," a 
form of personal expression more commonly known, when not federally 
funded, as child pornography.  These pictures and more coagulated in a 
traveling show sponsored in part by the NEA, to the tune of $30,000.  
The exhibit--which also included, for aesthetic effect, scores of 
pictures of flowers--was scheduled to arrive at Washington, D.C.'s 
Corcoran Gallery in July.
     On June 8, Congressman Armey and 108 co-signers sent a letter to 
Hugh Southern, the acting chairman of NEA, asking, in effect, what the 
hell was going on.  Noting "this is not the first time we have had 
concerns about the NEA funding inappropriate materials," the 
congressmen said they understood that "the interpretation of art is a 
subjective evaluation, but there is a very clear and unambiguous line 
that exists between what can be classified as art and what must be 
called morally reprehensible trash."
     Had it not been backed up by the power of the purse, the letter 
would surely have been laughed off as the thundering of Neanderthal 
lunatics or the posturing of pols (which in some cases it doubtlessly 
was).  Under the circumstances, however, the Corcoran decided not to 
show the Mapplethorpe exhibit after all, reasoning that the proximity 
of Mapplethorpe's subidized shutterbuggery to irate congressmen might 
endanger NEA funding.
     The Corcoran's decision sparked the predictable outrage from the 
Washington arts crowd: "appalled . . . rightwing . . . outright cave-
in . . . censorship of the most vulgar kind . . . McCarthyism . . . 
muzzle freedom of expression"--the heavy breathing almost drowned out 
the cliches.  A hardy amalgamation of artists and gays and lesbians 
and aesthetes gathered outside the gallery, chorusing, "Shame! Shame!"  
Cocktail parties were held.  There was talk of boycotts, although of 
what, precisely, no one seemed sure.  The directors of the hapless 
Corcoran seemed at first surprised, and finally hurt: all they had 
tried to do, after all, was keep the money flowing to the very same 
people who now reviled them for their prudence.
     In the wake of Mr. Armey's objections, Sidney Yates (D., Ill.), 
the art establishment's mouthpiece in Congress, has undertaken to ban 
indirect funding from the NEA, a practice which he blames for the 
Serrano and Mapplethorpe contretemps.  Conservatives on the Hill have 
greeted the reforms, along with the Corcoran's self-censorship, as a 
small victory.
     But do they understand how small it really is?  There was 
something almost quaint about Mr. Armey's letter, with its talk of a 
"very clear and unambiguous line" separating art from rubbish.  For it 
is one of the primary premises of the art world that this line doesn't 
really exist--that it is in fact a kind of cramp in the consciousness 
of the unenlightened (read: middle-class American) mind.  "If art is 
to remain something other than a blue-chip commodity," hollered one of 
the speakers at the rally outside the Corcoran, "it will challenge and 
offend, especially those whose power rests in the status quo."

                         *      *      *

Return to the ground floor of this tower
Return to the Main Courtyard
Return to Fort Freedom's home page