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Consensual Subordination:
Robert Mapplethorpe and Pornography



The large exhibition “Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition” in the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin celebrates Robert Mapplethorpe’s classical photography. The artist’s erotic and pornographic work was not always received as openly as it is today, however. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on the radical aesthetic of Mapplethorpe’s works.



In heart I’m an American artist, and I have no guilt
Patti Smith, Babelogue, 1978


Robert Mapplethorpe:
Self-Portrait 1988
©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
All rights reserved.


On September 28 1990, the so-called “ Mapplethorpe Obscenity Trial” began in Cincinnati. Six months previously, in April, police and deputies from the sheriff’s office ordered the 400 visitors present to leave the opening of the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective The Perfect Moment at the Contemporary Arts Center in order to barricade the building and record the evidence on video for later use in the prosecution: the children’s portraits of “Rosie” and Jesse McBride from the mid-seventies, on which exposed genitals were visible, plus five works from Mapplethorpe’s legendary X Portfolio, which depicts homosexuals engaged in performing S/M practices. If the district attorney, high police officials, local businessmen, and various anti-pornography groups were to have their way, Dennis Barrie, the director of the hosting museum, could have looked forward to a maximum sentence of six months for the dissemination of pornography.


Cover for Artforum magazine, September 1979:
Projection of Mapplethorpe's works at Washington's Corcoran Gallery as protest against the cancelation of the exhibition "The Perfect Moment".
© Artforum, New York

The fact that the trial ended with an acquittal was largely due to the witnesses for the prosecution. While the defense came up with a good number of art experts, all of whom certified that the photographs of the artist, who died of Aids in March of 1989, were “figurative studies” and “classical compositions,” the prosecution only called four witnesses to the stand: three police officers and Judith Reisman, a representative of the American Family Association, who used to compose songs for the children’s series Captain Kangeroo. The jury, which was made up of men and women from the working class none of whom had ever previously had the slightest contact with art or photography, ultimately accepted the art experts’ evaluation. Even though the trial represented a victory over censorship, it could hardly go unnoticed that it was basically the same average citizens the artist grew up among in Floral Park in the NYC borough of Queens who were to pass judgement on Mapplethorpe’s work – the conformist environment of white, one-family homes, barbecue dinners, and swimming pool parties that he spent his entire life trying to escape from.


Robert Mapplethorpe: Self-Portrait, 1980
©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. All rights reserved.

Today, the spectacular trial seems to belong to the same distant past as the worldwide boycotts against Philip Morris that Aids action groups such as ACT UP called for in 1990. They wanted to force the multinational concern to stop financing Senator Jesse Helms, who called gays “disgusting people” and who founded a successful campaign against the “glorification of obscene life styles in art.” If it hadn’t only been the photographer’s work, but also Mapplethorpe’s person that was the object of the trial, then he certainly would have been found guilty posthumously by the moralists of Bible-Belt America.


Cover by Robert Mapplethorpe for
"Drummer" magazine, September 1978

“I am working in an art tradition… to me sex is one of the highest artistic acts,” Mapplethorpe once said. As his biographer Patricia Morrisroe evocatively describes in her book Robert Mapplethorpe: A Biography (Da Capo Press, 1997), Mapplethorpe personified the antithesis to the model family life. As familiar with high society as he was with the leather bars of New York’s meatpacking district, he embodied a love of excess in every respect. He was addicted to drugs and sex, he was promiscuous, exhibitionistic, voyeuristic, and sadistic. He flirted with Satanist symbols and practices and combined pornography with religion in his photographic work. In the self-portraits he made between 1972 and 1989, he adorns himself with the accouterments of lust, the demonic, and death, with devil’s horns, in bondage, and as a faun, rockabilly, transvestite, and terrorist – as both the seducer and the person being seduced: “I’m looking for perfection in form. I do it with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers.” For Mapplethorpe, the perfection of form goes hand in hand with its photographic transformation into pure fetish, an eroticism that dissolves the differences between love and perversion, active and passive, domination and subordination, good and bad.


Robert Mapplethorpe: Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, 1979
©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. All rights reserved.


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