Visual Encyclopedia

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe (/ˈmpəlˌθɔːrp/; November 4, 1946 – March 9, 1989) was an American photographer, known for his sensitive yet blunt treatment of controversial subject-matter in the large-scale, highly stylized black and white medium of photography. His work featured an array of subjects, including celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits and still-life images of flowers. His most controversial work is that of the underground BDSM scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s of New York City. The homoeroticism of this work fuelled a national debate over the public funding of controversial artwork.

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In 1990, a photography exhibit called "The Perfect Moment" by the late Robert Mapplethorpe was put up in the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. It had recently been driven from the Corcoran in DC because the show was deemed "obscene" by Congresspeople and certain members of the public (unofficially). This argument was brought to trial when the City of Cincinnati charged the CAC and its then director Mr. Dennis Barrie of pandering obscenity. The show contained five works with homo-errotic/sadomasochistic content, as well as two images of nude children.The charges regarding the images of the children were quickly dropped; the children were 6-7 years old and Mapplethorpe had permission from their parents. The trial regarding the other images, however, dragged on a bit longer. Arguments about "what counted as art" versus "disgusting pornography" rang through the courtroom and the newspapers... but not so much the streets. Most viewers did not have a strong opinion, but the same majority believed in the artistic merit of the work. One source said "it shows the world as Mapplethorpe saw it. Those are his raw, uncensored experiences." Eventually defense attorneys Mr. Lewis Sirkin and Marc Mezibov were able to sway the jury to think the same. The Contemporary Art Center and Mr. Barrie were found not guilty, but the Cincinnati art community has yet to recover from the hard fought battle. Changes made to National Endowment for the Arts funding guidelines as a result of the trial have resulted in restricted grants for artists nationwide.

Contributed by Claire Kathryn

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