Robert Mapplethorpe is famous for capturing gay culture in the 1980’s – 90’s in New York City. His work features nudes, drag and photographs of BDSM and kink culture. This was particularly radical for the time. Certainly it was after the Stonewall Riots, but Mapplethorpe’s work was created just at the beginning of gay speech in America. His work provided a platform for gay men and people suffering from AIDS and HIV to have a voice. Mapplethorpe’s work is very intimate. You get the impression he is inviting you in to a special and secret space. The black and white format creates a fluid readability throughout his work and gives the body of work a mood or perspective that is Mapplethorpe’s style.
In 1990, Mapplethorpe had showed a body of work titled “X Portfolio” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia which got a lot of people talking about the ethics of censorship in art. As a result of this discussion, The American Family Association urged The National Endowment for the Arts to cut funding from the next gallery where “X portfolio” was supposed to be shown, Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C.. This threat caused the gallery to back out of the show. Still, it moved on to Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center in Ohio. Because of the national attention Mapplethorpe’s show was getting, over four thousand people (including on duty police officers) came to the opening night. This was the first instance in which adult content that differed from the heteronormative narrative was shown as a form of fine art. Halfway through the first day of the exhibit, the city charged the museum and its curator for the indecent, vulgar, content being shown to the greater population. After a weeklong trial, the jury announced their verdict as not guilty on the grounds that art should not be censored. In an article written for the Smithsonian, author Alex Palmer noted the perspective of the attorney, H Louis Sirkin, who sought to argue that “Art doesn’t have to be pretty, that it might make one uncomfortable and might not be appreciated until much later. . . Palmer added a quotation from Sirkin, who reportedly said, “You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to come to the museum.”
About a month ago, I had the great pleasure of going to see Robert Mapplethorpe’s show “L’obiettivo sensibile” at Palazzo Corsini in Trastevere. The show’s title translates to “The Sensitive Lens.” Sensitive indeed. The way Mapplethorpe’s works are composed speaks of his intent to elevate what are still largely considered obscene and undesirable acts by the greater population to the status of high art. A man, clad in leather and hung upside down on a cross by his lover, hangs next to a portrait of Saint Peter who was crucified upside down on a cross because he was not holy enough to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus. A portrait of the famous body builder and dominatrix, Lisa Lyon, hangs beneath three Guido Reni portraits of the Christ, the Madonna, and John the Baptist. And in another room, all to themselves, hang about ten photographs of nude figures, some are real models, and some are sculptures. You only have to spend a few moments looking at each photograph to realize that each one was composed with careful precision, taking into account form, light, balance of symmetry and composition. Mapplethorpe beckons us into a world that is both dangerous and elevated. He makes something perceived as harsh and gluttonous for pain as soft and vulnerable. This is no doubt increased by his decision to create a format for each photo, as I said before, shot in black and white, with a nice white border surrounding every picture, and the curator, Flaminia Gennari Santori’s, choice to include many of Mapplethorpe’s still lifes of flowers.
In a city that often causes me to feel rendered invisible, it was an achingly beautiful show. In my first article Gay Culture in Rome: Taking Comfort in the Privacy of a Moment, I wrote that Italy’s gay culture is “…limited to sexuality, i.e. men seeking out only men. Forget the LGBTQIA– the acronym is really just “G” here.” Certainly, Rome is the epicenter of the catholic church, but it continues to astound me that a city (in my experience) that has been extremely slow to progress in this regard, would allow for a show like this to be seen. I see this as a push from the Italian art world to say, “Hello, the minority exists here too.” We’re still here whether you see us or not. Mapplethorpe’s decision to elevate queer bodies to the format of what is already accepted in heteronormative society as “fine art,” is a bold statement of equity. It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, we can do that too.” The truth of the matter is that many artists society has supported in the past have been closeted queers. The only difference is twenty-nine years after Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio” took the nation by storm, more of us feel free to express it.
Palmer, Alex. “When Art Fought the Law and the Art Won.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 2 Oct. 2015, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-art-fought-law-and-art-won-180956810/.