It takes a politician to turn an artist into a martyr. So the fact that photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was made the center of the year’s most incendiary artistic battle was due less to the power of his art than to the prominence of his foe: Sen. Jesse Helms. It was Helms who denounced Mapplethorpe for pornography and set off a controversy that threatened to bushwhack federal funding of the arts. The iconoclastic Mapplethorpe might have enjoyed the uproar over artistic freedom if not for the fact that he was dead—a victim of AIDS in March at the age of 42.
At issue was a national tour of Mapplethorpe’s astonishingly vivid photographs, which include dramatic portraits (like Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, 1984, right) and graphically homoerotic scenes. Mapplethorpe’s illness and artistic power had already given him macabre, heroic stature in the gay community. But even though his exhibit drew crowds in Philadelphia and Chicago, public outrage, stridently voiced by the senior Senator from North Carolina, was growing over federal support of such art. Fearful about future funding, the director of Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art abruptly canceled an appearance of the show—and angry artists withdrew two exhibits booked for the gallery. Helms fired back with an amendment, revised and passed by Congress, banning subsidies for “obscene” works, including those showing homoeroticism and other “sex acts.”
Part of Mapplethorpe’s legacy was his last self-portrait (left), which seemed to emphasize that after he was gone, homosexuality, AIDS and his art would remain. That was a likelihood Jesse Helms could not legislate away. The show is now in Hartford.