This week, the Scourge takes a look at history – his own, that of art in the United States, religion vs. art – and the absolute necessity of letting one’s demons out to play.
When the Scourge was a kid, one set of parents owned a book of Robert Mapplethorpe photos, and not surprisingly, he was entranced. Now this wasn’t just a book of the artist’s flowers, although those also interested the child, but there were also celebrity portraits, as well as some of the more risqué works, each of which drew the little Scourge into a delirium where beauty, sex and death provoked a pulse-hammering reaction.
Little did the boy know that the very elements which enticed him were at that moment the subject of a hot debate in courtrooms, art galleries and on the floor of the United States Senate. Then-senator of North Carolina Jesse Helms (thankfully, dead) was the general of a moral army whereby the works of Mapplethorpe were deemed immoral, degenerate and a danger to the youth. The Christian right sallied into the fray behind their commander, especially when, at the same time, artist Andres Serrano revealed a crucifix submerged in his own urine. Both Serrano and Mapplethorpe had ties to National Endowment for the Arts funding, so, in essence, tax-payer dollars were going toward their controversial works (as are mine towards all kinds of programs that I find morally reprehensible).
This was viewed by Christian nut Pat Robertson, who just this week said he understood the logic for punishing women who’ve had an abortion, as “blasphemy paid for by the government.” In a Washington Times article of the era, Pat Buchanan called for “cultural revolution” against “openly anti-Christian, anti-American, nihilistic” art.
The tory Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., buckled under the pressure and canceled their planned Mapplethorpe exhibit, whereupon gay and lesbian activists, alongside artists, picketed the museum and projected the photographer’s works onto the building. When the Cincinnati art museum actually had the balls to show the exhibit, the museum’s director, David Barrie, and the museum itself (reminder: an inanimate object) was charged with obscenity by the county prosecutor’s office. After a trial, during which the prosecution couldn’t find one witness from the art world to label the Mapplethorpe’s work “pornography,” Barrie and the museum were acquitted (I wonder if the museum slept better that night).
According to a Washington Post article last year that looked at the Cincinnati case from today’s vantage point in the culture wars, the outcry against the museum was heavily influenced by the city’s Catholics. It was “the last stand of the organized West Side Catholics,” said Albert Pyle, a writer for Cincinnati Magazine during the brouhaha. “The West Siders were shocked that the city wasn’t ashamed of itself. The non-Catholic whites were embarrassed for the city to take a hit in the national press. Black Cincinnati who had no stake [in the museum] but who were social conservatives, thought it was a lot of white nonsense.”
Decades later, Mapplethorpe, again, has come into the public light. Tomorrow night, HBO will air “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” a documentary about the artist’s actual work, as opposed to just the controversy it generated. Articles on the artist have abounded in the New York Times this past year, partly because of the documentary, but also because of a joint exhibition of the photographer’s work now on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty in New York.
Vanity Fair’s March issue featured an article by Bob Colacello, who was friends with Mapplethorpe as he launched himself into the art world, and Colacello wrote, upon watching the documentary, “After the fourth or fifth appearance of Mapplethorpe’s most notorious self-portrait – the one in which he has inserted the bottom end of a leather whip into the rear end of his body – I began to wonder if this is what we really need to see, to contemplate, to memorialize in the age of ISIS.”
Damn right it is, Bob.
When the world’s eye is fixated on a terrorist group that uses a sexually repressive and abusive religion as an excuse for its atrocities –
When men engaged in same sex acts are stoned, shot, hung, or pushed from buildings by barbarians shouting “Allahu akbar” –
When a coalition of more than 3o secular and religious Pakistani groups calls for the repeal of a law protecting women from domestic abuse –
When Christian cretins across this “great” nation are taking to the streets in favor of separate lunch counters for LGBTQ people –
Then, yes, we absolutely do need to contemplate a man who defiantly shoved a bullwhip up his ass and smiled for the camera.
And here’s why:
As long as we keep the deep parts of ourselves hidden from view – all those bits we label “nasty” and “dirty” and “immoral” – we open the door to trouble. Demonize any part of your identity (individual or the body politic), and eventually, it will possess you body, mind and soul.
In a post two weeks ago, at the very end of the short recaps, there was an article about women who walked into a mosque in Nigeria and blew it up. “How Jungian,” I wrote, because, that’s how the shadow works – repress it long enough and it blows up your shit.
Mapplethorpe went fearlessly into the places that most people are too cowardly to traverse, and while, yes, he created beautiful art of this:
And we can’t forget this:
He also created this:
You see, when we explore the depths of ourselves, when we fetishize them, we then understand that beauty, sex and death are interchangeable experiences. The curve of a flower is reminiscent of the curve of a cock. Being bound in leather is no less restricting than being bound by the death which stalks each one of us. The self-obliteration of the life-flooding orgasm is the same self-obliteration upon crossing into the land of shadows. Live like that, and every single experience of a lifetime is revealed as a sacrament.
Be courageous. Be like Mapplethorpe. Turn your secrets into holy works of art. Don’t succumb to the moralizing priests, bureaucratic rabbis, monomaniacal gurus and pig-ignorant mullahs who, obsessed with the afterlife, have poisoned this one.
Until next Sunday…the heretic’s day.
News briefs will return next week, as will our regularly scheduled programming.