Through Archives and Ephemera, the Corcoran Revisits Its Decision to Cancel Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1989 Retrospective

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In the late 1980s, a selection of new projects funded by the National Endowment of the Arts caught the concerned eye of Congress. On June 8, 1989, Congress sent a letter to the NEA about its funding of Andres Serrano’s photograph depicting a crucifix submerged in urine (“Piss Christ,” 1987) and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, the artist’s most comprehensive retrospective at the time. Mapplethorpe, who had died just two months prior due to complications from AIDS, had been no stranger to controversy and criticism—some homophobic, some prudish, and some valid. This time the issue was sadomasochistic and homoerotic imagery and two photos featuring child nudity included in his retrospective. 

In the fiery letter, Congress asked what the NEA was doing to prevent these kinds of works from being funded in the future. “We realize that the interpretation of art is a subjective evaluation,” they wrote, “but there is a very clear and unambiguous line that exists between what can be classified as art and what must be called morally reprehensible trash.” 

Five days after the NEA received the letter from Congress, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC announced that it was canceling its exhibition of the touring Mapplethorpe retrospective, and noted that its decision was based on the law and not aesthetics.

At what is now the George Washington University’s Corcoran College of the Arts and Design, 6.13.89: The Cancelling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition kicks up the polemical dust surrounding the Corcoran’s fateful decision to drop the retrospective and poses nuanced questions about the government’s influence on the arts. Through correspondence, articles, and other archival materials that track this controversy, the exhibit (on view through October 6) shows how the public perceived the Corcoran’s choice as censorship, pure and simple. 

Exhibition view of 6.13.89: The Cancelling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition

And DC wasn’t the only place where the work stirred outrage. It was met with public grievances  at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, where the exhibition was organized. Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center director, Dennis Barrie, was arrested on obscenity charges for his decision to show the controversial works, the first time a museum in the United States faced prosecution for the art it displayed.  

Splaying out seemingly endless headlines from 1989 across an entire display case, the curators of 6.13.89 make it crystal clear: Turning down the exhibition was atomic. Bending to the government’s will, the Corcoran ceded power to the state to define what art can or cannot be.

According to Congress, artwork that may be construed as pornography is simply not art and cannot be paid for by tax dollars. And I can’t gloss over one major reason for Congress’s discomfort: child nudity. The two images that caused the most controversy were “Jesse McBride” and “Rosie (Honey).” Though arguably not explicitly pornographic, these images seemed sexually solicitous to some. In “Jesse McBride,” a little 5-year-old blond boy sits, fully nude, atop a lounge chair. In “Rosie,” a 3-year-old girl wearing a dress sits on a stone bench with her knees up, revealing her genitals. 

Personally, I found the images to be severely inappropriate. Yet the principal questions persist: Is it okay to exhibit photographs that capture minors nude or in sensual positions as long as it is in the name of art? How does the law protect a society’s or citizen’s safety and human rights? Can an art object be exempt from or find loopholes in such laws? 

This is a wildly gray area, but author, art historian, and lawyer Joan Kee poses these questions in her newest book, Models of Integrity Art and Law in Post-Sixties America. Kee asserts that it is almost mandatory for an artist to be a kind of criminal in order to make art, because art must upend society and cannot do so if it plays by, and functions within, the rules that society created. Kee references Bruce Mitchell’s 1979 paper Body Art: A Legal Policy Analysis, in which Mitchell focuses on Chris Burden’s performance art piece “Shoot” (1971), in which an assistant shot the artist in the arm with a rifle. This piece caused the artist, who in this case would be both artist and perpetrator of violence, to weigh his rights as an artist against his membership to a greater polity, one that aims to protect people from violence.

From 6.13.89 exhibit

The question of how far something can go in the name of art has bubbled up in Supreme Court cases since the ‘50s and the answer remains extremely vague. In the landmark 1957 case Roth vs. the United States, the Court ruled that obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment, and created a definition by which all visual materials must be tested in order to clarify if their makers or distributors broke the law. The Roth test, as it was called, claimed that if an image, as judged by “community standards,” was proved to display a dominant theme that encouraged an excessive interest in sexual desires, then the image was obscene.

But gaps abound here: Themes are subjective, and community standards encompass a wide range of possibilities, especially as such standards naturally evolve over time, as exemplified by the fact that other Supreme Court cases in the ‘60s and ‘70s further adjusted the law. Our current obscenity test, the Miller test, judges the obscene as that which appeals to prurient interests, depicts sexual content or excretory functions in a “patently offensive” way, or has no socially redeeming value, in terms of its literary, artistic, political, or scientific content. 

Letter to Friends of the Corcoran, October 12, 1989, Peggy Brown.

As director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1989, Christina Orr-Cahall was well aware of this speckled history of defining obscenity and so consulted lawyers on the Mapplethorpe matter. The lawyers outlined the characteristics that would be analyzed to determine whether an image was pornographic: the focal point, the suggestiveness of the setting, the nature of the pose, the amount of clothing on the child, the depiction of the subject’s willingness or coyness, and the intention of the image to elicit a sexual response. 

The lawyers concluded that “unless there is a very good reason to have this show the Corcoran faces a greater exposure than usual to trouble which may outweigh artistic merit.” Insisting on the artistic merit of Mapplethorpe’s work could function as a defense against obscenity charges but likely wouldn’t hold up against the so-called Kiddy Porn Laws. They recommended that if the Corcoran wanted to have the exhibition, it should pull the works featuring children and restrict admission to certain ages. 

Instead, as we know, the Corcoran decided to cancel the entire exhibition. A statement from Orr-Cahall read, in part, “In a city with such a great federal presence, [neutrality on political issues] has been essential. Citizen and Congressional concerns, on both sides of the issue of public funds supporting controversial art, are now pulling the Corcoran into the political domain.” The withdrawal, she insisted, wasn’t a judgment on the artist’s work or of his right to express himself, nor an affront to the NEA: “The Corcoran Gallery is responding only to the political occasion—the present discussion which fundamentally rests with the Endowment and Congress.”

Letter regarding Corcoran Gallery of Art’s apology for cancellation of Mapplethorpe exhibition, September 7, 1989, Marvin Gerstin.

Claiming that the whole issue was really a tension between the NEA and Congress defended the Corcoran’s decision to cancel the show instead of walking the tightrope of legalities and discomfort. I think the Corcoran Gallery of Art missed an opportunity here. The conflict was not merely politicking, institutional bickering, or a bureaucratic nightmare; it signaled a socio-cultural shift at the foundational level. It was about the changing understanding of art’s role in cultivating critical discourse—in the case of Mapplethorpe’s exhibition, it was especially related to the topics of censorship, violent homophobia, and the AIDS crisis. The Corcoran could have exposed the inadequacies in the structure that facilitates and regulates what kind of art is created and circulated. For the Corcoran to say that it made a decision in the spirit of being apolitical was a simple impossibility. 

A poignant letter of outrage to the Corcoran came from Joe Cameron, then Associate Professor of Photography at the Corcoran School of Art. He invoked Orr-Cahall’s own insistence of the institution’s educational purpose. “I suggest to you that education which avoids controversy is, at best, entertainment, and at worst, repression,” Cameron wrote. “I have been deprived of the opportunity to make up my own mind about these photographs. This denial is contrary to everything I hold sacred as a member of a democratic and free society.” 

So where are we now? Have we expanded our understanding of how to reckon with art amid the multiplicities of society and institutions? According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, today’s artists are still facing censorship of a similar flavor. Last month, The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco removed two artworks in its exhibition about the US-Mexico border crisis after receiving complaints from visitors who felt the works went “too far” in referencing violence against children. In 2004, artist John Sims received backlash and threats of violence from the Sons of Confederate Veterans for his plans to display Confederate Flag: A Public Hanging—a Confederate flag in a noose hung from a gallows outside of the Schmucker Gallery at Gettysburg College. At the exhibition’s conclusion, the artist planned to take down the flag and process it for a symbolic burial at the black Union cemetery, but the threats made him modify the exhibition into a smaller indoor installation. “I had to measure the weight of my work being compromised with the reality of American cultural politics,” Sims stated. We are still dealing with how to absorb offenses delivered to us in the form of visual images. What is striking is how powerfully the offense continues to hit, and how visceral the response. 

6.13.89: The Cancelling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition is on view until October 6, 2019 at the Corcoran School of Art and Design at George Washington University.

Images courtesy of George Washington University.

Featured image: Protest of the cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, June 30, 1989, Washington, DC. © Frank Herrera

Juliana Biondo is an internationally oriented arts practitioner, currently based in Washington, DC as the assistant curator at the World Bank’s Art Program. Previously based in New York and Rome, she orchestrated domestic and international media strategies for gallery and museum clients as well as educational engagements for the Vatican Museums. Originally from Baltimore, she holds a BA in the History of Art from Yale University, and an MA in 20th Century Art from the Courtauld Institute in London.  

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