addressed to the then-acting chair of the NEA, Hugh Southern, “express[ed]… outrage and… suggest[ed] in the strongest terms that the procedures used by the Endowment to award and support artists be reformed.”10 On 9 June, the televangelist Pat Robertson mounted a sustained attack on Serrano and the NEA on the television network he founded in 1960, the Christian Broadcasting Network. He denounced the offending Serrano photograph as a “blasphemy paid for by Government” and implored viewers to demand that taxpayers’ dollars be “cut off entirely” from the NEA until the public arts body gave “absolute” assurances it would not support “pornography” or “material that is patently blasphemous.”11
SECCA director Ted Potter stated on 16 June that he’d “never seen anything like this before in my 25 years as an arts administrator”; and Livingston Biddle, author of a history of the NEA and the Endowment’s chairman during the Carter administration, commented that “[t]he religious element has never before come into play at the endowment… The danger is not just that Congress will cut the budget, which would be bad enough, but that you could have censorship mandated into law”.12
The political and socioreligious reactionaries then trained their sights on Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, as the ICA, Philadelphia, had
received a $30,000 NEA grant in 1988 to support its organisation of the travelling retrospective and the publication of the exhibition’s catalogue. Occurring almost concurrently with Serrano’s Piss Christ controversy, the Mapplethorpe show provided conservatives with further ammunition in their quest to purge allegedly obscene and blasphemous art from American society, and, if not to begin the process of abolishing the NEA, then at least to bring it to heel.13
This was the environment in which, mid-June 1989, the prestigious Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the third venue for The Perfect Moment tour, cancelled its showing of the exhibition less than three weeks before it was due to open on 1 July; in fact, so precipitous was the volte-face by the Corcoran, led by its director, Christina Orr-Cahall, that the invitations to the opening had already been mailed out.14 Orr-Cahall and the Corcoran’s chairman, David Lloyd Kreeger, presented their decision as one designed to defuse a brewing crisis over arts funding, a situation the conservatives appeared determined to make a national scandal, and to shield both the NEA’s funding and other art museums and galleries from attack.15
As derision and protest were directed against the Corcoran from other quarters of the art world, a much smaller, lesserknown Washington DC arts organisation, the Washington
Project for the Arts (WPA), stepped in and relieved the Corcoran of its burden. It was an auspicious move on many levels, not least of which was the overwhelming success of The Perfect Moment in the nation’s capital. Reportedly “accustomed to greeting about 40 visitors each weekend”, the WPA saw around four thousand people view the exhibition on its first weekend;16 during its short showing of less than a month, nearly fifty thousand people passed through the WPA’s doors.17 This reflected the exhibition’s success at the MCA in Chicago, and it was a pattern that would be repeated at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut at the end of 1989, and at the University Art Museum of the University of California, Berkeley in early 1990, before it appeared at the CAC in Cincinnati that April.18
Focussing on the exhibition’s showing in Hartford, which she attended on its opening day, Ingrid Sischy, writing for the New Yorker, makes a pertinent point:
…the Mapplethorpe exhibition has had the most successful first week in the history of the Wadsworth. And Mapplethorpe’s catalogue and book sales indicate a readership that’s much broader than the usual art-book market. One assumes that all the people who are seeking out his work are taxpayers,
in the UK†
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–89) is considered by many artists, critics and scholars to be among the most important American photographers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Thus, news spread quickly when Dr Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England (UCE), Birmingham, decided in early 1998 to fight for the right of his university’s library to hold Mapplethorpe, a substantial, 380-page book presenting a survey of the artist’s black-and-white photography: the book had been seized by local police several months earlier on the grounds of “obscenity”.
Mapplethorpe featured nudes, portraits, self-portraits and floral still lifes, and included the photographer’s best known and most controversial images. It also featured a critical essay by Columbia University’s distinguished professor emeritus of philosophy and influential art critic, Arthur C. Danto.1 The background to the year-long controversy that embroiled UCE, Dr Knight, the West Midlands Police and the British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was this:
† This interview article is an expanded version of “Principals are priceless” by Daryl Champion, first published in Skin Two Fetish Yearbook 2009 (London: Tim Woodward Publishing Ltd, 2009).