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Imperfect Moments: Mapplethorpe and Censorship Twenty Years Later


Karen Finley, Tim Miller, Andres Serrano

Imperfect Moments: Mapplethorpe and Censorship Twenty Years Later

On Friday, February 13th, 2009 the Institute of Contemporary Art hosted a symposium at the University of Pennsylvania entitled “Imperfect Moments: Mapplethorpe and Censorship Twenty Years Later”. The symposium was organized to discuss the national controversy that arose following a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the ICA in Philadelphia during 1989. The public outcry at the time was so severe that the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC cancelled their exhibition which was scheduled for later that year. This debate raised many questions concerning the use of NEA funding for fine art which some considered to be “obscene” or offensive”.

Michael Brenson opened the morning’s proceedings with a stirring speech focusing on the cultural conditions prevalent in America during 1989. That was the same year that the Berlin Wall was torn down and Chinese protesters were massacred in Tiananmen Square. It was also the year that photographer Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS. Michael Brenson was the art critic for the New York Times who wrote the original review of the Mapplethorpe exhibition in 1989.

Mr. Brenson’s speech was followed by a panel discussion featuring the artists Andres Serrano, Karen Finley, and Tim Miller. The artists discussed their memories of the Mapplethorpe controversy and offered many insights into the public’s reaction to the work.



Andres Serrano (b. 1950, New York, NY) is a fine art photographer most famous for his photograph “Piss Christ” which depicts a 13 inch plastic and wood crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s own urine. Controversy erupted over grant money Serrano collected from the NEA in 1989 through the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art for an exhibition featuring the photo “Piss Christ”. Serrano claims that “Piss Christ” was already completed at the time he received the funds and therefore the work was not created using taxpayer money.

There is also some discrepancy over how much NEA money Serrano actually received. The Congressional records state that his grant was $15,000, but Serrano claims that the NEA only provided $5000 and the rest was provided by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. Serrano also said that based upon all the taxes he’s paid on the millions of dollars he has accrued in international artwork sales since that controversy, he feels the US government has collected a very nice return on their $5000 investment.

Serrano credits Senator Jesse Helms for “discovering” him and launching him into a lifelong career of international fame and fortune. He said that he is very grateful to Senator Helms for all the publicity he has received over the years.

Senator Jesse Helms was a five term republican senator from North Carolina who led the crusade against Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and the NEA. In an attempt to make his case against the NEA funding of the Mapplethorpe exhibit, Senator Helms passed out reproductions of Mapplethorpe’s scandalous images to all the members of the US Congress. In response to Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, Helms said the following:

“Mr. President, the Senator from New York is absolutely correct in his indignation and in his description of the blasphemy of the so-called artwork. I do not know Mr. Andres Serrano, and I hope I never meet him. Because he is not an artist, he is a jerk.”
Senator Jesse Helms - Congressional Record - Senate - May 18, 1989

During his career Senator Helms fought against civil rights, school racial integration, and voting rights acts. He also led a 16 day filibuster in an attempt to stop the senate from approving a national holiday for Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Helms fought consistently to prevent any government funding of AIDS medical research because he believed that AIDS was caused by sodomites who deserved their punishment and therefore were unworthy of medical treatment.



Karen Finley (b. 1956, Evanston, Illinois) is one of the four performance artists whose NEA grants were vetoed in 1990 as a result of this controversy. She later successfully sued the federal government for the restoration of her vetoed grant. The performance in question was titled “We Keep Our Victims Ready” and involved smearing chocolate all over her naked body. Senator Jesse Helms felt that Karen Finley’s work was erotic and obscene.

Finley’s performance was in response to the 1987 rape case of Tawana Brawley, a 15 yr old African American girl who accused six white men (some of them police officers) of kidnapping her, dragging her out into the woods for several days, raping her repeatedly, covering her in feces, and stuffing her into a garbage bag. The case received national media attention and the African American community came out in force to show their outrage. The case later fell apart and charges against the six men were dropped. Forensic tests found no bruises or evidence of sexual assault on the girl, and the feces turned out to have come from the neighbor’s dog.

Karen Finley talked about the tendency for the American media to stereotype outspoken women as angry troublemakers. She also told a story about lobbying for teen sex education in Albany during 2008. Apparently she was at the Governor’s office awaiting a scheduled meeting with New York Governor Elliot Spitzer to discuss teen sex education when news broke nationally of Gov Spitzer’s involvement in a high priced prostitution ring. She felt that his unwillingness to provide sex education to the youth of New York was somehow connected to his own tendency for illicit sexual activity.



Tim Miller (b. 1958, Pasadena, CA) is also one of the notorious four performance artists whose NEA grants were revoked due to the Mapplethorpe controversy. Miller’s work primarily explores homosexual identity and immigration issues. He is a founding member of the California activist group ACT UP, and has spent much of his career campaigning for gay rights and AIDS awareness. Miller told a story from a controversial 80’s performance in which he lost his virginity to a man and then wandered down the Hollywood Blvd Walk of Fame to stand on Ronald Reagan’s star with cum dripping out of his ass.

More recently, Miller has been campaigning against Proposition 8 in California in an attempt to secure marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. His partner of 15 years is Australian and will eventually be deported without legal documentation of their marriage.

In retrospect, the primary victim of the 1989 obscenity hearings was the NEA and the government funding for the arts. Tim Miller reminisced about the old days when an artist could expect to receive an NEA grant for his work if he pursued it fervently enough. Now that is no longer the case. But traces of the cultural dialogue created by the Mapplethorpe case are still evident today. Americans have subtly shifted their ideas about what art is, and what it can be. The jury selected in Cincinnati to try the case ultimately decided that Mapplethorpe’s photos were fine art, and should not be viewed as pornographic. That decision subtly changed forever our nation’s fundamental understanding of the arts.



The National Endowment for the Arts was created by an act of Congress in 1965. Originally the NEA granted funds to individual artists for specific art projects, but following the Mapplethorpe controversy this policy changed. Now the NEA primarily provides funds for established arts organizations, dance companies, theaters, operas, and museums. During the 1980’s, the NEA’s budget averaged between $160-180 million a year annually, but after the ’89 obscenity hearings the budget was cut to $99 million. In 2008, the NEA received $144.7 million. Many prominent Philadelphia arts institutions receive NEA grants annually, including The Fabric Workshop, The Clay Studio, The Philadelphia Print Collaborative, The Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
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