Robert Mapplethorpe is now widely known as one of a pair of artists, along with Andres Serrano, who catapulted the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) into the crisis that is widely referred to as the "culture wars of the arts." (1) As a result, Mapplethorpe is now generally associated with a particular kind of obscene art. The association is unfair for at least two major reasons. First, the key decisions that implicated the NEA in the funding of "obscenity" were made not by the artist, and not even by the NEA, but by mediating arts organizations-specifically, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, that used a $30,000 NEA grant to mount a retrospective of Mapplethorpe's photography. Second, it is important to recognize that Mapplethorpe's relationship with "obscenity" was a development of the culture wars and not a fundamental dynamic of his work. His photographs also dealt with the still life or portrait as their subject, and his own records indicate an uneasiness about including his sexually explicit, homoerotic, and sadomasochistic photographs amongst artistic collections of his work. (2)
When the Mapplethorpe retrospective Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment first appeared in Philadelphia in the fall of 1988, under the curatorship of Janet Kardon, the images in the exhibit were largely critiqued by the art world in terms of overly formalist principles, with little application of the term of obscenity. In Kardon's essay "The Perfect Moment", which was written as a guide and introduction to the exhibit, she describes Mapplethorpe's work as follows:
There is a drama in each photograph; edges are used as the perimeters of a proscenium, with subjects strategically sited within those boundaries and caught at a moment of absolute stasis. Most sitters are portrayed frontally, aligned with the camera lens, in direct eye contact with the photographer and, in turn, the viewer. Nudes generally assume classical poses. (3)
This is the language of formalism, a perspective that emphasizes the analysis of form over and above the issues of content or social context. (4) Kardon is reacting to Mapplethorpe's skill and creative decision-making as a photographer. Her remarks range from comments about the composition of the photographs to comparisons of Mapplethorpe's subjects to traditional forms, such as the classical pose. Regarding Mapplethorpe's use of homoeroticism and sado-masochistic sexuality, she says, "although his models often are depicted in uncommon sexual acts, the inhabitants of the photographs assume gestures governed by geometry, and they are shown against minimal backgrounds" (5) Again, the language is that of formalism. Kardon turns, for support to Roland Barthes's earlier writings about Mapplethorpe's work. Barthes's collection of notes on photography, Camera Lucida, identifies certain kinds of photographs as unary. Unary photographs capture the visual image of particular moments, but they do nothing more. They are flat photographs with singular interpretations. The photographer in the case of the unary photo is not an artist and imparts no artistic or creative decisions. Journalistic photography often exemplifies the concept of the unary, but Barthes points to pornography as well.
Another unary photograph is the pornographic photograph (I am not saying the erotic photograph: the erotic is a pornographic that has been disturbed, fissured). Nothing more homogeneous than a pornographic photograph. It is always a naive photograph, without intention and without calculation. Like a shop window which shows only one illuminated piece of jewelry, it is completely constituted by the presentation of only one thing: sex: no secondary, untimely object ever manages to half conceal, delay, or distract...A proof a contrario: Mapplethorpe shifts his close-ups of genitalia from the pornographic to the erotic by photographing the fabric of underwear at very close range: the photograph is no longer unary, since I am interested in the material. …