The Perfect Moment  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Perfect Moment was the title of a 1989-90 Robert Mapplethorpe solo exhibition tour. The exhibition included seven sadomasochistic portraits and Mapplethorpe and Dennis Barrie were charged with "pandering obscenity". The prosecution was unsuccessfull but the case became a cause célèbre for both sides in the National Endowment for the Arts funding debate.

In the summer of 1989, Mapplethorpe's traveling solo exhibit brought national attention to the issues of public funding for the arts, as well as questions of censorship and the obscene. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., had agreed to be one of the host museums for the tour. Mapplethorpe decided to show his latest series that he explored shortly before his death. Titled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, the show included photographs from his X Portfolio, which featured images of urophagia, BDSM and a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. The show was curated by Janet Kardon of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). The ICA was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support Mapplethorpe's exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The cancellation of the show, which terminated the Corcoran's contract with the ICA, was due to the fact that the museum did not want to get involved in the politics. Instead, the Corcoran was pulled into the controversy, which "intensified the debate waged both in the media and in Congress surrounding the NEA's funding of projects perceived by some individuals... to be inappropriate..." The hierarchy of the Corcoran and several members of the U.S. Congress were upset when the works were revealed to them, due the homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes of some of the work. Though much of his work throughout his career had been regularly displayed in publicly funded exhibitions, conservative and religious organizations, such as the American Family Association, seized on this exhibition to vocally oppose government support for what they called "nothing more than the sensational presentation of potentially obscene material."

In June 1989, pop artist Lowell Blair Nesbitt became involved in the censorship issue. Nesbitt, a long-time friend of Mapplethorpe, revealed that he had a $1.5-million bequest to the museum in his will, but publicly promised that if the museum refused to host the exhibition, he would revoke the bequest. The Corcoran refused and Nesbitt bequeathed the money to the Phillips Collection instead. After the Corcoran refused the Mapplethorpe exhibition, the underwriters of the exhibition went to the nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts, which showed all the images in its space from July 21 to August 13, 1989, to large crowds.

In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and Dennis Barrie, were charged with obscenity. They were found not guilty by a jury.

According to the ICA, "The Corcoran's decision sparked a controversial national debate: Should tax dollars support the arts? Who decides what is "obscene" or "offensive" in public exhibitions? And if art can be considered a form of free speech, is it a violation of the First Amendment to revoke federal funding on grounds of obscenity? To this day, these questions remain very much at issue." Mapplethorpe became something of a cause célèbre for both sides of the American culture war. However, prices for many of the Mapplethorpe photographs doubled and even tripled as a consequence of all the attention. The artist's notoriety supposedly also helped the posthumous sale at Christie's auction house of Mapplethorpe's own collection of furniture, pottery, silver and works by other artists, which brought about $8 million.

The images that sparked the most controversy

  • Jim and Tom, Sausalito, 1977
  • Man in a Polyester Suit, 1980
  • Jesse McBride, 1976
  • Rosie (Honey), 1976




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Perfect Moment" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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