Robert Mapplethorpe, the First Amendment, and “a generation of artists … wiped out by AIDS.”


When Robert Mapplethorpe died in 1989, I was tantalizingly close to completing my period of employment at UMI-Data Courier, and getting back to Europe to work for the Commies in East Berlin.

My snazzy job title at Data Courier was “associate editor,” or some such. For a year and a half, I read and abstract magazine articles for an emerging CD Rom data base, and although the spirit-crushing corporate mentality chafed, it wasn’t a bad gig at all, and my closest experience to grad school.

They paid me to learn. Writing the abstracts could be done in one’s sleep, and overall, it was a means to an end.

My introduction to Mapplethorpe’s work came less from the actual images than the backlash they produced.

ARTS AND FIRST AMENDMENT: Public funding of controversial art, by Bill Kenworthy (First Amendment Center)

Throughout history artists have produced works which tested society’s standards of decency. Society, or parts of it, may respond to these controversial works with harsh criticism and scorn. In free societies, artists may produce any type of work that their talent, imagination and means can support, whether it is controversial or not. However, the question arises: Do artists have the same freedom when their art is publicly funded by taxpayer dollars?

On one side, Jesse Helms; on the other, Mapplethorpe. It makes it remarkable easy to pick your team. There is a new documentary film about Mapplethorpe, prompting reflections about how far we’ve come since the 1980s — and haven’t.

A generation of artists were wiped out by Aids and we barely talk about it, by Suzanne Moore (The Guardian)

… I was explaining this to my 25-year-old daughter. She understood what happened, but said, “I just can’t imagine it”. And somehow nor can I, but we lived through it. HIV, we say, is now no longer a death sentence. But, of course, it is in many parts of the world. South Africa has a 19% HIV rate. Russian is only just starting to admit the scale of its problem with an estimate of 1.5 million people with HIV. Neither homosexuality nor addiction can be spoken about in Putin’s Russia.

Mapplethorpe’s work was censored by US senator Jesse Helms who, like many Republicans, saw Aids as a punishment for homosexuality. Nancy and Ronald Reagan pretty much signed up to this line. Republicans banned needle exchanges. The Catholic church banned condoms. Mapplethorpe’s work is shot through the lens of his Catholic upbringing, the black mass and rituals of S&M – his composition, his invocation of the devil not as a metaphor, but as a living presence.

He was but one of a generation of artists, activists and athletes wiped out by Aids. Why don’t we speak about this anymore?