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The Mapplethorpe exhibit, or Mapplethorpe photographs, contributed to one of the most controversial art exhibitions in modern history. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s series, titled “X Portfolio,” included frank depictions of sexual acts considered by some to be offensive and pornographic. The inclusion of the Mapplethorpe photographs in a traveling exhibit funded by the United States National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) sparked an enormous debate in America over the parameters of art, and whether public funds should be used for controversial material.
Born in 1946 and raised in Long Island, New York, Robert Mapplethorpe received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Pratt Institute of New York. His attention shifted to photography after graduating from college. Mapplethorpe rose to popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mainly for his work photographing portraits of celebrities. Though his typical subjects included flowers, formal portraits and classic nude photography, Mapplethorpe also had an interest in photographing homoerotic acts and depictions of bondage and sado-masochism.
In 1990, shortly after the photographer died of AIDS, the NEA funded a touring art exhibition titled “A Perfect Moment.” The display, famously called the Mapplethorpe Exhibit, included a retrospective of the artist's work. The controversial nature of some of Mapplethorpe’s photography inspired fury in the US Congress, where a group of congressmen began to lobby for severe cuts to the NEA budget. Fearing political retribution, the NEA canceled the exhibit, which was instead held by the Washington Project for the Arts.
The Mapplethorpe exhibit started a socio-political debate across America on the nature of art and whether government-sponsored work should be subject to standards. Congress removed $45,000 US Dollars (USD) from the NEA budget, approximately the same amount that funded the Mapplethorpe exhibit and a similarly protested exhibition by artist Andres Serrano. Congress also approved a requirement in the NEA grant process that would eliminate money for projects determined to be obscene in nature. Many artists found this vague amendment comparable to censorship, and some began refusing NEA grants on the basis that the organization allowed the censorship of art.
Today, the Mapplethorpe exhibit remains a serious source of controversy throughout Washington D.C and the art world. While proponents claim that First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of expression, detractors suggest that while artists have that right, it doesn’t guarantee government funding. The Mapplethorpe exhibit also became a centerpiece in the age-old question of what exactly constitutes art. This question, while exhaustively explored in scholarly texts and term papers, may never be answered, and will likely surface over and over as long as artists have liberty to exhibit their work.