The whole point of art is to encourage audiences to look at life in a new way. Names like Marina Abramović, Judy Chicago, Bill Henson, and Robert Mapplethorpe, among many others, have been enshrined in history for creating thought-provoking content that stimulated our senses and awakened the culture to new ideas — while outraging Bible-thumping radicals in the process.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since Robert Mapplethorpe’s groundbreaking traveling solo exhibit, The Perfect Moment, which brought national attention to the issues of public funding for the arts after a tumultuous trial questioned authorities of censorship and the obscene.
Known for his homoerotic images examining BDSM and urophilia, Mapplethorpe started his career with Polaroids before he eventually moved into black and white images. His work elevated photography from being a substandard niche to a class A art form.
The infamous exhibit is chronicled in a new episode of the podcast Bleeped. Created by award-winning audio engineer and podcaster, Matthew Billy, Bleeped focuses on censorship and the people who stand up to it, highlighting some of history’s most controversial cases as well as issues we’re continuing to fight today.
The story of The Perfect Moment was a natural draw for Billy, himself a free speech and censorship thought leader.
In the summer of 1989, Mapplethorpe was slowly dying from AIDS complications. At the time, six museums came together and organized a touring retrospective that included photographs from his X Portfolio, among them was a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted into his anus. However, on the second stop, the American Family Association took issue with these photos being displayed publicly in museums. By the time The Perfect Moment reached its fourth stop in Washington, D.C., the Corcoran Gallery, which was curating the show, pulled the exhibit.
“As far as I know, that is the first time a museum has ever censored itself. That's an important moment historically,” Billy says, explaining that the fight came to a head when the show arrived in Cincinnati, its fifth stop. “The American Family Association notified all of their satellite organizations in Cincinnati that the exhibit was coming and they started to really kick up a fuss. Even before the exhibit got there, they were talking to the sheriffs. They were talking to local politicians. They were boycotting businesses that donated to the museum. They really put a lot of pressure on the Contemporary Arts Center to censor itself. Well, fortunately, Dennis Barrie, who is the director of the Contemporary Arts Center, said, ‘No, we can't do this. We have a mission and our mission is to show contemporary arts no matter how controversial.’ That's exactly what he did.”
When the exhibit opened in Cincinnati, 12 policemen marched in and served Mapplethorpe papers claiming that he committed a misdemeanor for displaying an obscenity — the first time it had ever happened to a museum. Knowing that authorities would have dropped the charges had the museum simply removed the controversial images, instead, the museum hired a lawyer and after a two-week trial, they won.
“The lasting legacy of that is two things,” explains Billy. “First of all, it proves that art no matter how controversial is actually art and is not an obscenity. But it also created an incentive for museums to self-censor. The trial was very, very expensive and they lost a lot of corporate sponsorship because of all the controversy. The Contemporary Arts Center has never had a controversial exhibit like that again.”
A bigger concern lies within the very definition of who defines censorship. After all, if the entire world catered to the thin line of what makes an art piece “obscene,” as Billy points out, art spaces are “not going to push boundaries. That's dangerous because the best art and the art that we remember the most is usually the stuff that was very controversial at the time. I mean, you can even look at a simple example like Elvis Presley shaking his hips on camera. You have to push boundaries and it's important. When you're always trying to stay within the limits of the Facebook terms of service or the Instagram terms of service or whatever you think is going to be displayed in the Whitney Museum, you're making a mistake.”
This can be particularly limiting for young emerging artists, who often create a name for themselves on social media by posting photos of their work on Instagram.
“If you're a photographer and you're trying to do work like Robert Mapplethorpe, I don't know how robust your Instagram account can be,” he says. “I think it's going to get worse before it gets better, because most of the censorship is being done online at this point. The online and social media aspect of it is really the thing that makes it different from the '90s or the early 2000s.”
He adds, “I think what you’re going to see [in the future], as people group off, are groups being on their own social media platforms. Conservatives are going to be on one platform because they're sick of Facebook. Liberals are going to be on another platform because they don't want to be around the hate speech with all the conservatives. I think what you're going to see is that everything will become more and more polarized. In terms of censorship, I think one of the reasons it feels like there's more censorship is because we're also doing more public speech. I have six apps on my phone that allow me to say something publicly, whereas in 1998 I didn't even have a phone.”
Another negative reaction to online censorship is the growing trend of radical conservative groups justifying hate speech by hiding behind the first amendment.
“Conservatives who talk about free speech on campus, they’re getting censored on Facebook and they're trying to turn themselves into free speech martyrs, trying to justify hate speech,” he says. “It's not quite right. Facebook, their terms of service is really clear. This campus free speech stuff, they're basically just trolling. They're setting up tables and those tables have signs on it that say very, very disgusting things about a lot of groups on campus. And when people get upset about that and confront them about it, they then film it. And when it's somebody on the faculty who does it, they try to claim that they're free speech martyrs. I don't think it's cool to try to use the first amendment like that. It's too important and too much of a bedrock of our democracy.”
By and large, Billy believes that the LGBTQ community is one of the most censored in the country. After all, “The American Library Association, whenever they release their list of banned books, the majority of them always have LGBTQ themes. So it's no surprise then that when I start making a show about censorship, a huge percentage of them are going to focus on the LGBTQ community.”
“Fifteen years down the line, I'm not sure that we're going to say, ‘What was all the fuss about?’ because a lot of the speech that's happening now is very hateful and it's scary. I think when we get a new president and hopefully the speech simmers down a little bit, we're going to look back at this moment in 15 years and basically say, ‘I can't believe we had to live through that but I'm glad we did because we beat it.’”
Bleeped is a documentary podcast about censorship and those who firmly stand up to it. Bleeped takes the unique approach of telling stories about the First Amendment from the perspective of ordinary people. Each episode tells a David and Goliath story of an individual who triumphed over censorship from a powerful organization, showing listeners that if you’ve been wronged, you can fight back and win! Episodes can be streamed at Bleeped.org.