How GOP Judgment Led to Photographer’s Fame

HBO documentary highlights D.C. conservatives' conflict with Robert Mapplethorpe

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 15:  Robert Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe's model attends the premiere of HBO Documentary Films' "Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures" on March 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 15: Robert Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe's model attends the premiere of HBO Documentary Films' "Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures" on March 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)
Jason Dick
Posted April 4, 2016 at 5:45pm

Be aware, members of Congress. That fringe cultural figure you find yourself condemning on the floor might provide, years later, the fodder for a deep-dive documentary about an iconic artist.  

“Now, any senator who thinks I’m attacking aesthetic art, if they have any doubt … look at the pictures!” Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., thundered from the floor in 1989, arguing that the photographic work of Robert Mapplethorpe, whom Helms criticized as a “known homosexual,” had no business receiving federal assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts or other government entities for upcoming exhibitions, including in Washington, D.C. Fast forward 27 years, and witness those words become the title of the documentary film “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, which premieres on HBO on April 4.  

Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in March of 1989 and almost instantly became a household name thanks to the controversy Helms flamed.  

Washington’s Corcoran Gallery was supposed to display the artist’s “The Perfect Moment” exhibition, but after Helms led the charge against it, the gallery got cold feet.  

The Washington Project for the Arts quickly scooped it up and the exhibit went forward. The show went all over, even leading to an obscenity trial in Cincinnati over the images. (The curators and organizers at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center were exonerated.)  

The images that sparked the fight, most of which explored male, gay sexuality, were but a few among Mapplethorpe’s large body of work. The Barbato and Bailey documentary provides interviews with Mapplethorpe explaining his work, as well as with friends and family members who are blunt about their own reactions to the subject matter, as well as the artist’s unapologetic striving.  

In the fallout from Helms’ and other conservative campaigns against him, Mapplethorpe became a hero of free speech and gay rights advocates.  

The art itself endured.  

In Los Angeles, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art joined forces last month to open “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium,” displaying hundreds of Mapplethorpe’s photographs.  

The film also shows the work’s monetary value, with collectors paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for original prints.  

Nothing can make a reputation, it seems, like the right enemies.  


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