October 1989
Photo Editor: Nancy Jo Johnson

When Christina Orr-Cahall, the director of Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art, canceled its retrospective of the late Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs last June, she expressed the hope that her decision would stimulate serious reflection about what is art and what is not.

Senator Jesse Helms' subsequent proposal to bar federal support for "obscene or indecent" art reflected thus on obscenity and the people who create it: "the work of weird, crude minds" and "ugly, nasty things on the men's room wall."

Mapplethorpe, in an ARTnews interview published last December, was more philosophical. "I'm not afraid of words," he said. "'Pornography' is fine with me. If it's good it transcends what it is.”

We asked artists, museum directors, writers, and politicians, among others, three fundamental questions: What constitutes pornography? When is it art and when is it obscenity? Where do you draw the line?

John Baldessari

1. What constitutes pornography?

Depiction of around-the-clock extremely athletic sex in countless positions employing all the body orifices and functions. The intended effect is to be "dirty," boggle the mind, and provide sexual arousal! It should also promote guilt, embarrassment, eye popping, tongue clucking, raised eyebrows, and head wagging. No one should see you experiencing it and you should feel naive and out of it. Inwardly a voice should say, "I knew it. I knew it. I knew people did things like this!"
Occasionally a film will have a title like Trader Horny or a dancer will have a name like Cozy Fan Tootie.

2. When is it art?

Not often and only when it goes beyond pornography and I wish I had thought of it.

3. When is it obscene?

When it offends me.

4. Where do you draw the line?

At boredom, and if it's not boring then it's probably Art.

Mary Schmidt Campbell

Pornography in my mind is something that is abusive, violent, and violating. It seems that art and obscenity are mutually exclusive. By its very definition, authentic art is never obscene. The real question is, Who makes that decision, who sets the standard, whose taste is it?

The difficult thing about public art in a pluralistic society is that it often has to accommodate a deep spectrum of tastes and values. The public in a democratic society has every right to make its feelings known. That's very different from enacting a piece of legislation that prohibits the use of public funds for a particular kind of expression. Clearly there are those for whom Mapplethorpe's work wasn't offensive. In a way, Jesse Helms' amendment makes that judgment for us. I don't want him to make that judgment for me. I very strongly feel that it's my right to make that judgment for myself.

Kasper Koenig

The whole issue is absurd. It's either art or it isn't. The argument that something is blasphemous or pornographic or whatever it is that's considered offensive is never a reason for excluding the presentation of art. You just can't put up a show and then cancel it. I'm not a big fan of Mapplethorpe's speculative esthetics, although I liked what he did in the beginning-but clearly it's ridiculous to censor his work.

Robert Rauschenberg

Art accepts no control, but may grow with support. Resistance cannot measure quality. It is an indicator of change within unexplored sights that can create a new day -a way of seeing or feeling the unfamiliar.

No law or joint agreement could accomplish anything but esthetic rot. We have smelt that stench before in countries attempting political muscle by inhibiting the creativity of the arts. This policy has been the downfall of the most aggressive powers.

Black Mountain College was a monument and model to education because Hitler was first afraid of the artist (Bauhaus). The job of the artist is to keep the individual mind open, discouraging a mass agreement on an enforced point of view.

Art is an experience designed to allow every individual to be and find themselves. The only eternal worldly communication between earthly cultures is art. This freedom is easier saved than re-created.

William S. Burroughs

It's a matter of semantics. I don't draw a line at all, none whatever. It's all in the eye of the beholder. There are museums showing figures in sadomasochistic scenes-girls and boys chasing around vases. But is it pornography? NO. Because it's old. Overt sexuality is not often a subject in serious art, although it is perfectly legitimate art.

William F. Buckley, Jr.

It is always true… that under perspectives examined at a distance, artistic measurements change. It is difficult to imagine what distance would be required to appreciate as a work of art a crucifix submerged in urine.

It's true that certain statues by Rodin would not be eligible for a federal grant under the Helms rider.

But so what? There is nothing in the Helms rider that would prevent any gallery that chose to do so to continue to express its childish fascination for blackmass profanity or kinky sex.

Mr. Helms would be well-counseled to exclude from his proscription any putative work of art over fifty years old. This would distinguish the Rodins from the Mapplethorpes. But to the extent that he errs on the side of protection of the high instincts of society, he should be applauded not denounced. If a democratic society cannot find a way to protect a taxpaying Christian heterosexual from finding that he is engaged in subsidizing blasphemous acts of homoeroticism, then democracy simply isn't working.

Excerpted from the syndicated column 'On the Right," July 28, 1989, distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

Mary Ellen Mark's photograph of a young prostitute in Bombay. Is "obscenity" defined by its context?

Louise Bourgeois

In 1982 Mapplethorpe and I were censored by the Museum of Modern Art when his photograph of me holding Fillette was labeled pornographic. They reproduced the portrait but cropped out the sculpture. I met Mapplethorpe on the occasion of that portrait. At that time he was preparing his show of crosses on red velvet with great seriousness.

Pornography is nothing new. We have the rape of Europa by Zeus disguised as a bull in Greek mythology, the story of Leda and Zeus disguised as a swan, the rape of the Sabines from the Trojan War, and very specially the sculpture from India. Do we have to mention William Faulkner and the ear of corn?

Pornography serves the outrage of special interests. This is politics and has nothing to do with art. In fact Mapplethorpe was dealing with a deeper truth. S and M reveals the fact that man is wolf to man. Who will quarrel with that?

Michael Levey

You can't snap back with a smart answer on this issue. I just couldn't define what is pornographic and what isn't. I don't think anyone can.

I am not in favor of censorship. No one is being coerced into going to an exhibition. It is hardly the same thing as being deliberately pushed into the road and knocked over by a car. Judgment is surely something adult people should exercise for themselves.

I do not accept the existence of a dichotomy between art and obscenity. Art, after all, is often deliberately provocative. People might say that some Japanese prints verge on obscenity, but it would be very sweeping to say that they are not art. If one spoke in those terms, art would soon be reduced to scenes of the countryside. Certainly works of art can have in them a strong sexual character that some people might call obscene. Think of Picasso, or even Titian's paintings of nudes.

William Bailey

There are lots of artworks that might be considered pornography, all through history. I wouldn't say that they shouldn't be done and I don't think they should be suppressed. But within the NEA there should be serious discussion as to what's appropriate for the exhibitions they underwrite, which are viewed by the general public made up of taxpayers. To say that just because a picture of a man with a whip up his butt is a work of art doesn't mean that it still isn't a man with a whip up his butt. Any sensible grown-up would guess that it probably would be offensive to a large segment of the population. I also think that to equate this stance with that of totalitarian suppression of the arts is very silly and ignores the power of content in art.

June Wayne

The attempt by Jesse Helms to dictate how the National Endowment for the Arts is to select grantees violates the mandate of Congress itself, which prescribed a structure and peer review system by which the Endowment could be buffered from exactly the kind of political interference that Helms has attempted.

Not a scintilla of evidence suggests that the Endowment has broken the ground rules of that mandate. But Helms, following the example of the Ayatollah Khomeini in regard to Salman Rushdie, has viciously dismembered the art and reputations of two American artists.

The Serrano work is a protest against the desecration of his Catholic faith by the Bakkers, Swaggarts, et al. As for Mapplethorpe (who cannot protect himself from his grave), the Helms logic would close the Metropolitan Museum, which holds a vast number of explicit images including ancient Greek vases and works by Hieronymous Bosch who, centuries ago, pictured anatomical surprises that make the Mapplethorpe works look tame. In the '40s, as I recall, a self-righteous religionist hacked off the genitalia on the great Greek sculptures of nude athletes. So far as I know, those fragments may still be heaped in a box in the Met conservation department, a tribute to the yahoo censorship that the Helms amendment represents.

J. Carter Brown

The freedom of speech protected by the Constitution does not cover the issue of pornography. But there must be a dividing line between liberty and license. There's got to be some shadow line that makes sense. So you have to go about it on a case by case basis. Creativity, experimentation, originality, and so forth are important, but one doesn't want to have novelty at its own cost, secondary talent just trying to shock.

So far as the NEA's peer review system goes, as Churchill said about democracy, it may be the worst system except for every other one that's been invented.

And concerning Senator Helms' proposal, I think it's too vague and unhelpful, and it's terrifying. If we're going to get the legislative process going on the question of what is religion, and non-religion, as he suggested, well, then, it seems to me that we're going in the wrong direction. One has to take risks, and one has to have a sense of adventure, and we can't predict what turn art will take.

Linda Shearer

Pornography is actually not a thing, but a value judgment ultimately, a matter of context. A community standard of decency is also a matter of context. If something is called pornography, it is more revealing to see who is calling it pornography. The line between art and pornography is a personal dilemma: professionally you must say one thing and do one thing, but personally you might feel another way. You are in danger of crossing the line when someone's personal or civil rights might be infringed upon. For instance, there is a standard of decency appropriate for us as adults but not for children. If something is questionable, you make that clear, give people an option. As a curator or director, you hope to have the wisdom to protect the maximum freedom for the artists, without compromising some rights of the public. Do you provide the option for people to come to their own conclusions? I think you do. As for the Mapplethorpe issue, the punitive measures are being rendered in a most childish way. It is a real vision of censorship and intimidation. It's frightening, this fascist kind of approach to what you can control. It's horrifying, that kind of tampering.

Jenny Holzer

Pornography is anything to make you lust. I would think offensive pornography would involve violence or children. Almost anything else that's not horribly degrading to women-or degrading to anybody, although it's usually degrading to women-is all right for adults to see. The line would be kids, violence, coercion, and humiliation.

I'm not a fan of pornography. The occasional picture of a naked man or woman is probably not going to ruin anyone. When it gets beyond that, it does get to be questionable, possibly being exploitation of whoever's doing it. What people have been pointing to as examples in the art world aren't brutal, violent pornography. If rightwing politicians need to stamp out brutal, violent pornography, they should go to the people buying and selling it.

It's art when that's its stated aim, and when most of it has to do with esthetics in one form or another. Pornography is about sex and sex alone, or sex plus violence.

Joseph Papp

Pornography has some relation to sex. The question is whether the sexual presentation has redeeming artistic merit or is merely a literal presentation of sex. Art would be something I consider, either visually or conceptually, an expression the artist is trying to send out. If someone draws a phallus on the wall I'd have to see its context, what the idea of it is. Anybody could put that on the wall; that wouldn't be art.

I believe in the selection process-that a jury of peers chooses what's considered artistic and worthy of government support. The average person would find it difficult-there are esthetic considerations that come out of a certain education. Tax dollars should be used discreetly in matters of this kind. The Serrano is going to bring out negative feelings that people in Congress have about support for the arts in general. But people in the arts have to struggle. That's what keeps this country alive, to support dissent, to support things that are obnoxious to us.

Albert Elsen

The Declaration of Purpose for the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, passed into law by Congress in 1965, says in part: "It is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent."

Congressional censure of the NEA by the token reduction of its appropriation does not create "a climate encouraging freedom of thought." For the government to now punish the exercise of free speech ignores the NEA Act and sets a terrible example not only for the future of the NEA but also for state art councils. Helms' proposed law would do to the First Amendment what Serrano did to a crucifix.

Understandably, many are outraged by Serrano's Piss Christ. But their congressional representatives should remember that there are countless things helpless taxpayers find more outrageous, immoral, and obscene in the way their dollars are spent.

Nancy Spero

I've defined pornography as stuff that exploits women's bodies, and particularly in a harmful way.

Certainly art can be prurient or offensive. Like anything in art it's not an objective thing. Like how do you define quality? I don't think these days it can be established objectively.

Even though I'm against the really violent stuff toward women in pornography, nevertheless I am very much against censorship because of the potential danger and misapprehension of where to draw the line. The criteria are only personal. I don't think you can pass laws about it.

In my work Male Bomb, the nastiness, the scatological factors were to heighten the idea of the insanity of war and the destruction of Vietnam and its people. What could be nastier and more obscene? I've always been afraid of someone zeroing in and saying that's a no-no. In my recent work I've taken images of women's sexuality through the ages that may not seem acceptable to the present-day eye. Everything can offend on different levels. In some people's eyes I am transgressing, which is my intention.

Murray Kempton

People have every right to their own damnation. Although if you are subsidized by the state, you can expect to be ruled by the state.

There are big differences between taking your chances in the market, normal community standards, and the standards of Jesse Helms. I'm strongly in favor of consensual adult pornography. I am very much against nonconsensual obscenity and pornography. Anything behind closed doors is perfectly proper. Wearing a dirty T-shirt in the presence of an old lady is nonconsensual. The First Amendment has nothing to do with government subsidies or the pieties of an art establishment that runs around shaking the cup out for federal funds and screams and yells when the line is drawn.

Barbara Kruger

What constitutes pornography? When is something art and when is it obscenity? Where do you draw the line? These questions of pornography, obscenity, and line-drawing have always been the calling cards of conservative, if not reactionary, forces. The fact that ARTnews has chosen to ask them of contemporary cultural practitioners is a sad reminder of how powerfully the Right has defined the terms of the debate (any debate) that concerns what it means to be alive today. The Right speaks its desires, telling us what it wants and doesn't want over and over again, collapsing all meaning into a thoughtless mantra, lulling us into silence and absence. It plays every position on the field. The Left (or shall we say its pithy remains) is caught in a brutal squeeze play of exhausted platitudes and resolute ineffectiveness. In the face of burgeoning fundamentalisms that have no tolerance for any emancipatory work around gender, race, and pleasure, we must begin speaking out and acting up. We must stand up and be counted, we must talk that talk, and walk that walk, and recapture the debate with a kind of canny zeal. We must keep a sharp eye on the agendas implicit in every question and think more than twice about replying.

Benny Andrews

Pornography is whatever is in a person's mind. It depends on the intent of the individual. To me, in pornography the objective is not to do something artistic. Sex can be an element of art, but the other elements that make up an artistic objective would also come into play. Elements like form, line, color, shape, all the things that go to make up an artistic statement through different media. The subject matter is just one of those elements. That could be erotic, but that's just one. I don't consider what Mapplethorpe did as pornography. Mapplethorpe was approaching these subjects in terms of art.

There are subjects other than sex that could be considered obscene. There are people who don't like to look at images of murders, for example. That could be considered obscene. All of us bring experiences to what we look at and that helps determine what we see. The fundamentalist Baptists bring certain references to what they look at. A nonreligious person brings another set. That's what's so important about a free society. To allow different expressions.

The NEA has helped artists. But artists have existed long before there was an Endowment. The great majority of artists will be artists no matter what. The average artist receives little support from the NEA and it's temporary. The general public are the ones who will suffer; they have benefited from the existence of the government's endeavors to make it possible for people to see and enjoy art.

David Leavitt

I would define pornography as something designed explicitly to induce sexual excitation. That includes things that are violent, because violence induces sexual excitation. Whether or not Mapplethorpe's work is pornographic is irrelevant. It deserves to be shown. I find some of those photos erotic; I wouldn't define them as pornography. I don't think their primary purpose is to excite-their second or third purpose, perhaps. I think they were meant to do all the things that art does-be beautiful formally and portray the world as imagined by the artist.

The problem isn’t in the word art, it’s in the word obscene. You can argue about what art is, but the whole idea of obscenity is a crazy one. I don’t think anything’s obscene.

We as community of artists, and as gay people as well, since that was touched on in this case, are not going to tolerate the right wing suppressing something for their political agenda. I don't think this whole thing is about the definition of obscene or art. It's about Congress using the most extreme examples to get control of the NEA through a big media campaign and to control American art, which is what Hitler did in Germany.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

For the first time in the near quarter century life of the National Endowment for the Arts, we have before us an Appropriations bill which prohibits the grant of funds to two named institutions.

I have no wish to escalate the issues involved here. We are not dealing with censorship, per se. Nothing in the bill before us in any way inhibits the First Amendment right of these artists to exhibit their work, and it would be nothing new in our experience if the present controversies brought their work to a wider audience… Nor yet need we be over-apprehensive of the effect of this action on the artistic community which is not unfamiliar with controversy.

I would accordingly suggest to the Senate that the issue is not "them" but us. Do we really want it to be recorded that the Senate of the United States, in the 101st Congress of this Republic is so insensible to the traditions of liberty in our land, so fearful of what is different and new and intentionally disturbing, so anxious to record our timidity that we would sanction institutions for acting precisely as they are meant to act? Which is to say, art institutions supporting and exhibiting their work?

Mr. President I will vote No.

Excerpted from a statement delivered on the Senate floor, July 26, 1989.

Suzanne Delehanty

Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs may not be to everyone's taste, but they're a lot less harmful than the level of violence we see on television. The NEA was created with tremendous vision. It set out to be dedicated to artistic excellence and it has achieved that through a fair panel process-and with far less government funding than some countries enjoy. Over the last 25 years the NEA has helped museums to undertake things like conservation, education programs, support of young artists; and has fostered a much larger and more knowledgeable audience for the arts. To focus on two photographs is looking at the lint instead of at what the Endowment has accomplished. The NEA is an agency that has no corruption. Given other things that are going on in our culture today those are things I think we should celebrate.

Compiled by ROBIN CEMBALEST, an associate editor of ARTnews; BRIGID GRAUMAN, ARTnews' Brussels correspondent; and KELLI PRYOR, an associate editor at New York magazine.