Statements like this confuse moral and artistic judgement. And the moral absolutist’s (let’s be honest the Christian Right, who believes morality is absolute but mostly when applied to others, and the political right who champions free speech as long as it’s theirs) inability to get over cultural moments the rest of us long ago forgot. Mapplethorpe and Serrano entered the cultural dialogue not because the arts community embraced their work as “fine art” but because they received NEA funding. In fact most of us recognized their art as political statements at a time when outrage and performance rose to the the level of public awareness. And the public only became aware because the “moralists” on the right raised an outcry. Otherwise their works would have remained niche cultural moments,[1] of far less significance than Duchamp’s mythical urinal or Warhol’s soup cans. This, in fact, happened anyway. Their works serve as historical notes more than icons of “fine art.”

What is being questioned is an aesthetic judgment by the art community as though they were making a moral judgment (i.e., sacrilege and homoerotic activity are morally acceptable). While many who supported their work may have thought so, any real moral judgment would have involved whether or not society has a right to make aesthetic judgments based on moral ones. In other words, do moralists have any more right to censor and censure artists than they do a free press?

Am I a fan of Mapplethorpe? No. Do I believe we should provide homoerotic masterpieces the same esteem as the masterpieces produced on commission for the Church in the Renaissance? Absolutely. And that judgment has nothing to do with morality.[2]

[1]: Mapplethorpe’s photography is more important for the role it played in giving a voice to the gay community within the arts community, and the fact that, subject matter aside, he was a talented photographer.

[2]: Unless Jesus was wrong to say it’s what’s in our hearts that corrupts, and not the things we encounter in the world.

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store