Robert Mapplethorpe: 1989’s Big Gay Nightmare

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe didn’t expect to cause such a stir with his final exhibition, “The Perfect Moment” in 1988 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia, but within a year, the show was cancelled and the organizer behind the exhibit was charged with obscenity. But how and why did Mapplethorpe receive so much scrutiny and cause quite a controversy?

Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was a prominent gay black-and-white photographer whose images explored the beauty of the human form. He also shot celebrities, flowers, and interracial nudes all during the HIV/AIDs crisis. In a world where all queer people were seen as animalistic, contagious perverts, Mapplethorpe’s work was scrutinized for its “bold” subject matter and strong queerdom: unapologetic, simplistic, and stunning.

“The Perfect Moment” debuted at a fragile point for Mapplethorpe’s health, and within months he passed away from AIDs complications. Mapplethorpe wasn’t around long enough to see the outrage his art accumulated, but he would’ve been thrilled to have made national headlines. The show spanned 25 years of Mapplethorpe’s illustrious career, including over 150 images and acting as a farewell portfolio to the art world. The show was divided into fragile flower shots, celebrity portraits (including 80s royalty like Grace Jones, Debbie Harry, and Andy Warhol), as well as intimate gay sex scenes and BDSM culture. Mapplethorpe’s humor is evident in how he juxtaposed photographs of an orchid in the same room as leather-clad men involving in piss play.

A gallery in Washington D.C. was set to be the second stop for the exhibit, but director Christina Orr-Cahall pulled out last minute due to several museum trustees being “horrified” by the pictures. The sight of a man with a bullwhip up his ass along with other gay nudity was too much to handle. Not wanting to engage in controversy, Orr-Cahall cancelled the show, causing an onslaught of protest. “Our institution has always remained outside of the political arena, maintaining a position of neutrality […] in a city with such great federal presence,” she stated.


In 1990, the show was subject of an obscenity trial when the director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio was charged for displaying the photos. He was eventually acquitted because the jury found the work to have artistic merit beyond pornography.

Mapplethorpe’s impact on the art world was monumental, fundamentally challenging the public’s view of what art is and being unapologetically queer amidst it all. Mapplethorpe is proof that queer sexuality when expressed correctly can be art, and I am so thankful he fought the battle for all of us weird gays to photograph our bodies as we want without shame. ♥

– Logan Benedict, proud queer black & white photographer



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