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Archive: “Photography, Pornography, and Sexual Politics”

Interior pages from Aperture magazine #121, “The Body in Question,” 1990

 

The following excerpt comes from Aperture #121, “The Body in Question,” 1990, an issue that explored depictions of the body in photography in the face of “a powerful effort…to define and control expressions of sex and sexuality.” In one of the defining moments of the Culture Wars, conservative politicians sought to defund the National Endowment for the Arts after it supported an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center, in Cincinnati, of works by Robert Mapplethorpe that included graphic sexual content. In conjunction with the release of Aperture #218, “Queer,” we revisit a piece written in response to this cultural flashpoint by Carole S. Vance, associate clinical professor of socio-medical sciences at Columbia University, who has written widely on sexuality and human rights. While the Culture Wars happened twenty-five years ago, debates surrounding depictions of the body and sexuality continue today. ​This article also appears in Issue 2 of the Aperture Photography App: click here to read more and download the app. 

The art world was taken by surprise by the furor over the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) funding of exhibitions containing photographs by Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, which began in the summer of 1989, and, more recently, by the indictment of Dennis Barrie, director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio and the CAC itself in conjunction with the opening of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment last April. Observers were then startled to find fine-arts photography the target of attack, called pornographic, even “obscene,” because of its sexual or erotic content. Some wondered if a time-machine had catapulted them back to the late nineteenth century, when moral crusaders assailed museums and galleries for displaying nude statues and paintings. This new campaign against photography and sexual imagery is far from an anachronism, however. It is the systematic extensions of conservative and fundamentalist cultural politics to the world of “high culture,” a domain that had previously been exempt from their carefully organized public crusades.

In the past ten years, conservatives and fundamentalists have crafted and deployed techniques of grass-roots and mass mobilization around issues of sexuality, gender and religion. In these campaigns, symbols figure prominently, both as highly condensed statements of moral concern and as powerful spurs to emotion and action. In moral campaigns, fundamentalists select a negative symbol that is highly inflammatory to their own constituency and that is difficult or problematic for their opponents to defend, for example, exaggerated and distorted fetal images in anti-abortion propaganda. These groups have orchestrated major actions in the realm of popular culture—the protests against Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ motivated by the Reverend Donald E. Wildmon, campaigns against rock music led by Tipper Gore and the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), and the Meese Commission’s war against pornography. Ironically, these growing crusades come at a time when fundamentalist victories in electoral politics are decreasing and perhaps signal the conservatives’ recognition that social programs, which could not be attained through conventional politics, could still succeed through more long-term, though admittedly slower, attempts to change the cultural environment.

 

The recent attacks on photography mark the first time that such mobilizations have been so overtly directed at “high” culture. The targeting of photography by right-wing religious and political leaders like Wildmon and Jesse Helms is not accidental: it is probably the weakest brick in the fine-arts edifice. A relatively recent historical arrival, photography does not yet have the prestige surrounding painting or sculpture, and photography’s institutions, also comparative newcomers, have fewer resources and less authority. In addition, a significant amount of photography circulates through galleries, without the imprimatur of museums. Contemporary photographers and their works remain unprotected, since there has been less time in which to develop a consensus about their value—financial, artistic, and cultural.

Photography is also less privileged than other fine arts because of its ubiquity. The proliferation of of photographic images in everyday life and mass culture—in advertising and photojournalism—makes it more difficult to shelter photography, even if one wanted to, under the protective umbrella of seemingly rarified and prestigious high culture. Finally, the realistic quality of photographic representation makes it especially vulnerable to the conservative analysis of representation, which is characterized by extreme literalism. For all these reasons, the choice of photography in a newly launched conservative movement against the fine arts was shrewd. Indeed, it may have been the only plausible target: imagine, for example, public response to a campaign to remove The Origin of the World, 1866, from the Brooklyn Museum’s 1988 Courbet retrospective.

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