Did Mapplethorpe ever get that whip out of his ass?
Posted by Stupid White Man on April 7, 2009 at 2:34 PM

Why, Stupid White Man, I'm glad you asked that question in response to this morning's Mapplethorpe Saga Part One.

Because Part Two of our two-part series is about the famous aforementioned ass-whip self-portrait that Mapplethorpe made in 1978.

Here's what I wrote about that photograph in my story this week about new EMP director Christina Orr-Cahall's 1989 decision to cancel a scheduled Mapplethorpe exhibition:

In 1978, when Mapplethorpe photographed himself as a demon with a bullwhip dangling out of his ass like a tail, he was drawing attention to the demonization of the gay man. What he couldn't have known—he died just months before his show, which had already been exhibited without incident in Philadelphia and Chicago, was canceled in D.C.—is that artists were about to join the ranks of the demonized. Artists were an expedient way for right-wingers to get at the real targets: the same uppity women and gays who Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell would later say brought on September 11.

The 1978 photograph was the ideal image to illustrate my article: difficult, but full of meaning.

After some internal hashing out, we came up with a plan to run the photo both in the paper and online. The plan was to show it full-size online, where a person could choose to click on it or not. But in the paper, to avoid losing distribution spots all over the city, we decided we'd run a ridiculously small thumbnail version in the middle of an expanse of white space on the art page, marked with an explanatory caption, something like this:


THIS IMAGE BEST ILLUSTRATES THIS PIECE It’s Mapplethorpe’s 1978 self-portrait. Having trouble seeing it? This is the largest version we are able to print out of consideration for the owners of local businesses that allow us to distribute our papers on their premises. You can see a larger version of this image at at thestranger.com/visualart, and debate whether or not we’re just as guilty of censorship as Christina Orr-Cahall.

I was satisfied with that compromise. I'd originally wanted the piece published normal size, inside the paper, next to the story on the art page (as it was, I later found out, in the Village Voice's arts section at the time of the controversy).

But we cain't always get what we want, and at least this solution was creative, transparent, and would inspire debate in a forum on which you would be able to see the image full-size if you wanted to.

We laid out the page and waited to hear back from the Mapplethorpe Foundation, which controls the rights to the image.

And the answer came back: No.

The reason?

"They are not in agreement with the following asessment, 'In 1978, when Robert Mapplethorpe photographed himself as a demon with a bull whip dangling out of his ass like a tail, he was drawing attention to the demonization of the gay man.' It is not the belief of the Foundation that this was Mapplethorpe’s intention, so they have suggested the attached image which was projected onto the side of the Corcoran and was subsequently memorialized as an ARTFORUM cover."

We ended up using the ARTFORUM image.

But we had to ask: Does the Mapplethorpe Foundation have no sense of irony?

And: Is this what Mapplethorpe would want?

(The reason the foundation knew about my interpretation is that we sent it to them: although we were wary, they said they needed to see what we were writing before they'd consider the request.)

So, who's the worst censor now?

So many options for you to consider.

Here's a link to a nice big glorious version of the image on Christie's web site.