I watched HBO’s documentary about Robert Mapplethorpe, and it brought back a long-forgotten memory. In 1989, my then-boyfriend and I went to an art gallery affiliated with UC Berkeley to see the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition that had so aroused Jesse Helm’s wrath. My memory is that the gallery was arranged so that one saw Mapplethorpe’s uncontroversial photos first — the flowers; the famous and not-so-famous faces; and the black and white human bodies shown, not as sexual objects, but as architectural landscapes.
Looking at the pictures, there was no doubt that Mapplethorpe was an extremely good photographer. The images were often emotionally sterile, but his sense of line was unfailing.
The crowds in the gallery, though, weren’t there to admire Mapplethorpe’s good lines and famous faces, which weren’t that much different from a lot of high-end photos that one found in many fashion and architectural magazines from the 1980s. People were there for one reason only: To see the infamous “X” photos, the ones showing explicit gay sadism and masochism, complete with exposed genitalia.
Penile torture? Check. Fisting? Check. Undinism? Check. Whips, chains, Great Danes . . . three on a chandelier? Well, not quite all that, but certain the whips and chains were there too.
I’m sure many in the gallery were there purely out of prurient interest. The majority, though, seemed to be there for the same reasons that my then-boyfriend and I attended the show: To show how hip we were and to make it clear that we weren’t going to let some puritanical Southern “hick” like Jesse Helms censor “art” in America. (Obviously, this was during my Democrat youth.)
I vaguely remember that, when I saw the photographs, I was partly fascinated and completely disgusted. The fascination was connected to a single thought: “Do people really get pleasure out of those grotesque, and probably painful, activities?”
My then-boyfriend had a much more visceral reaction. He put his hand across his mouth, bolted for the exit, and threw up in the bushes.