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Mapplethorpe’s Living Room: Photography and the Furnishing of Desire

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This essay analyses the descriptions (and distortions) of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography put forward by Senator Jesse Helms during the controversy over The Perfect Moment (a full-scale retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work) in 1989. It argues that Helms’s attacks on Mapplethorpe’s life and work open onto a broader set of fears and fantasies about homosexuality.

After examining some of the key contradictions in Helms’s discourse, the essay turns to a contemporaneous event concerning Mapplethorpe: the sale of his collection of art and furniture by Christie’s auction house in October 1989. Christie’s cleverly marketed `The Robert Mapplethorpe Collection’ by suggesting a link between the bodies Mapplethorpe photographed and the objects he collected, between the forbidden appeal of Mapplethorpe’s art and the eclectic array of his belongings. In so doing, Christie’s capitalized upon the public controversy in which the name ‘Mapplethorpe’ was embroiled at the time. But Christie’s also revealed, however unwittingly, something essential about Mapplethorpe’s practice as both an artist and a collector. In both his photographs and in his private collection. Mapplethorpe has set a space for homosexual difference. And it was this space that Senator Helms and the morally upstanding citizens he claimed to represent could not abide.

Document Type: Original Article


Affiliations: Department of Art History, University of Southern California

Publication date: April 1, 2001

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