Friday, August 25, 2006

Editorial: The Great Catamite

Editorial: The Great Catamite
Originally Posted on Panel-House: October 2004

I do not recall how the discussion that lead to the argument came up but somewhere in the middle of a visit to my father over a summer years ago the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe arose. I was fifteen at the time and vaguely familiar with art from frequenting Washington DC's free museums while my father was at work during my visits since my parent's separation. I had read that the funding for the NEA was going down and that all it had cost at that time in the early 1990s was .64 cents a year per person to fund and it was going down and I was concerned. My father felt that not only was it correct to lower the funding of the NEA but he felt he knew why and that reason was Mapplethorpe. At the time I was not familiar with any of Mapplethorpe's work nor the 1989 controversy so it was a new name to me.

My father verbally described the images to me and not only objected to their content but the fact the exhibition was funded by federal dollars. My father's verbal descriptions were not enough because I still weakly argued for their funding and right to exist regardless of content so we sped to a nearby Border's Bookstore. My father stormed to the photography section with me in tow and pulled a massive Mapplethorpe monograph off of the shelf and flipped it open saying "Just look at this".

He was pointing at a picture of a flower.

Not only was it a flower but it was a photograph that was so exquisite, so well done, that I thought maybe he was wrong with the name of the artist who took the image. But after being a bit flustered my father found the correct "offensive" image, of a man sticking a whip up his ass which I didn't find offensive. It also made arguing a blanket case for Mapplethorpe's obscenity tougher for him because that flower was amazing. At fifteen I had joined the photo club in high school and had some knowledge about developing and shooting but I was terrible at it, I quit the following year for the drama club which I was slightly better at, still I knew enough to know that was a phenomenal photograph technically.

I don't recall how the argument ended, it was diffused by this image of a flower and drifted to another discussion or arguement. That arguement and image were an important point for me. Though I gave up on photography it did start in me a more pointed interest in art and now that I think back to it in our current political time it illuminates other things for me.

There are things you don't know how to explain but you just know what you know about it. For however much Mapplethorpe has been engraved into the consiousness of art education and the post-1989 NEA situation; Corcoran Gallery shutting the show down, the protests, the ensuing problems in Cincinnati, etc. that image of those flowers somehow look fresh again to me. As an image that quelled an argument and an image I returned to recently because it reminds me of the brief drop in volume in right wing rhetoric my father experienced.

Some things do not change. When I was fifteen my close friends (including Jon Glover who does music reviews for panel-house) had a small zine called "Bullet" which we distributed amongst like-minded cohorts writing about music, poetry, and how much our high school infringed on our freedom of speech and expression. After my father and I argued I decided to write a page in "Bullet" about the NEA. Granted none of us on the staff could vote yet but all of us found it important to our concerns.

Given that we are in the mess of it this month I have kind of felt a bit paralyzed as far as what to say about art and finding some form of political relevance in shows and how to review it/discuss it/etc. That is not to say that the content of current shows is lacking, though of course there could be more, it is this aura of defeat or cynicism that sets in as you potentially face another four years of...well...this kind of logic that is debilitating.

In all honesty I do not know what that anecdote should mean to anyone, but it has made me realize the foundation for most of my art education through fine art, historical, and critical. It gets back to the work at hand, in this case an image that can cut through the jargon of Buchanan's culture war and allow for a pause, a check in my father's case - and for me a witness to the power of something so simple over searching for obsenity.

Written by Terence Hannum

NOTE: Sorry to return to that horrid time of almost hope before the past presidential election. Ugh, is it 2008 yet?


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