Art and Public Context

A decision by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington not to display an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, a number of which are explicitly homoerotic, has become a major controversy in the art world. More than 100 members of Congress protested use of National Endowment for the Arts funds to help the exhibit tour. Partisans charge censorship and abridgment of freedom. The issue is especially sensitive since Mr. Mapplethorpe died in March of a virus diagnosed as AIDS. Gay activist groups now threaten to project exhibit slides onto the Corcoran building.

Livingston Biddle, President Carter's NEA chief and the architect of the original 1965 NEA legislation, says the Corcoran did the right thing. We agree. If public money is to be used, a consideration of the public context must be made.

A significant bulk of Mr. Mapplethorpe's work is not explicitly homosexual. The exhibit could have been edited discreetly. The curator refused to do so, despite the certainty of a flap. Ironically, Mapplethorpe's art now stands less chance to be judged objectively as art by the public.

The censorship charge is misleading. Mapplethorpe's art is not banned in Boston, or any other city. There's nothing stopping an exhibit sponsored by, say, the Ford or Getty Foundations.

Members of Congress should represent the values of their constituencies. In May, 25 members protested NEA funding of a photograph by a different artist vulgarizing a crucifix. Several Mapplethorpe works are as objectionable. This isn't Huck Finn.

Duchamp's famous 1917 toilet exhibit in New York during the advent of modernism shocked a traditional art establishment. Today, roles have reversed. To bash values is very ``establishment.'' Freedom without responsibility is license. Mr. Biddle rightly argues that a panel of artists can help make the NEA rules clearer.

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