Two on One: Dirty Pictures

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Two on One    

The Perfect Storm

by Bruce Benderson and Laurie Stone

Mapplethorpe images © Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe, from Pictures, published by Arena Editions. Used with permission.


THE SETUP: In Showtime’s original movie Dirty Pictures (airing Saturday, May 27, at 9:00 p.m.), James Woods plays Dennis Barrie, the curator behind the infamous 1990 Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition “The Perfect Moment” at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. Seven of Mapplethorpe’s photographs in particular — graphic images of men fist-fucking and urinating in each other’s mouths — provoked the national outcry that led to Barrie’s indictment, hours after the exhibition’s opening, for pandering obscenity. The curator, an impassioned defender of the First Amendment, was ultimately acquitted, but the debate it sparked about art, censorship and the NEA continues today (to wit, last fall’s “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum). Writers Bruce Benderson and Laurie Stone discuss the film and the images that started it all.

STONE: Dirty Pictures sent out mixed messages in that it came to praise Robert Mapplethorpe, and yet it was afraid to show us his work. At most we saw the photographs in nanosecond flashes.

BENDERSON: And they weren’t at all integrated into the story. They were kind of like cute Laurel and Hardy montage moments, calliope music and all.

STONE: The movie raises questions about why it was made now, ten years after the events depicted. Dead, Mapplethorpe has become a poster boy for endangered art, but his pictures are still too dangerous to contemplate. The movie makes the law look ridiculous in its attempts to define art and obscenity, as if the issue is either/or. Even non–art world types understand that an expression can be distasteful to them and still express a kind of beauty. What was especially disappointing about the movie was that it was so unexciting in its treatment of an artist whose images are so incendiary. Even if you think Mapplethorpe’s photography is too posed to be sexy-juicy, the way he shows the body is stroke material, and some shots — like the finger inserted into the opening of a penis — up the weirdness quotient.

BENDERSON: What seemed more ridiculous was the moral focus of the film, and the deadly boring community that it depicted, including the people who supported the Mapplethorpe exhibition. Oddly, this was family-values TV — only the film seemed to be defining the “bad” people as those who felt the Mapplethorpe work was a threat to family values and the “good” people as those who were trying to prove it wasn’t a threat to family values. The fact that it was art made it “good” for families. And then there were those several nauseating moments in which the well-meaning curator and his wife try to reconcile their support of the Mapplethorpe show with their need to protect their lily-white family. And in the end, they seem to be saying that you can put up pictures of people getting fist-fucked and still find a way to protect little Johnny’s virgin bumhole — all at the same time. The curator even brings his kid to the courtroom. Where were the people who should have been saying, “This is some sick shit, and boy, do I like it!” I do believe such was the initial reaction to the work when it surfaced in minor galleries in the ’70s. We liked it but we never envisioned it in Cincinnati.

STONE: The curator, Dennis Barrie, is left twisting and turning on this contradiction, but the movie doesn’t dramatize it. It just ignores it. He books “The Perfect Moment” for the Contemporary Art Center before the Corcoran Museum in Washington canceled it (in 1989), so he’s caught having to be an art warrior whether or not he wants to be. If he backs out of the show, he’s caving into the pressure of the Moral Majority and Jesse Helms to censor people’s access to art. But he doesn’t champion it either, because it makes him feel like he’s lining up to get into the infamous SM gay bar The Anvil. So he comes up with a way to swallow fist-fucking (pardon the mixed orifice metaphor) and not disappoint the art world, which is to avert his eyes and talk about light and shape.

BENDERSON: I’m glad you’ve delved into the real Dennis Barrie. I got the feeling that he was such a wuss that James Woods was at a loss as to how to depict him. In fact, Woods’ performance kept slipping into parody. Wonder if Barrie realizes that. On the other hand, Diana Scarwid (of Mommie Dearest fame), who played his wife, didn’t disappoint. She’s a master of slow-building hysteria, a kind of emotion-engine all to herself. It doesn’t matter whether she’s being abused by Joan Crawford or afraid her husband will lose his cushy job, she really gets into both with a kind of psychotic intensity.

STONE: James Woods is an intelligent actor who can’t disguise when he’s slumming in drab material. As for Scarwid’s part, I disliked it intensely. The wife, Dianne, comes off as the only coward in the movie. Maybe she really did utter the dialogue attributed to her: “I’m sick of the art world . . . sick of letting Mapplethorpe bring us down.” But yuck. In the movie she’s tempted to take hush money if Barrie abandons the show, and she basically threatens to end the marriage if he testifies in court in support of Mapplethorpe. He does, of course, because his lawyers convince him that he’d better try to save his ass. There’s a chance, if the jury decides the images are obscene, that he’ll get jail time as a pornographer.


As for the show itself, I remember seeing “The Perfect Moment” at the Whitney in 1990 and feeling that his attitude toward his subjects was blasé and, at times, shallow. But during Dirty Pictures, I kept thinking about how beautiful Mapplethorpe was and how AIDS ravaged him so quickly and horribly. I thought about how unfair it is to any artist to have his/her work become symbolic of a social issue. The moment of the SM pictures and the flowers was a personal moment for the artist. Mapplethorpe’s work is a kind of performance art in that it transfers to the public sphere the private parts of life that people know about but don’t necessarily want to deal with in the public sphere, or don’t want to acknowledge consciously. By now, everyone in Cincinnati is acquainted with fisting and golden showers, but there will always be something new that stands for the parts of life that are messy and contradictory, and that’s what gets pushed down.


One of the photographs that was contested at the trial is of Jesse McBride as a small boy, sitting on the top of an armchair with his legs spread and his little-boy penis exposed. It’s a moment everyone who has been a kid and watched kids knows well. And it is sexual. It’s both everyday and disturbing, because kids have sexuality that adults respond to and that kids are aroused by as well. This is one of those parts of life many people don’t want to think about.

BENDERSON: I don’t think it is exposure that has made Mapplethorpe’s images less disturbing (and less interesting). I think aggressive co-optation by liberal taste has done the job. In fact, messy, contradictory stuff never does get pushed down any more. It just gets an image makeover. Suppose the trial of “The Perfect Moment” had been a smashing success for the curator and every Sunday school teacher and homemaker had embraced Mapplethorpe as a new Michelangelo. The interior decorators of Cincinnati would have hailed it as the greatest addition to any suburban living room. Who would have wanted to get fist-fucked any more? There’s a maddening “missionary” tendency in this culture to try to equate value with goodness, whereas in certain Catholic cultures, like France, the perverse, the violent and the sexual can be shown to have value without having to be portrayed as socially redeeming or instructive. Nobody ever tried to prove that de Sade was actually a nice guy who loved children. On the other hand, in this film we have Susan Sarandon being interviewed about that warm and cozy day when “regular guy” Bobby Mapplethorpe happened to snap a picture of her kid. This whole idea of embracing the transgressive as something well meaning and familiar is fairly recent. If you take another look at the Morrissey/Warhol, late-’60s film Trash, which shows Joe D’Allesandro fucking a very pregnant woman or Holly Woodlawn masturbating with a beer bottle, it’s much more disturbing and much more tantalizing than Mapplethorpe’s frozen, pseudo-classical images of transgression or his very boring pictures of naked children. The Warhol/Morrisey images can’t be twisted to serve the “public good.” They still stimulate nervous laughter, excitement, disgust, desire.

STONE: Maybe the concept of transgression has been packaged and sanitized for mass consumption, like the fashion of tattooing and piercing. And you could argue that Mapplethorpe is really a vanilla kind of bad-guy sent out into the mainstream as a palatable but actually fake version of transgressiveness. But the makers of Dirty Pictures think the pictures are dirty. That’s why we’re not allowed to look at them. The images are kept under wraps, like porn at the sites of ancient ruins in Italy that you have to ask a guard to show you. The pictures aren’t the point, the movie says, the censoring of art is the cause to defend. Do you think that as soon as genuinely disturbing material is able to be digested by more than a tiny coterie, it loses its power as anarchic art? Supposing it never wished to have any status as social outsider or insider? Kafka will probably never go out of print, yet “In the Penal Colony” remains one of the blackest, scariest and funniest works ever recorded.


Some of Mapplethorpe’s photographs that detonated outrage are funny. Like the shot of him with a bullwhip shoved up his ass. He looks like a devil with a tail. He’s making fun of SM and at the same time conjuring a libidinous image of erotic penetration and the fantasy that sex turns us into animals.


What did you think when you first saw Mapplethorpe, and what do you think happened to him or his audience to render “The Perfect Moment” bland for you?

BENDERSON: Well, when I first saw Mapplethorpe, the work didn’t seem especially exciting. The images seemed . . . familiar — pictures from a world that I knew well and almost thought of as my everyday world. It was fun to see them, but I was never very impressed by them. It was just documentary, in its more prosaic sense, and the later work was just decorative. Yes, the pictures of genitals really are like pictures of flowers, as they kept insisting in this film. They’re as banal as pictures of flowers. At that point in his career I think Mapplethorpe was untouched by his allegedly transgressive content and was just trying to get the lighting right, whether it was a foreskin or a cala lily. None of it feels really libidinal to me.


I believe that good art implies process, and I don’t think Mapplethorpe’s images show much process on an intellectual or emotive level. They are technically adept postcards from a certain lifestyle, like those glossy pictures of African wild life that certain photographers do and that end up on coffee tables. And, maybe, when you really get down to it, Mapplethorpe was just a regular guy, who happened to be showing us scenes from a not-so-regular sex life when he wasn’t eating coffee cake at a friend’s house and shooting her children. And maybe that’s why both sides of the obscenity battle chose him instead of someone who would have been even much harder to digest. But getting back to the film, the premise of which was the entry of disturbing imagery into a very “regular” community. Well, maybe neither that community nor Mapplethorpe really ever had that much libido. Maybe there was never even that much potential for any real subversion. Dirty Pictures is a film about the boring being shocked by the boring.

“The Perfect Moment,” a re-creation of the infamous 1990 Mapplethorpe exhibition, opens Wednesday, May 24, at the Santa Monica [Ca.] Museum of Art, in conjunction with the Showtime film, and will run through June 10. For more information, call (310) 586-6488.

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Dirty Pictures photograph courtesy Showtime.

Laurie Stone is author of the novel Starting With Serge, the memoir collection Close to the Bone and Laughing in the Dark, a collection of her writing on comic performance. A longtime writer for The Village Voice and The Nation, she has been critic-at-large on Fresh Air, has received grants from The New York Foundation for the Arts and MacDowell Colony, and in 1996 won the Nona Balakian Prize in Excellence in Criticism from the National Book Critics Circle.
  For more Laurie Stone, read:
Two on One: Survivor
Two on One: Dirty Pictures
Two on One: “Picturing the Modern Amazon”
Eat and Be Eaten

©2000 Bruce Benderson,