Last Thursday, I was able to make an appointment to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Archive on Orange Street off of Trafalgar Square. I was visiting NPG 59/1/93 and 32/178/1–3, all of which constitute the institutions preservation of material relating to their ‘Mapplethorpe Portrait’ – the first solo Mapplethorpe exhibition in the UK and the only in his lifetime – open from 25 March to 19 June 1988.
This includes a proof copy of the original poster that lined the escalators of the Tube, images taken of the exhibition space, a notebook of news clippings bursting at its spiral and correspondences between those in charge of logistics namely Robin Gibson (NPG Curator, 20th Century Department) and Alexandra Knaust (Representative of Mapplethopre’s New York Studio).
Close but no cigar!
These resources, which I do not have the right to publish online, will be invaluable to our project and specifically how to understand Mapplethorpe’s popular reception this cultural moment.
One of the areas we identified as needing greater support was Mapplethorpe’s immediate reception. I was a bit overwhelmed by the many routes that my archival research could take and I realised I had to narrow my scope if I wanted to have a productive and efficient time in the archives. My goal was to find primary material that related directly to how Mapplethorpe’s exhibitions were received in London in terms of the homosexual content.
The item I was most excited to examine was the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ catalogue from Mapplethorpe’s first solo exhibition in the UK from 1983. In addition to providing high-quality reproductions of the selected photographs displayed in the exhibition, it was prefaced with an essay by Alan Hollinghurst. This to me was an invaluable source as it can help us to observe how Mapplethorpe was interpreted by Hollinghurst as an emerging homosexual Londoner artist and what values he takes away from Mapplethorpe.
‘There is nothing here of the hungry fascination and mastered revulsion of Diane Arbus’s photographs of the bizarre. Mapplethrope’s pictures are, with all naturalness, an account of a world in which he was himself involved; they gain their éclat from his instinct for what, purely in terms of subject-matter, was both personally important to him and rivetingly new in the world of photography. A picture such as Bobby and Larry Kissing is important not only for itself but as perhaps the first time such a subject had been photographed.’
from Alan Hollinghurst, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1970–1983 (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1983) p. 14.
Hollinghurst goes on the write, among others, The Swimming Pool Library (1988) and The Line of Beauty (2004) which deal extensively with homosexuality and privilege – themes which he comments on in the 1983 exhibition catalogue. What conclusions we will draw from this is a question we are still fleshing out, but I think this primary resource will prove to be a very useful and insightful document for us.
What story are we telling? I think we are engaging with the relationship that homosexuality has had with censorship.
This is an ongoing story. As opposed to the UK today, censorship was politically sustained by the government. We could possibly look at the institutional changes that has occurred in the UK between the 1980s and today. Which UK institutions: centralised politics, media and art.
But why the 1980s is a question which we are still thinking about, in addition to why we’ve used ‘homosexuality’ rather than ‘LGBTQ+’ (or any anagrammatic variant thereof).
Mapplethrope was possibly able to contribute to the UK homosexual cultural and political movements which were different than in the US. Alan Hollinghurst and David Hockney—two successful gay UK artists—are who largely affected how his works were framed and received by public audiences in the UK. What does the reception of Mapplethorpe reveal about cultural movements in the UK 1980s.
How does this fit into the historical context of AIDS, and how does that informs responses to homosexual cultural objects?
Our new research question might rather then concern the impact of Mapplethorpe’s documentation of homosexuality in 1980s UK culture—ie an age of censorship in which homosexuality was represented as subversive.
Introduction: censorship as the antithesis of documentation, censorship as suppression.
Establishing in what ways 1980s UK agents censorship homosexuality and presented it as subversive. Document’s meaning is two-fold: 1) Mapplethorpe his artistic works are documenting homosexual experience 2) how Mapplethorpe’s works themselves were documented
a) Politics: the laws (ie section n ). Jeremy Thorpe: merging homosexuality and subversive actions (ie same-sex, extra-marital affair plus murder)
b) Culture: Music Frankie ‘Relax’. Gays the Word raided by the government.
With the desire to suppress ‘subversive’ documents, it is easy to see what work agents of censorship had cut out for themselves.
Part II: Mapplethorpe intro
a) photography as a utilitarian medium. Using it to document homosexuality.
Control of expression that is regarded as outside of and a threat to the religious, political, and social orthodoxy of the time.
This is one definition of censorship offered by Barbara Hoffman (2003). Furthermore, Hoffman stipulates that ‘Manifestations of the control of artistic expression are historically and culturally specific’ (Hoffman 2003). The theoretical framework illustrated here provides a considerably sound foundation for building on how homosexuality was documented in the 1980s—specifically the suppression of efforts to document a specific facet of the human experience in a specific time and place constituting a definition of censorship.
This approach to documentation is particularly interesting in light of the BBC’s broadcasting history. Lord Reith, first Director-General of the BBC when the post was formed in 1927 by Royal Charter and to whom Reithianism refers, set an agenda of widening what content was broadcast to be universal, representing all points of view. He famously said, ‘All that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement […] The preservation of a high moral tone is obviously of paramount importance.’ (Mowat 1955, p. 242). And yet, despite the moralistically egalitarian sentiment, the ‘high moral tone’ characterises the institution as one which would no surprisingly take issue with explicitly sexual and, in Hoffman’s words, ‘outside of […] religious, political and social orthodoxy at the time’. This hypocrisy might be useful to consider in light of further research for this project in light of the perception of homosexuality as subversive in the 1980s UK and US.
Hoffman, Barbara, ‘Censorship’, Grove Art Online, 1 January January 2003 <oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000015205> [accessed 29 January 2019]
Mowat, Charles Loch, Britain Between the Wars (London: Metheun, 1955)
Scannell, Paddy and David Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, Vol. I: 1922–1939 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Press, 1990)
One theme I thought of which could tie together a wide range of disciplines while still relating to our theme of ‘Document’ was censorship.
My initial question was in what way does censorship obstruct the process of documentation.
The first example that came to mind was Allegri’s 17th-century setting to Psalm 51 Miserere Mei, Deus.
King’s College Choir, Allegri’s Miserere Mei [YouTube video], King’s College Choir, Cambridge, 20 February 2015 <youtube.com/watch?v=IX1zicNRLmY> [accessed 23 January 2019]
The composition which has been played in the Sistine Chapel since its creation was not allowed to be transcribed and was thus limited to only the Vatican. As the apocryphal story goes, Mozart upon visiting the Sistine Chapel with his father was able to later transcribe the piece my memory thus leading to the propagation of the now standard liturgical piece (Emily Anderson, TheLetters of Mozart and HisFamily, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1985)).
The main point I think I got from this is that despite efforts of censorship, it can be very difficult to contain a cultural artefact from organic means of distribution.
This links to the other example in music which came to mind. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1983 record ‘Relax’ is often received today as a staple of 80s pop music. It appears in the soundtracks of many films such as the recent Johnny English Strikes Again (2018) and had featured as a contestant song in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in 2014 – though a possibly more critical use of the song comes from 2014’s Pride.
Electrify001, Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Relax (Original 7″ Version) ((P) 1983) [YouTube video], 21 August 2014 <youtube.com/watch?v=Pcjb659h6jM> [accessed 23 January 2019]
What is not so well-known about this song is that it was banned by the BBC in 1984 following Mike Reeds refusals to air it due to its ‘overtly obscene’ lyrics. (BBC News, ‘Banned Frankie Tops Charts’, BBC, 6 October 2000 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/959284.stm> [accessed 23 January 2019]). The song’s music video was also banned as it depicts an erotic orgy. Yet, the banning of the song only increased its popularity.
How was homosexuality documented in the 1980s?
Riddled with censorship/debates on censorship
Anglo-American context, AIDS
Honing the idea that censorship has been a prevalent force throughout history to this specific cultural moment
We’ve decided to look at this in popular culture/prominent examples in music and visual art and how they have entertained interest in the topic in politically and in news media.
Censorship often has the opposite effect which is why it is important to look at pop culture.
How are these cultural artefacts received today? Was their censorship effective? What did the censorship affect them/change them?