Americans are obsessed with sex — and scared to death of it. Hypocritically, we exploit sex to sell everything from blenders and dryers to beer and cigarettes, but the sale of sex itself is illegal in this land of increasingly limited opportunity. Awash in polymorphous-perverse titillation, many of us are nevertheless willing to come only according to socially approved guidelines. In 1989, we are still trying to pooh-pooh the 1948 Kinsey Report on male sexuality, which not only revealed for the first time how prevalent homosexuality was/is in the U.S., but which also suggested that sexual orientation is not an either/or proposition, but slides along a scale from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality in varying degrees and in variable patterns.
The heterosexual WASP majority, having rejected such notions, prefers to isolate itself in sexual fear and loathing. Sexual nausea is a neurosis, an American disease of proportions far more epidemic and, ultimately, more dangerous than AIDS. (Attempt after attempt has been made to thwart the kind of education that would stunt the spread of that illness, to repress sexuality rather than de-mystify it.) It is therefore no accident that the work Sen. Jesse Helms has used to justify his self-righteous indignation is work that many, perhaps most, Americans would find objectionable, and that it is work by a gay photographer. So let’s say something no one else is saying: Robert Mapplethorpe’s nude males, both black and white, both idealized and deconstructed in all the photojournalistic glory of so-called “sadomasochistic” expression, are beautiful. They’re erotic — and sometimes ironic at the same time, a purposeful wink from the creator that his provocation is intentional and under control. They are often even spiritual. . . .
Of course, Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, whose Piss Christ (a hauntingly evocative color photograph of a plastic crucifix immersed in a container of the artist’s urine) also offended Helms, are not isolated extremists in the history of art. Culture has long been carried on the backs of people who, by dint of special insight, passion or fortitude, have given their lives over to examining those things the vast majority of us take for granted. Who but such “outsiders” are equipped to look objectively at a society playing by arbitrary rules (as all social rules are) and to say that the rules are ridiculous? Love and marriage are fine for some people, but sex, one of the central experiences of existence, has more urgent and animalistic sides as well, perhaps even darker sides — of fetishistic, obsessive, even self-destructive behavior. To understand sex on any level, it must be taken in the context of all sexual experience.
But Jesse Helms is afraid of sex. Because sex cannot be controlled, and the patriarchy of which Helms is the mouthpiece cannot survive without control. . . . Helms wants the NEA to refuse funds to those whose religious or sexual ideas are different from his own. (Art depicting such upstart ideas is to be dismissed as “morally reprehensible trash” — language almost identical to that used by 19th-century Philistines when Manet attempted to hang his work in the official annual Salons of Paris.) This challenge to First Amendment freedoms ought to provoke every artist and art institution currently receiving NEA funds to produce the most confrontative, affrontive art imaginable — to fill books with it, cover gallery walls with it, roll it across cinema screens, sing it and dance it and write it until this country comes to understand that we are the American people only when the tyranny of people like Jesse Helms goes down in flames. Clearly, fucking well is the best revenge.