Robert Mapplethorpe Controversy


Photography is designed to make a visual impression upon first glance. Some photographers are looking to capture beauty, but some are looking to capture images that make more of an impression. Robert Mapplethorpe is a photographer that never shied away from controversy and was always embroiled in some sort of storm. He is widely considered to be one of the most persecuted photographers of the 1980’s. However, the controversy that surrounded his photographs actually increased his fame and gave him a wider platform.

Sexually Explicit

Mapplethorpe created an exhibit title “The Perfect Moment” in 1989 and was looking to have it released at several prominent museums, but this collection was never released. It was thought that the content of his exhibit was far too sexually driven than the general public would appreciate. Mapplethorpe often stated that he was not looking to cause controversy, but was simply capturing images that had relevance and were inspiring. His erotic imagery made him a polarizing photographer and an easy target.

Persecuted Artist

Time Magazine took notice of the criticism that Robert Mapplethorpe faced and named him one of the most persecuted artists of the 80’s. One of the main advocates against Mapplethorpe’s artwork was Senator Jesse Helms. He crafted several letters stating his disapproval of Mapplethorpe’s artwork. His letters even led to legal action being taken against the art director of one of the museums where Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial artwork was displayed. The Cincinnati Contemporary Museum of Art faced legal repercussions for supporting Mapplethorpe and his sexually explicit artwork.

Pushing Boundaries

Mapplethorpe was not necessarily looking for trouble or a battle, but he was always looking to push the boundaries of what was seen as acceptable. Many of his pieces actually rose to fame through Andy Warhol, who became a close friend and a subject of many of the pieces created by Mapplethorpe. Other celebrities that were subjects for Mapplethorpe include Richard Gere, Patty Smith and Grace Jones. Even though Robert Mapplethorpe was seen as a polarizing artist, he still had a loyal fan base and garnered support from many celebrities.


In the end, Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS, but his contribution to art was impactful. He stirred the debate on the censorship of artwork and helped to tackle some social issues through his photographs that are still relevant. His artwork was meaningful and was visually stunning, but also designed to make an impactful impression.

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