Time Magazine‘s Richard Lacayo recalls the Mapplethorpe exhibition and the ensuing drama that has affected art funding every since:
Twenty years ago, a traveling exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe set off one of the fiercest episodes of America’s “culture wars” — the enduring squabble over sexually explicit or sacrilegious art, leering pop music, raunchy TV comedies, radio shock jocks and every other sign of lewdness and irreverence in public life. Had he been around to see it, Mapplethorpe might have enjoyed the enormous fuss he had caused. But he had died in March 1989, at age 42, of complications from AIDS. By the time of his death, he was famous for three kinds of images: cool, rigorously conceived portraits and figure studies; sharply lit pictures of flowers; and photographs of gay S&M that left nothing to the imagination. Though he wasn’t a fashion photographer, like Helmut Newton, Mapplethorpe trafficked in swank transgression. No less than his portraits and floral studies, his blunt images of rough sex — a man urinating into another man’s mouth, a fist inserted just so into a man’s anus — were serenely composed and luxuriously lighted. The result may not always have expressed a perfect moment but it always presented a perfect paradox: a calm Apollonian framework for wild Dionysian content. And, like the Parthenon when it served as a powder keg for the Ottoman Turks, it was only a matter of time before it exploded.
Shock Snap (Time)