On Monday, a friend and I visited the Perth Art Gallery to see 'Robert Mapplethorpe - The Scottish Tour', an exhibition of 37 photographs.
Mapplethorpe is probably known for his explicitly sexual, work - and there were several examples of this at Perth, including studies of the S & M scene, gay and straight - although the photos I liked the best were of the singer Patti Smith - a close friend of Mapplethorpe's for many years, and an icon in her own right - and the self-portraits, particularly those Mapplethorpe took at the end of his life, shortly before his early death from an AIDS-related illness. These show a man ravaged by disease but looking death in the face - resigned but still strong in spirit.
During Mapplethorpe's life, there was much controversy in the US as to whether public funds should be used to fund his exhibitions - the trustees of some galleries refused to show his work, objecting strongly to its content. This raises interesting questions. Many of us would no doubt leap to Mapplethorpe's defence, saying that this attitude amounts to censorship, and that no-one should be allowed to decide what the public sees. The fact that Mapplethorpe took photos of 'shocking' behaviour proves that such behaviour exists - why should people who indulge in it, or who want to see an artist's interpretation of it, be refused that opportunity? Who is to say that people - who, after all, have to visit a gallery to see these works - should be prevented from doing so? On the other hand, if Mapplethorpe's work had celebrated, for example, Nazism or apartheid, would we still feel this way? Or would we be outraged at the use of public money to fund such an exhibition? Or is this issue a class one - if instead of Mapplethorpe's photos, the galleries in question had been asked to stage works by Gilbert & George, would they have reacted differently? Is photography seen as a lesser art, and if so, is that owing to its directness - the way in which some of us, who may find it hard to relate to traditional art, feel more comfortable with photographs?
This week, I have been helping to stage the annual exhibition at the Poldrate Arts & Crafts Centre in Haddington.
One of the exhibits submitted is a life-size woodcarving of a female torso by Julian Tennent. After some discussion as to whether Simone (as she is titled) should be draped with the work of the spinners and weavers group, we've decided to leave her as she is. She's a wonderful work, celebrating the female form in all its beauty. Will we get complaints? I doubt it, but we shall see. In the meantime, we are giving our own little push to the boundaries. Let the public decide.
Artist Rooms: 'Robert Mapplethorpe - The Scottish Tour' is on at the Perth Art Gallery (78 George St, Perth) until 27th April 2013.
Patti Smith has written a celebrated book about her time with Mapplethorpe: Just Kids, Bloomsbury, 2006. ISBN: 0747548404, 9780747548409.
Poldrate Arts & Crafts Centre Annual Exhibition is open Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th April 2013 - for details see www.pacc.org.uk. Entrance is free.