Robert Mapplethorpe’s Art Amidst Public Backlash

On June 5, 1981, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), detailing the emergence of a rare lung infection, Pneumocystic carinii pneumonia (PCP), in five young, previously healthy, gay men. [1] This is the first official reporting of what would become the AIDS epidemic. Doctors studied this new and deadly disease without any sense of how it was developing or spreading. Additionally the New York Times reported 41 gay men developed an unusually aggressive cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS). [2] The initial name of this disease was Gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) because it seemed that only those identifying as gay contracted the disease. This led to the media and others mistakenly suggesting an inherent link between homosexuality and the new disease. [3] By the end of 1981, 270 cases have been reported, and 121 men have died. [4]

Since homosexuality was deemed “unnatural” conservatives latched onto the idea that these men were becoming sick as a direct link from their sexuality. Even after the disease began spreading outside of the gay community conservative evangelical activist Gary Bauer, President Ronald Reagan’s chief advisor on domestic policy, said on Face the Nation in 1987, that the president had not uttered the word “AIDS” publicly until late 1985, because “it hadn’t spread into the general population yet.” This after almost 10,000 Americans had died from the disease. [5] Senator Jesse Helms brought these ideas into the art world as well. He believed there was a direct link between arts, being gay, and AIDS. In 1990 the Massachusetts chapter of Morality in Media condemned those looking at Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition, The Perfect Moment, which depicted gay subcultures. The President of Morality in Media stated, “people look at these kinds of pictures become addicts and spread AIDS.”[6] It is unrealistic now to think there is a link between looking at art, becoming gay, and contracting AIDS, but for Mapplethorpe, and others, creating art was their way of expressing his fear and anguish over contracting and losing friends to this horrific disease.

This image is by Robert Mapplethorpe entitled “Roy Cohn” (1981). Roy Cohn was a lawyer who is most known for intertwining the Lavender Scare with the Red Scare under Senator Joseph McCarthy. [7] The Lavender Scare sought out homosexuals in the government. Cohn’s face is a death stare, as if saying Cohn is coming for you. Mapplethorpe chose to represent Cohn without a body as if Cohn is even more powerful without it. It makes the viewer focus on his gaze, which can see everything. But the portrait is also a death mask, for Cohn was living a contradictory life. He died of AIDS in 1986.

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It is interesting to compare the two Self-Portraits by Mapplethorpe as well. The first was taken in 1975; he depicts himself as playful, innocent, and unabashed by his sexual identity. He took this picture using a Polaroid camera, which he felt encouraged spontaneity. [8] The Self-Portrait Mapplethorpe took in 1988 has lost that youthful innocence and sexual playfulness. Some of that comes with age but that loss is also attributed to the death he is witnessing around him. Mapplethorpe himself died of AIDS in 1989, and this portrait seems to position him as death itself, complete with a skull cane in order to strike down his victims. [9] His whole career he was condemned because his art was seen as the cause of the “gay plague,” but with this image he reclaims his identity and remained defiant to the end.
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All images:

The AIDS epidemic for too long affected the lives of men and women without much care or support from the government or health organizations. Mapplethorpe and other artists were expressing their frustrations through their art and were condemned for it. Today we know the causes of HIV/AIDS and it is up to us to help fight it. If you want more information regarding the timeline of the AIDS epidemic you can look at or amfAR’s website. Additionally art21 magazine wrote about Mapplethorpe and censorship 20 years later.



[1] “A Timeline of HIV/AIDS.” Accessed April 20, 2016.

[2] “A Timeline of HIV/AIDS.” Accessed April 20, 2016.

[3] “Thirty Years of HIV/AIDS: Snapshots of an Epidemic.” amfAR. Accessed April 20, 2016.

[4] “A Timeline of HIV/AIDS.” Accessed April 20, 2016.

[5] Johathan D. Katz, and David C. Ward. HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books (2011), 17

[6] Ibid., 7

[7] Ibid., 214

[8] Ibid., 202

[9] Ibid., 220

14 thoughts on “Robert Mapplethorpe’s Art Amidst Public Backlash

  1. Thank you for providing such a great background to the HIV/AIDS epidemic–I recently saw an exhibit on the social history surrounding this era and epidemic, and the degree of social stigma that you mention was just heartbreaking. Using Robert Mapplethorpe’s work in this conversation is very helpful. It draws out the human consequences of the epidemic.

  2. I really like that you drew our focus to Mapplethorpe’s artwork and how he not only represented his personal experience, but spoke for the broader gay community in many ways. Some of the most powerful artwork comes from people who are expressing their frustrations and emotions, and like you say, his photography given the time period makes a powerful statement. Perhaps the most upsetting thing, in a presumably liberal and accepting artistic community, his art was censored and led to a heated debate about public funding of controversial artwork.

  3. I really liked how you decided to discuss art which was created during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. I think it shows how important other forms of media are in telling a larger narrative. Our readings this week really focused on personal stories and I think that art is another great example of telling a story, especially when that story is so important.

  4. Wonderful post Hillary, and I loved how you intertwined the the symbolism of Mapplethorpe’s work as “condemned” pieces with the larger early social context of the AIDS epidemic and the moral self-righteousness of many on the Right. It is sobering to remind ourselves that within many of our lifetimes, this epidemic was marginalized and stigmatized in a language of otherness, blame, and public shaming, where a narrow view of right and wrong superseded a basic responsibility of compassion. Mapplethorpe’s work, in the face of this abatement of conscience, is an empowering inversion, showing the reality of pain and loss that could not be willed away by those who purported to be moral. Instead, such pieces reflect those such as Roy Cohen for what they were: powerful, but hypocritical, and willing to suspend compassion in the name of loose ideology. Such an image, for him, is a fitting death mask in the end.

  5. Hillary, your use of art to look at the issues of public information and the myth of AIDs really makes the issue accessible. I like your focus and interpretation of the two pieces by Mapplethorpe. Awesome post!

  6. I really got sucked into your post, Hill! In reading about the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s/1990s, I have asked myself if the majority of victims of the virus were not members of the LGBT community, whether we would have seen more research/better results in finding a cure. I think your article reveals that hate and homophobia resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings. I hope more people read this article, and see the toll hate can take in terms of human life and suffering.

    1. Luke, as sad as it is to say, I think that homophobia played a huge part in the lack of research and funding directed towards the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I remember talking to a friend who was alive and active in the LGBTQ community during this time and her stories of friends dying senselessly while the government and larger society looked the other way were heartbreaking. She and other members of the community used to stage “die ins” to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, so that the thousands of people dying of it would get the attention they deserve.

  7. Great post. It’s horrifying how politicized AIDS was in those days, and to some extent how it still is. Mapplethorpe made a bold move, owning his illness and the stigma that came with it. It was a brave way to face his end.

  8. I like how you used Mapplethorpe’s work as an expression and example for the larger issues that were taking place during the AIDS crisis. We frequently talk about how the work of artists during a movement are a way to express and draw attention to the issue at hand, and this example is no different. This was a great post!

  9. Great post Hillary! I found the context you gave on the political situation very helpful. I think that you effectively highlight how the fear and the hate against the LGBT community had an impact on policy at the time. Those are startling statistics indeed.

  10. I never knew a lot of what you spoke about here. The connection between HIV/AIDS and art is so intimate and yet also starkly public. It floors me to learn that only 30 years ago people really feared that looking at gay art could make you gay and automatically give you AIDS. The notion is completely ridiculous. It strikes me as not only the behavior of people who are ignorant, but of those who truly fear what they can not understand and respond with hate. Robert Mapplethorpe’s art is a firm push against those attitudes. He was incredibly brave to not only to keep creating his work the face of all of the personal pain that he suffered, but to also present it publicly, in the face of such blatant discrimination.

  11. I think that using art was an interesting and informative way to talk about the history HIV/AIDS in the United States. While you’re right to point out that homophobia effected the way that the disease was treated (or not treated) when it was first discovered, I think it’s also important to note that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to educating the general public on the specifics of the disease, how it is spread, who is affected (everyone), etc. I also really like your post because it highlights the role that the arts have played in the AIDS epidemic since it began. Today artists are still making powerful work about their experience with HIV/AIDS. provides many good examples of this.

  12. This is a amazing post! By using Mapplethorpe’s artwork to discuss the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Luke’s comment of the politicized homophobia really highlights the issues you brought out. It is crazy to think that a government would stay quite as thousands of people died only because of their sexual orientation. Yet it happens because it does not affect them. In addition, the myths that came with it are also ridiculous. I feel by discussing the artwork and capturing the reader’s attention to bring up these sensitive topics is a fanatic way to start talking and discussing the topics.

  13. Really amazing post! I love all the connections you made. You provided such a great background on the AIDS epidemic while also intertwining these art pieces that responded to it. I agree with Kaitlin’s comments on homophobia and the understanding of AIDS even today. I think there’s still a lot of misinformation and just plain no information on this topic which can add to the homophobia that is still here today.

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