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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Robert Mapplethorpe, Philly Police Entrapment, Fireworks and The Oval

ICON Magazine City Beat August 2013

At the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Sensing Change preview (July 2013-May 2014), we not only learned what happens when artists and scientists investigate the environment but we were also reminded what can happen when art and politics collide. Fellow Sensing Change traveler Kathy Foster (Senior Curator of American Art, PMA) introduced us to Judith Tannenbaum, Associate Director of Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art during the Robert Mapplethorpe, The Perfect Moment exhibition (December 1988-January 1989). The ICA retrospective included 175 Mapplethorpe photographs of flowers, orchids and nude S and M gay male bondage images. We attended the 1988 exhibit and recall the long lines then especially the families with children who seemed as blasé as Please Touch Museum goers. Fresh from a showing at the Whitney Museum in New York, The Perfect Moment accumulated rave reviews before heading off to the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center where there was an implosion. Nine members of a Congressional Grand Jury entered the exhibit on opening day and issued indictments to the CAC and its director, Dennis Barrie. Cincinnati police closed the museum but not before ticket holders chanted slogans and hounded the cops with boos. Although a court action voided the closure, the exhibit’s third destination, the Corcoran Galley of Art in Washington D.C, never materialized thanks to a Jesse Helms imitative that threatened to end National Endowment for the Arts funding. The Corcoran, caving into pressure, cancelled The Perfect Moment, an action Foster says she found so cowardly she had no choice but to write a letter of protest to the Corcoran powers that be. Tannenbaum, meanwhile, was quoted in the national press, as saying “We are in the middle of a national political battle,” an understatement to be sure although much less so today thanks to men and women of her caliber. But while obscenity in art may no longer raise high the roof beams, the totalitarian urge to legislate morality still runs high in a society that purports to be “advanced” in many ways.

Consider, for instance, the recent Philadelphia police entrapment procedures against 6 johns in the Kensington area. While we’re sure that none of the sassy, gum smacking female officers posing as under-the-El hookers would recognize the name Mapplethorpe, we wonder if they felt a pang of conscience knowing the whole thing was a ruse just to rack up arrest numbers. Isn’t this called entrapment? What’s worse, the PPD notified the press (Icon not included) to be on hand for some great photo ops as the still-shaken arrestees were marched to the fingerprinting table. Philly’s DA, Seth Williams, a devout Catholic, is said to be eager to beef up his john school so that these men can be taught the value of monogamy and the danger of STD’s. In an age when people are gunned down in Old City after a night of clubbing, does an “illicit” orgasm under the El really matter? Never mind that a john school conjures up images of undergrads in bow ties being taught by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, or heady lectures (sic) by reformed prostitutes (in San Francisco they’re called sex workers) mouthing the au courant line that prostitution always exploits women—except, perhaps, when these same women are in dire need of food or money. We may be naïve, but we thought that Philly Vice was a thing of the past. Sgt. Joe Lanciano of Citywide Vice told that he had every right to arrest the johns, via entrapment, because, well, “This is not a victimless crime.” In Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, two and two equals five…

We met internationally renowned photographer Tony Ward at the Philadelphia Sketch Club’s annual Photography 2013 exhibit. Ward, the author of six books like Orgasm (2002) and Obsession (1998) once sold one of his prints in Paris for $18,000. Ward, as the exhibit’s Juror, had to pair down 208 submissions to a slim 118. While Best of Show winner was Bruce Kravetz, one of the artists selected, Tom McKean, a Chester Springs native, can trace his roots back to Thomas McKean (1734-1817), a delegate to the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Meeting McKean, we were taken aback at the uncanny resemblance between him and Thomas, so we were not surprised that McKean’s entry, Obama Rally (which did not win any prizes) had a political theme. We were glad that McKean didn’t take the easy way out and photograph a nude woman. It’s not that we don’t love nude women, but considering that so many of the photographs on display were just that, it got us thinking that Philly could use a Robert Mapplethorpe of its own. Great photography is gender variant photography: old women, young women, amputees, men and old men——not only Penthouse centerfolds or the photographer’s girlfriend. The absence of male nudes was conspicuous, causing us to wonder if the absence had something to do with the quirky biases of Philly photographers. We asked Ward about this and he said what we expected him to say: “These are the submissions we received,” though he agreed with us that that maybe the conservative tenor of the city is to blame. He did point out the existence of one male nude on the far side of the room, but it was a sorry consolation prize and didn’t measure up to the old days of ICA and Judith Tannenbaum.

We’re glad the 4th of July is over, because there’s nothing more depressing than the sound of fireworks going off five days in a row. But while fireworks may be loud and disruptive, the latest craze to hit America is even more annoying: historic battle reenactments. Fed up with at home video war games, adolescently-stunted adult men are not only reenacting the Battle of Gettysburg (it was the 150th anniversary this year), but every war under the American umbrella, including Vietnam. While the sight of grown men feigning gunshot wounds or bullets in the head and then moaning in agony might be some folks’ idea of “history coming alive,” to us it’s just plain silly. To duplicate war accurately there must be blood and guts aplenty, blown off heads, empty eye sockets as well as loin and genital pulverization. Oh yes, and don’t forget the animal slaughter and the aromatic smells of body parts. It’s scary to think that the same overgrown boys who brought us Gettysburg and Revolutionary War stagings are now trying to bring Vietnam to the backyards of rural and suburban America. In Ithaca, New York recently a regiment of self-proclaimed Vietnam War reenactors were rushed out of town when they kidnapped a local girl because “Charlie” was coming, and when they raided a local nursing home, filled with real Viet Nam vets, claiming that the Commie’s were on a nearby hill.

The business of constant busyness has invaded the once sedate, Parisian atmosphere of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Where once it was fashionable to lounge on benches, or sit under a random tree, now it will become mandatory to use your time constructively. Philadelphia Parks and Recreation has announced a new plan for Eakins Oval, the section of the Parkway closest to the museum. In place of Proustian reverie, there will be programs like art classes, a kite bonanza, storytelling sessions, fire prevention lessons with real fire trucks, as well as bicycle riding lessons for adults, sandboxes, and a beer garden (good). In addition, there will be yoga classes for six week old precrawlers (“Moms will need to bring a yoga mat”), and yoga for seniors. Add to the list chess tournaments, claymation demonstrations and Ferko String band struts, and you have a mini vacation rolled up into a tiny city space. With all this busyness, where does one go to relax? Relax as in sit by a waterfall and do nothing; relax as in sit in a park without feeling the urge to jog or work up a sweat prior to the work week with its own sweat rites. At the Oval’s opening ceremonies, Mayor Nutter, in his Lacoste best, joined other city brass in dark suits. They chatted amongst themselves, making us think of a Masonic picnic. “What’s your take on this?” we asked a local artist, busy munching on an iced Mango pop. “You know, it’s all rather ambiguous,” he said. “Why can’t an oval be just an oval?”

The summer’s top art draw is The Art of Jerry Pinkney (June 28-Sept. 22, 2013) at the Perelman Building. By all means catch these illustrations of lions, mice and a look inside Gustav Mahler’s head. Pinkney’s world is a one way ticket to childhood, especially the Little Red Riding Hood series in which the male wolf dresses as a granny and can be a stand in for a slightly darker world. At the Pickney preview we had hot dogs and wine and spotted a thoroughly animated Timothy Rub in a rare social moment, laughing it up like we used to see Anne d’Harnoncourt do in more carefree days.