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HBO's Fetish for Mapplethorpe

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

HBO shocked the world on April 4 by unveiling a 100-minute documentary honoring the legacy and legislative career of Sen. Jesse Helms.

Kidding -- delayed April fool. It did, though, feature Senator Helms as a villain in a 100-minute documentary honoring the life and art of Robert Mapplethorpe, the infamous anti-Christian, penis-obsessed purveyor of sadomasochistic black-and-white photography.

This defines the ideological and anti-religious sensibilities of HBO: It celebrates those who upset Christian conservatives (and conservative Christians) most. The idea that this perverted sex maniac is a significant historical figure is laughable -- you can't watch the parade of penis pictures and fisting photos in the documentary and argue otherwise. His greatest achievement is the depth of his perversity.

So it's only natural that the selectively clipped sound bites of "villainous" Helms at the beginning and the end are the only conservative critiques that appear. Producer-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, best known for creating the reality show "RuPaul's Drag Race" on the Logo TV channel, were natural Mapplethorpe promoters. After watching the documentary, a reviewer at The Washington Post noted the filmmakers seemed most interested in focusing on the "clinical deification that has visited Mapplethorpe's life and work" in the years since Helms denounced him.

In an interview with the International Documentary Association, Bailey happily quoted critic Simon Doonan's description of their production house, World of Wonder, as "a rank, twisted Bauhaus of perverse creativity, dedicated to celebrating everything which is squalid and marginal. ... I wish them continued success in their quest to spotlight the beauty that resides in the gutter."

You get the point. They are guilty of several obvious exclusions in this film -- so obvious as to be deliberate. First, while they revel in the obscenity trial over a Mapplethorpe exhibit that premiered in Cincinnati after he died, they never note or show two of the photographs that exposed small children's genitals. They were "Jesse McBride," featuring a young boy posing naked on a chair, and "Rosie," showing a 4-year-old girl seated in a dress with no underpants, her legs bent revealing her genitals. How can the appeal to pedophiles not be addressed?

Mapplethorpe's Catholic sensibilities are highlighted, but it becomes clear that describing his work as Catholic in any way is bizarre. One expert tried to suggest that Catholic rituals are echoed in sadomasochism. But Mapplethorpe was as Catholic as Hitler was Jewish.

HBO shows Father George Stack, the Mapplethorpe's family priest during his childhood in Queens, who suggests that Mapplethorpe was morally conflicted between the angels and the devils. At least that suggestion was rebutted in the film by Mapplethorpe's former lover, Jack Fritscher, who revealed: "Satan, to him, was not this evil monster; Satan was like a convivial playmate." However, Mapplethorpe also wrote to Fritscher, admitting: "I want to see the devil in us all. That's my real turn-on."

HBO also seriously sidestepped what caused Helms to berate Mapplethorpe and his perverted images. Why did the National Endowment for the Arts, funded by millions of taxpayers who never shared Mapplethorpe's exotic views of sexuality, feel the need to subsidize exhibits promoting this pornographer's work and life?

The NEA was supporting a cultural crusade to insist that flyover country needed to fund pornographic art as an educational exercise in broadening the horizons of respectable and "iconic" art. Public opinion didn't matter; the public must be propagandized into submission to the cultural left. This was Helms' complaint, and it was a good one. To withhold the context is a form of character assassination.

This whole spectacle -- the bias by commission and omission -- presents quite a summation of HBO's shamelessness. Go to HBO's online app to see all of Mapplethorpe's filthiest pictures. Stay for their new episodes of "Sesame Street."

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