Mapplethorpe-gate: fighting disguised censorship and false moralism

Ana Leorne
4 min readNov 14, 2019

Western society has a particular way of dealing with what it considers to be delicate matters in public space, notably those deriving from sexual representations, while inexplicably preferring to turn a blind eye when the issue deals with openly violent content (which in the North American case extends to a more thorough menace to one’s physical integrity). However, when an institution of public utility, whose central goal is to serve the people it represents, proclaims they are acting on everybody’s best interest by forbidding access to culture or knowledge in any way, that is simply called censorship. Frustration regarding this type of action becomes increasingly visible and launches a bigger debate when we realise a multiple standard is commonly used to implement such measures.

This has been recently brought to the art world’s attention in general and the Portuguese public in particular due to last week’s incidents around the opening of a retrospective exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic work at Serralves museum, in Oporto. Although the institution’s creative director João Ribas had previously stated to Público newspaper that there would be no “censorship, partially-covered pieces, special rooms, or any sort of restriction to visitors motivated by age,” adding that only a disclaimer would be placed at the exhibition’s entry to warn the public that certain content might hurt some visitors’ susceptibilities, mere days before the inauguration Ribas unexpectedly resigned from his position, arguing that not only there were areas with limited access to minors against his will but also that he had been asked to remove twenty photos from it altogether — declarations to which the museum’s administration has since then responded to, saying this had resulted from Ribas’ own decision.

Whichever fingers are currently being pointed regarding responsibility for the way Mapplethorpe’s exhibition was eventually presented to the audience, Ribas’ resignation brought light to an everlasting debate regarding age classification of art shows and other manifestations of the kind; the Portuguese law is utter vague about the matter, non-existent even, since the broader article 23/2014 only refers to theatre, music, dance, film, circus, and — last but not least — bullfighting. It’s this last part that represents one of the major incongruences of any type of restriction (which should be done in the person’s best interest, and ONLY in the case of them being unable to decide for themselves, i.e. a child), since bullfighting is open to the general public from age 12 — or even 4, if accompanied by an adult. Institutions of a country that considers animal torture not only legal but appropriate for children have ultimately no moral whatsoever to forbid access to certain parts of an art exhibit due to its sexual nature — moreover, in a brave new internet world where pre-adolescents have access to images and videos of a much more explicit content on a daily basis, and usually without supervision.

False morality regarding sex has been notoriously harder to fight in countries with a strong religious background — which in the Portuguese case adds to forty years of a dictatorship with censorship mechanisms — but its principles become even more inconsistent when juxtaposed to a daily reality of non-disclaimed TV violence, exploitation and over-sexualisation of the female body through mass media, and a constitution that still allows for animals to be publicly tortured for the audience’s viewing pleasure — and calling it “culture”.

This being said, Ribas’ resignation and subsequent visibility of a silent crisis that had been bubbling under Serralves’ most recent administration may be a valuable trigger to bring back this debate to the public space: who decides what can be seen or not, and under which circumstances? Who participates in those decisions? How coherent (or not) are the current laws regarding children’s protection from sensitive content, and in what way are they being enforced? And finally, what role does culture play in exposing the upper-mentioned imposed limitations, and how hard are we willing to fight for the removal of a centuries-old morality blindfold — the same one behind Daniele da Volterra’s cover-up of Michelangelo’s nudes following the Council of Trento?

We must take moments like this to think for ourselves and reflect on our role in building a better society, free from outdated mores and senseless prohibitions. With public education among the first casualties of an economic crisis, freedom of speech that doesn’t fall into hate-driven discourses increasingly rarifies, and it’s our duty to make sure such relevant issues keep being brought to the public eye and thoroughly discussed to prevent future attacks to an inclusive, full-functioning world.

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Ana Leorne

Paris-based trilingual music writer. fingers in other pies include film, psychology, history, politics, social dynamics, gender issues, tarot and astrology.