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The Unexamined Life

Sharing a spread with this picture is “Richard, N.Y.C., 1978,” which is likewise calculated to shred all the niceties of critical palaver. It shows a penis and testicles lashed cruciform to a board, no more and no less. The viewer here is simultaneously pushed into outer darkness and forced to experience vicarious pain, a palliative middle distance being only marginally achievable by dryly considering the relative textures of wood, metal, cord, pubic hair, and stretched, blood-engorged, capillary-striated skin. Good luck.

Here as elsewhere, it is difficult to assess just how Mapplethorpe intends his title to be taken. Danto founds his case for Mapplethorpe on the principle of consent—that Mapplethorpe was not a voyeur like Gary Winogrand or a stalker (his word) like Cartier-Bresson or a betrayer of confidences like Diane Arbus. This is true enough; all his published pictures feature fully informed models who signed releases, and all that they depict was carefully staged (they are not photographs of sex, but of sexual displays). But Danto cites Winogrand’s kamikaze shots of nameless women on the street as products of a predatory tactic that is tantamount to rape-by-lens (neglecting to mention that Winogrand operated identically when photographing society people, ranchers, politicians, writers, cars, lampposts, parking lots), and contrasts their heartless anonymity with Mapplethorpe’s respect for his subjects as demonstrated by his titles:

Even when all we are shown is a nude torso, cropped, like that of Lydia Cheng, at the knee and neck, so that the body looks altogether impersonal, it is given an identity and an owner: it is the body of a particular woman who consented to be shown nude.

Perhaps this is so, although it is disconcerting that of all the many pictures he took of Lydia Cheng, not one shows her face (according to Morrisroe, he thought her Asian facial features would be distracting). When it comes to his pictures of individual precincts of male anatomy, the message seems more deliberately mixed. A penis can be simply “Cock,” or it can be “Lou” (according credit to its namesake for the hair-raising feat of inserting his little finger past the first knuckle into his urethra), or it can be “Mark Stevens” (a celebrity phallus). Or it can be “Richard,” which seems to mean (besides any considerations of the fact that Richard might not want his face and his tortured member to appear in the same shot, although he is proud of it) that Richard is equivalent to his trussed penis, that his spirit resides within it, that he is thereby exceptional among the endless parade of nameless meat in the back room.

There is cruelty in this assignment, and there is humor, too. Mapplethorpe is seldom given credit for being funny, but the self-parody of “Egg-plant, 1985,” in which that dark vegetable is posed in chiaroscuro, whipped by the shadows of a venetian blind, is hard to miss. And “Man in Polyester Suit, 1980” (an instance in which anonymity was granted at the urgent request of the model, whose name Morrisroe helpfully supplies) is not simply a portrait of a massive penis protruding from an open fly; it is also—in its carefully neutral lighting and its subject’s artificial pose, quarter-angled, arms bent just slightly—a parody of men’s fashion photography of the Sears catalog school. Mapplethorpe’s humor is perhaps also evident in his pictures of flowers. When his flowers are not resembling “body parts,” in his phrase, they are strident, overbearing art objects, as if their own beauty had been deemed insufficient and some industrial order of beauty imposed on them.

On the whole, Mapplethorpe’s quest for perfection serves him best when it steers him away from beauty. His sex pictures include some stunningly lit anatomical features and regions and some strikingly plastic poses, but most of the strongest photographs among them are singularly unbeautiful, even allowing for differences of taste. Their harshness, which seems so jarringly at odds with Mapplethorpe’s habitual refinement and elegance, demands explanation. The key is provided by the notion named by Barthes and taken up as the title of that circulating retrospective. It is “the perfect moment” that is the quarry of these pictures—not the point of orgasm, which the deliberately posed subjects of the pictures may or may not be about to experience, but an analogous feeling occurring within the photographer, in his function as photographer. This is an ocular and cerebral version of sex, requiring its objects to be visually aggressive but physically out of reach, the feeling Mapplethorpe got from pornography as a teenager and attempted to reproduce all his life. Harsh lighting, squalid settings, even imperfect bodies are erogenously specific, not only as sadomasochist totems but because they represent the contrary of Mapplethorpe’s taste.

The viewer is doubly a voyeur, not only looking at the scene depicted but also witnessing Mapplethorpe’s ambivalent role in the proceedings. Mapplethorpe’s attraction to what he shows hinges on the danger emanating from the scene, which might be a pantomime danger in physical terms but represents a real threat to the delicate side of his personality. Like the macho laws enforced in his youth by all males beginning with his father and brother, sadomasochism laughs at his frailty, his sensitivity, his unerring good taste—he will have to conform to its requirement of toughness or be destroyed. In photographing sadomasochist displays he is submitting to the S&M aesthetic against his own aesthetic inclinations, and he wants to be seen thus submitting himself, being in a sense destroyed.

But just as no sadist can help also being a masochist, and vice versa, so these pictures are two-bladed knives. Mapplethorpe wants both to thrust the scene upon a viewer as cultivated as himself and make that viewer submit, and to expose the scene to a viewer tougher than himself and have that viewer, in turn, judge and ideally condemn Mapplethorpe’s own shortcomings in its light. The pictures do not show sex as much as they enact it, locating the act in the exchange between the photographer and whoever looks at his work. The viewer is pressed into service as proxy partner, top and bottom at once. The reactions of Jesse Helms and his ilk would no doubt have given Mapplethorpe satisfaction—their horror only proves that he succeeded in getting them into bed with him. But no one, at least nowadays, can fail to react strongly to these pictures. Everyone who gives them more than a glance, like it or not, is drawn in by them, and the circularity of the exchange is so polished and smooth it exemplifies Mapplethorpe’s highest formal standards.

When he set about depicting easily understandable beauty, however, he tended to glaze it, in fact to beautify it. Like his flowers, his male nudes are astounding physical specimens. In their case, too, he exerted himself so much in showing them to advantage that it might seem as if he were frustrated being merely their photographer and wished to be their maker as well. The critic Peter Schjeldahl, in a review reprinted in his book 7 Days Columns, 1988–1990, locates the exact center of Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic:

Hunger craves union; taste demands distance. Mapplethorpe pushes these opposed terms to excruciating extremes, creating a magnetic field. His work is not about gratification, either sexual or aesthetic. Elegance spoils it as pornography, and avidity wrecks it as fashion. It is about a strenuously maintained state of wanting.

There is no denying that this tension between hunger and taste in Mapplethorpe engendered beautiful objects. The skin tones are lush, deep, rich, almost surreally tangible, conveying the precise degree of density and resistance between skin and bone. He makes luxurious compositions of whole or segmented bodies set against teasingly contrasted backdrops. Even the dullest celebrities are rendered mysterious and profound in his portraits by the unyielding blackness or tender dove-gray in which he shrouded them. But all of this is craft, skill, artfulness rather than art. Too often Mapplethorpe’s hunger chooses the subject (which in the case of celebrities is celebrity itself), and then his taste sanctifies it. Only when his desire out-distances or befuddles or subverts his taste is he able to make a picture that is more than a beautiful vessel.

His yearning to escape from his internal knots is most poignantly visible in his self-portraits. In his 1983 masquerade as a knife-wielding street tough he looks so feeble as to evoke protective feelings in viewers; he seems more fierce in his 1980 drag pictures. He is an elegant and faintly dangerous roué wearing dinner clothes in 1986, and a ridiculous fop in white tie holding a submachine gun and posed under a pentagram in 1983. It is as the devil, though, that he is most at ease with his shortcomings. “Satan” or “the devil” was for Mapplethorpe what it is for many ex-Catholics, a name and a rather dashing figure with which to clothe a principle, that of the inversion of one’s moral indenture. He made a great deal of it, was reportedly given to uttering “Do it for Satan” as a kind of sexual toast, and fooled with satanic imagery from late adolescence onward. He makes an impetuous young sprite wearing horns as late as 1985, and a glowering, remote dweller of darkness clutching a skull-headed cane in his last self-portrait, from 1988, when he knew that death was at hand. But it is in the 1978 picture of himself wearing leather chaps and vest, fingering a bullwhip protruding from his anus, that he came closest to manifesting his own ideal. The picture is gleeful; he has managed to embody menace and joke-menace in a single gesture, to shock the spectator and to laugh at himself simultaneously.

Mapplethorpe’s work rebuffs piety, disdains analysis, sneers at understanding, snarls at interpretation, demands silent esteem, which some of it deserves. The cloud of contention that currently hovers over his work obscures its weaknesses and its strengths alike. Eventually the front will pass, and in the clearing many of his photographs will probably appear most notable as artifacts of the complicated and fascinating time in which they were made, certainly a nobler fate than to wind up as mere décor, which is another possibility for them. Besides the portraits of Patti Smith, the pictures most likely to remain standing are the very ones that set off the uproar, the darkest, most difficult of the sex pictures. It is no accident that those two areas of exception should have provided his strongest work.

Right now the sex pictures seem to present mainstream culture with an unscalable wall. Some of them will not be assimilable for a long time, but probably fewer will resist assimilation than anyone thinks at the moment. As unlikely as it might seem, they are even now creating the climate for their eventual acceptance, or if not acceptance then at least a blasé unconcern. After all, cultural taboos have in the past century tended to collapse not long after a furious battle for their maintenance was apparently won, since the resulting exposure and publicity inoculated the population against any possible shock, and eventually eroded fear.

Soon “Joe, N.Y.C., 1978,” a cartoon sea creature in his black rubber body suit, enema hose sticking out of the mask, will not look out of place in the boardroom that also displays a Hans Bellmer doll; the bullwhip self-portrait will fit nicely into the paneled library alongside etchings by Félicien Rops. There will always be people who will claim that morals are somehow at stake, as well as advocates of bland tolerance and solemn universality, all of them in their diverse ways trying to hose down art, but they will inevitably be bested in this task by the culture’s boundless capacity for indifferent absorption. This leveling process might deflate the shock factor of Mapplethorpe’s darkest pictures, but then it will have the benefit of allowing most people to look at them, rather than look away. The initial shock merely blinds, but the disturbance that comes with looking is rather more substantial.

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