The Unexamined Life


edited and designed by Mark Holborn and Dimitri Levas, essay by Arthur C. Danto
Random House, 382 pp., $125.00


by Robert Mapplethorpe, essay by Edmund White
Random House, 128 pp., $100.00

Mapplethorpe: A Biography

by Patricia Morrisroe
Random House, 461 pp., $27.50

Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera

by Jack Fritscher Ph.D.
Hastings House, 316 pp., $24.95

Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe

by Arthur C. Danto
University of California Press, 194 pp., $24.95

Robert Mapplethorpe’s work is difficult to see, which is not the same thing as saying it is difficult to look at. It is certainly not difficult to view; in the six and a half years that have elapsed since Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS at the age of forty-two, it has gotten much more diffusion and publicity than it ever did during his life. But that publicity is itself one of the major reasons his work is now so difficult to see. A tangled foliage of appended context, of headlines, slogans, editorials, legal and moral and political judgments, has arisen to obstruct the sight. During his life, Mapplethorpe’s photographs were judged, for better or worse, on their own merits. Since his death, or more specifically since four months so after his death, when a series of events shrouded his work in controversy and publicity, his photographs have become symbols or symptoms, even for their admirers.

Mapplethorpe went to his grave an esteemed photographer, famous in the art world if not widely known outside it, lightly but not uncomfortably notorious for his depictions of sado-masochistic practices. The Perfect Moment, a traveling retrospective of his work, had at the time of his death, on March 9, 1989, been circulating for four months. It might then have been expected that the exhibit and its catalog would constitute his principal public memorial, even if scholars would produce the eventual monographs and perhaps a biography would appear somewhere down the road. But then the landscape changed entirely. Fearing an outcry, the director of the Corcoran Gallery, the show’s venue in Washington, D. C., canceled its appearance two weeks before the opening on July 1. Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, destroyed a copy of its catalog on the Senate floor. The following April, after having been shown without incident in Hartford and Berkeley. The Perfect Moment was closed by the police in Cincinnati, and the sponsoring museum and its director were indicted for pandering obscenity and child pornography. By then, Mapplethorpe had become known to everyone within range of a television set, although less as an artist than as a shibboleth.

The fruits of this unintended surge of fame are evidenced in various ways by the current harvest of books about him. Mapplethorpe, published in 1992, a collection of his black-and-white photographs much more lavish than the exhibit catalog, has been succeeded by Altars, an equally sumptuous if necessarily thinner compilation of his less profuse work in color, and the former’s critical essay, by Arthur Danto, has been published as a separate book, Playing with the Edge. Patricia Morrisroe’s Mapplethorpe, meanwhile, is the authorized biography and a point of entry for the curious and the perplexed. And Jack Fritscher’s Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera is a personal memoir, a polemic, and several other things besides.

The great differences among these books, at least among the three texts, begin to suggest the width of the divide across which Mapplethorpe’s name has been flung. If Mapplethorpe…

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