Against the Grain

Meaning and Confusion in the Photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, by Malcom S. Brodwrick

"There is a tension at the heart of Robert Mapplethorpe's art, verging on paradox, between its most distinctive content andits mode of presentation," so begins Arthur Danto's essay, Playing with the Edge. The issues revolve around the homoerotic photographs that Mapple-thorpe took in the 1970s and 1980s.
THE FOUR POLES
Four polar functions seem to cover all of nude photography: the pornographic, the erotic, the didactic and the artistic. I call these poles because any given image can be composed of combinations of these functions in varying degrees.
The pornographic image is related to its function to arouse our sexual hun­ger. The explicitness focuses our attention to those very details that constitute the depicted activity. The more explicit, the less room there is for alternative interpre­tations, the more limited is the range per­mitted to the imagination. In fact, in the extreme, this explicitness ties the image securely to the present.
The erotic image also excites our sexual fancy. The modus operandi of such images is the suggestion. The erotic image breaks the bounds of the present by im­plying a pre-image history and a post-image consequent. In other words, the erotic is anecdotal. To achieve this storytelling mode, the image cannot be so explicit that it engages our physiology directly, as does the pornographic image. Moreover to signal the anecdote, the cul­tural cues are much subtler than for the"pornograph."
The goal of a third pole of nude imagery is to inform. Photographs quite obviously have informational con­tent. Scientific renditions of the nude are meant to point out anatomic relations. In such cases the body is objectified and depersonified. The nude, or the relatively nude image, in a cultural context, has long been a tool of the anthropologist.
Let us now consider the artistic nude as the fourth pole. I suggest that the artis­tic rendition of Eros is abstract and intel­lectual, which is not to say joyless. For the formal devices of the artistic, the abstract­ed nude can be beautiful as rhythms, tex­tures, light and shade, compositional placement and complexity and the rest of the classical formalist armamentarium. And in the complex interaction of these artistic values, the erotic and the didactic (or even pornographic content) deepens, becomes thoughtful, becomes more than anecdotal, becomes philosophic, even political. The artistic nude accomplishes this transformation of Eros by emphasiz­ing the graphic qualities of the image over their content. Many are frankly deperson­alized in their lack of expression or lack of engagement. Conversely, many are frankly erotic or psychologically revealing, even voyeuristic. This last observation results from the employment of artistic means to erotic or pornographic functions asmentioned above. We rapidly oscillate in our response to such images either locked in the present, to storytelling, or to still more complex intellection.
Mapplethorpe's photographs from a formal perspective are products of the artistic pole, a result of his education. He studied fine art at the Pratt Institute. Harry McCue, his artist compatriot, claimed that "Robert was an excellent draughtsman. He had an excellent sense of line, but he could not paint at all. Color eluded him completely." And in his newly adopted "Artistic" stance, Mapplethorpe took drugs, joined the ranks of the "psy­chedelic animal house" and adopted Warhol as a role model. Then to New York where he led an exaggerated Bohe­mian existence with Patti Smith, a sen­sitive and bizarre rock poetess. During this period he created in his living space a number of sexually-oriented construc­tions combined with darker images, skulls, swastikas, religious fetishes, many in the mode of altars. He literally lived in art. Mapplethorpe was self-consciously the artist with affinities for surrealism, Dadaism and pop art.
Later under the tutelage of his mentor and lover, Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe became an avid photography collector. I would claim that Mapplethorpe's sensibilities were directly informed by formalist photographs such as Weston's vegetables or the highly posed designs such as Barbara Morgan's Martha Graham. Consider Mapplethorpe's Ajitto (1981) which seems a direct re­creation of Jean Hippolyte Flandrin's Jeune homme nu assis as bord de la mer (1835-36). In many other nude images one feels an affinity for Myron's Dis-kobolos, c. 450 BC or the Aphrodite of Kyrene. Indeed some of Mapplethorpe's last images are of statuary rendered in rather stark, and to my taste emotionally cold (not meant as a value judgment) ren­dering. The great majority of images lacks any background and contains subjects of simple, but arresting composition. One feature characteristic of the artistic nature of these images, not evident from pub­lished reproductions, is their large size and their "artistic" framing. Indeed toward the end of his brief life, Mapple­thorpe succeeded in creating large-scale platinum prints on canvas that were actu­ally confused with paintings. "I am still a snob a little bit about painting versusphotography," observes Mapplethorpe, "and I would say that it is a compliment when they call it a painting and I know it is in fact a photograph. To make pictures big is to make them more powerful."
MEANING AND CONFUSION AT THE IMAGE LEVEL
Of course it is impossible to simply generalize a set of observations over the entire output of Mapplethorpe's photog­raphy. Let us define three bodies of work: the flower images, the portraits and the homoerotic images.
Many of the homoerotic images, es­pecially those depicting sadomasochistic (s&m) activities, are frankly pornographic. The images tend to be surprisingly cold considering the subject matter. Mapple­thorpe shares the coolness, amorality and detachment of Warhol's circle. The images are more a reflection of pornography as the subject matter for the didactic pole than they are the titillation of the por­nographic pole as defined above.
These photographs are collaborations between Mapplethorpe and his friends. The subjects know they are being photo­graphed. The activities portrayed repre­sent values important to them. They are posing in illustration of themselves. They are not anonymous but are named in the photograph's title. With permission. Perhaps with pride. Mapplethorpe has been criticized for promoting impersonal­ity by cropping the head off some of his models. But Mapplethorpe explains that when his models preferred anonymity he simply cut their heads off.
For Mapplethorpe's images, stripped of the spontaneity of real life in motion, the poses take on, at least for me, the dis­passionate, matter-of-factness of the acts themselves. There is an almost Platonic quality to the registration of the ideal, simplified presentations of these acts. The negation of the physiological by the artistic and the dispassionate makes the pornographic response impossible.
Mapplethorpe described his flowers as, "having a certain edge that flowers gener-ally do not have." And "I don't know how to describe them, but I don't think they are very different from body parts." The photograph of the calla lily is a case in point. The stamen is certainly phallic, while the white petals seem vaginal. More­over the mere existence of the erotic/ pornographic images infects our inter­pretation of more neutral imagery. These photographs, Malraux would say, talk toeach other. Hence by form and by associa­tion these images take on the porngraphic pole. But, like the frankly sexual images, the flower images are utterly transformed by the artistic pole. The backgrounds are subdued; symmetry dominates the com­position; and the pictures are constructed with strong contrasts of light and dark.
Several of the images in Mapplethorpe are frankly humorous. The image of Grace Jones 1984 painted by Keith Haringtickles us with her ridiculous black-and-white body paint, her spiral breast design and her headdress that won't quit. More hilari­ous is the image of Louise Bourgeois, (1982). She holds a yard-long phallus, grinning with a most delicious, self-satisfied expression.
The portraits also preserve a strong anecdotal quality. Louise Nevelson, (1986) hovers menacingly above us, an intenseDracula-like presence. John Kendry, (1975) is half-cropped on the extreme left. Above him electrical sockets and wires seem to menace. A pensive William Burroughs (1980) sits hunched over in thought. Of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson,(1976) Barthes says, "Wilson holds me, though I cannot say why, i.e., say where: is it the eyes, the skin, the position of the hands, the track of the shoes? The effect is cer­tainly unlocateable, it does not find its sign, its name; it is sharp and yet lands in a vague zone of myself. It is acute yet muffled, it cries out in silence." And Andy Warhol, (1986) presents a blank stare directly addressed to us with a frame in the form of a cross, "part saint, part Wizard of Oz," says Morrisroe.
When asked if his images were pornographic or if they had some other redeeming social value, Mapplethorpe replied, "I think it could be pornography still have redeeming social value. It can be both, which is my whole point in doing it — to have all the elements of pornogra­phy and yet have a structure of lighting that makes it go beyond what it is." And this brings us to recall that the images are highly stylized and highly artistic.
Mapplethorpe's use of simplified compositions, often stark contrast of light and dark and a sculptural quality, inform his work. Consider the symmetry of Ken Moody, (1983) in which a hairless black man is shown eyes closed, with no expres­sion, the contemplative Buddha. The paired bald heads of Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, (1984) in its starkness and parallel juxtaposition recalls a pair of marble busts. One set of images features close-ups of the body, often difficult to read (reminiscent of Stieglitz abstract horse image). For example Nipple, (1988) looks like some bizarre topography or an abstract painting; here image merges into pure design. That high art should be put to the service of rendering pornographymay seem surprising. "I think I was the first to really approach sexuality with an eye for lighting and composition and all the other considerations relative to a work of art." And "I recorded it from the inside ... I guess all photographers are in a sense voyeurs. But I don't like voyeurs, people who don't experience the experience, who view life from the outside," asserts Mapplethorpe. But his was an approach with dangers. "I was in a position then when I was relating pretty strongly to that form of sexuality, I felt that I could get something out of that experience that no one else had done before. It wasnew territory without any rules." And "I don't think anyone understands sexuality. What's it about? It's about an unknown,which is why it's so exciting."
EMBLEMS OF BEAUTY
It wasn't until the 19705 that a greater acceptance of homosexuality developed and sexual prohibitions somewhat lifted. This was the background that made Map­plethorpe's images possible. But even so, he operated at the boundaries of accept­ability. Beside the purely pictorial beauty of the photographs, Barthes finds in Mapplethorpe's Young Man with Arm Extended the "... absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together. This boy with his arm outstretched, his radiantsmile, though his beauty is in no way clas­sical or academic, and though he is half out of the photograph, shifted to theextreme left of the frame, incarnates a kind of blissful eroticism."
On the other hand, Ellenzweig finds that the ideal, as exemplified in some of Mapplethorpe's images, embodies fascistmetaphors: "... a preoccupation with situ­ations of control, submissive behavior ... and the endurance of pain ... Its choreog­raphy alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, Virile" posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death." And though Mapplethorpe's model in Patrice may not be done up in strict SS regalia,nevertheless his black leather jacket and jockstrap, as well as the "virile" stance he adopts at the photographer's direction,allude to the S&M mythology of the SS and its uniforms, or what Sontag terms "fascism's overt assertion of the righteous­ness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior."
CONFUSION OF MEANING AT THE SOCIO­POLITICAL LEVEL: THE PERFECT MOMENT
Towards what was to be the end of Mapplethorpe's life and contrary to his expectation, his ship came in. Following the Whitney retrospective, he sold several million dollars worth of prints and was flooded with opportunities to exhibit, ironic because with his illness he was unable to spend the money. Howard Read pointed out that, "We had a huge run-up in sales. It was like Wall Street, except in this case people were buying against death...." It was in this era of positivity that the University of Penn­sylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art mounted the 150-piece retrospective called the Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. The show featured three portfolio's, X, Y and Z. The former con­tained the notorious sadomasochistic images. The show was exhibited without incident in Philadelphia and then Chi­cago. In April 1989 the Reverend Donald Wildmon sent a letter to every member of Congress complaining of Serrano's Piss Christ. The result was that 36 senators signed a letter calling for changes in the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The Perfect Moment was to go to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The director, Christina Orr-Cahall, amid rumors first affirmed the show and then caved in to political pressure, claiming that by closing the show they were really protecting the artist. The show was moved into The Washing­ton Project for the Arts, a venue run by artists. In September 1989 Orr-Cahall expressed regrets over offending the arts community and subsequently resigned in December. The Perfect Momenthad been shown in Hartford and Berkeley with little incident. In April 1990, the show opened in Cincinnati at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) and the director, Dennis Barrie, was arrested on obscenity charges. Ironically, as a result of the notoriety, The Perfect Moment show drew the largest crowds in the museum's history. The CAC and Barrie were acquitted in October.
The reactions of the various players leading up to, and following these events illustrate how the four poles of meaning were confused. Each social group had its set of biases which determined the weights assigned to the different poles. The confusion results from a failure to attend the various poles in terms of their social contexts. The politicians, the artists, and the critics are each guilty of this shortcoming. Their responses are merely the logical working out of these biases in the public arena.
The art critic community also misread Mapplethorpe. On the one hand critics treated Mapplethorpe more generously when he was seriously ill. One's artistic judgment became inextricably bound to the more extreme S&M images and there­fore reflected political and sexual biases. The critics were even confused by genre issues: "In addition, since he straddled the territory between photography and other art forms, he was never accepted by the straight photography world of Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander or William Eggleston, nor was he fully at home in the world of contemporary painting and sculpture." Thus even with­in the arts community, the fragmentation of identity associated with the different working procedures tended to isolate Mapplethorpe as an outsider.

Malcolm Brodwick is a poet, composer and associate professor of physiology and biophysics at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.

Top