The Radicalism and Regressiveness of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Obsession with Beauty

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Noting the more reductive interpretations of Robert Mapplethorpe’s legacy, the Washington Post describes the photographer as “a patron saint of free expression and gay rights.” One can understand why. He was an artist whose work took a bullwhip to oppressive sexual mores, and his homoerotic photographs are radical in much the same way that public sex was in Stonewall-era gay culture: the isolated act is more a matter of personal pleasure than societal impact, but it instigated cultural change through its inherent resistance to the forces that policed it.

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (which premieres tonight on HBO; Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey caught it at Sundance) and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive the immense and informative catalog of acquisitions by LACMA and the Getty museum that was just released — let readers and viewers in on attempts to piece together the persona of the socially crucial and aesthetically masterful artist. But they certainly don’t do so through narrowly hagiographic depictions.

Beyond showcasing his iconoclasm, boldness, charm, and polished candor, the book and film present accounts (some from those who, like Mapplethorpe’s brother Edward or ex-lover Marcus Leatherdale, are transparently bitter) of his apolitical stance, narcissism, opportunism, and superficiality — and the ways these made the artist’s dealings with subjects like race especially fraught. His overarching classicist obsession with physical beauty and perfection simultaneously problematizes his work and also, in a way, keeps him vital in a world now oversaturated with less beautiful images of sex.

The book compiled through the Getty archive notes that Mapplethorpe said “he would have chosen Carrera marble as his medium if he’d lived in the Renaissance.” Both the catalog and the film highlight the way he treated his subjects as sculptures, exalting and expanding understanding of the human experience by very stunningly reducing it. Mapplethorpe’s upbringing was heavily Catholic, but his predilections certainly weren’t, and so he ended up applying the grand, dramatic, and sobering aesthetic of the former to the latter. “There’s something very religious about [the ritualism of] sadomasochism — it’s basically like mass,” says the writer Bob Colacello in the film.

Unlike the work of such artists as John Waters and Paul Morrissey — who around the same time publicized queer life within a “trash” aesthetic — Mapplethorpe’s imagery had a complex relationship to bourgeois viewers insofar as it commandeered the very bourgeois ideal of palatable beauty. To the disdain of many, his photographs assaulted their audience with images of shunned sexual practices depicted not as repulsive or filthy, but with the same air of breathtaking perfection as Greek sculpture. “I never consider sex being dirty,” says Mapplethorpe, with a transgressive nonchalance, in the film.

The photographs from his simply and aptly titled “X Portfolio” remain some of his most interesting, even decades removed from the controversy they sparked. A photo of a fist disappearing into an anus, a photo of a pinky disappearing into a urethra, and that infamous self-portrait with a bullwhip becoming Mapplethorpe’s tail via penetration were all used by Republicans like Senators Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato to attack the NEA in 1989 for supporting the artist’s upcoming exhibition. (The attack would result in the denigrating quote — “Look at the pictures!”— which the documentary repurposes as positive for its title.)

Look at the Pictures shows footage of these images when they traveled to Cincinnati in 1990 — and the facial expressions of museum patrons, caught between disgust and desire. Literally harnessing what was considered beautiful in Western art, Mapplethorpe made it hard for people to turn away. Not only do his images depict shocking acts, but they depict them as shockingly beautiful. And it’s that invasion of beauty ideals propagated throughout art history that makes the photos all the more confrontational: you’re lured in through their perfectionist, deified beauty, only to end up staring at the anuses. The penetration, vulnerability, and perceived emasculation of the portraits feel like weapons wielded against sexual norms that would frame as ugly the desire they capture.

Calla Lily, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1988

In the documentary, Mapplethorpe mentions that there’s a sense of humor to his work; the fact that he was just as passionate a photographer of flowers as he was of gay sex is a testament to both this humor and the gravity with which he imbued the geometries of desire. At one point, the film features footage of his father, who rejected much of Mapplethorpe’s work, equivocally saying, “He did a beautiful job on the flowers.” The implicit joke is that the flowers alone might be benign enough for an elderly man to hang on his wall, but they exist in the same (if not in an even more heightened) realm of hypersexuality as the rest of Mapplethorpe’s images. The flowers often look more “pornographic” than any of the artist’s gaping anuses.

These otherwise innocuous signifiers of universally accepted beauty wouldn’t have seemed libidinally charged unless they were part of an oeuvre teeming with the dicks and butts that made people so mad. The way the genitalia sexualizes the flowers — which are, of course, naturally sexual too — speaks to the ways society instilled human sexuality with shame while normalizing and beautifying plant sexuality. We send bouquets of plant genitalia to the ailing, use it to decorate weddings and funerals, cover our lawns in it, make it so regular that we forget how flowers parallel the element of human existence we must so often keep hidden.

This is one of the many ways the beauty of Mapplethorpe’s work was a wonderful affront to the era out of which it emerged. Especially during the Reagan administration, gay sexuality was seen as not only wrong, but diseased, even as said disease was widely ignored by those with power in the country. (Mapplethorpe himself ultimately died of AIDS related causes in 1989.)

Today, the beauty of Mapplethorpe’s work has almost an opposite effect to the one it must have had in the ’70s and ’80s. Rather than invading chaste beauty norms with phalluses and anuses, it now invades pornographic norms with beauty. Though surely not everyone in today’s America has become desensitized to images of, say, fisting or enema tubes strapped to people’s mouths, BDSM culture (for better and for worse) has become mainstreamed by the likes of Fifty Shades. Gay sex is no longer policed to the legal and cultural extent that it was. And hardcore sex, in general, has become so pervasive through the Internet that very few sex acts can shock at least those of us who aren’t holding back out of religious obligation.

But the beauty of the sex acts in Mapplethorpe’s photos continues to shock, for it now read as an affront to our desensitization to pornographic images. Internet porn has generally failed to transcend its utilitarian purpose; seeing the strikingly simple, sculptural compositions of the sex acts in Mapplethorpe’s images makes them just as mesmeric and puzzling now as they were in the past.

At the same time, the beauty of Mapplethorpe’s work raises some questions today about the overarching presence of the superficial within and around it. The photographer’s own career, as it’s depicted through his own archives and in the documentary, was facilitated not only by his undeniably immense talent, but also by his own appeal to Western beauty ideals. Mapplethorpe rose within the New York art scene in large part because of his relationship with Sam Wagstaff, the art curator and collector who was 25 years his senior. Letters and photos in the archive reveal the men’s relationship to be tender and loving — but also show that Mapplethorpe openly spoke of as a meeting of mutual exploitations. “If he didn’t have the money I may not have been with him,” Mapplethorpe says in old footage featured in the documentary — and Mapplethorpe’s looks and youth surely illustrated the other side of the openly, if only partially, exploitative coin. “To be in Robert’s world you had to be rich, famous or sex,” one of Mapplethorpe’s exes tells the filmmakers. Meanwhile, half of the interviewees comment on how taken everyone was with the artist’s looks. As a young, white, fit, and beautiful man, Mapplethorpe was a gay icon the public would be willing enough to look at and be repulsed by; others may not have even had the luxury of the public’s attention or revulsion.

In the self-portrait with the bullwhip, he takes what viewers would have wanted to see and then shoves something they wouldn’t want to see in it, creating an inescapable trap for a society that loved white manhood. And it’s for these reasons that his beauty fetish can also seem, especially on a personal level, so ambiguous and even sometimes kind of gross. Mapplethorpe was not the inclusionary radical some may want to think of him as — he was on a hedonistic quest, one that happened to be bold and transgressive and importantly politicized.

Beauty was, for him, strictly displayed through the hyper-fit men society, and especially gay society, still considers beautiful; I cannot recall a single picture of a man with substantial body fat in Mapplethorpe’s photos. His ideals of beauty looked strictly toward fit white men — and then shifted suddenly to fit black men, with a pretty flagrant disregard for the different social implications those images would have.

“I’m photographing them as form — I’m not trying to make a social statement about their plight,” he says of his black subjects in the documentary, which in its reminiscence on his life in the ’80s also turns to his personal relationships with black men. (Said relationships are of course not inherently problematic, but seem to become that way through Mapplethorpe’s fascination with the physical over any deeper connection.) He dated Milton Moore, the man who famously appeared in a suit with his fly undone in Man in Polyester Suit . Then, when that relationship failed, he dated Jack Walls. “Jack filled that gap,” says Mapplethorpe in the documentary — a gap which we assume to be emotional, until he continues, “but Jack never had the body that Milton did.”

Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1984

Mapplethorpe’s whole oeuvre suggests the complexities of human sexuality through the artist’s own acts of objectification: his work objectified everyone it depicted, pretty equally, and that aspect makes it somewhat discordant with today’s heightened discourses on identity. The resultant images combine progressive confrontations with regressive exploitations: they reduce men who’d scarcely been given a voice within the vastly white art world to objects, but they also confront (as in the particularly iconic Man in Polyester Suit) white America’s fear of black masculinity.

What’s interesting is the way the book and the film both let us in on the superficiality and fetishism that underlies Mapplethorpe’s work. They reveal how his apolitical search for sexual beauty was not in itself a paragon of inclusive radicalism, but rather a composite of taboos rendered spectacularly that became radical because of the society that surrounded them. Mapplethorpe confronted viewers with everything they refused to look at by using their own vocabulary of beauty to force them to look. But he also — often for better in his singular art, sometimes for worse in his personal life — worshipped a similar vocabulary of exquisite surfaces.