Why Mapplethorpe’s Photographs Remain Subversive, Even without the Shock Value
Leon Trotsky wrote that the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline entered the canon as effortlessly as other men enter their homes. The photographer Guggenheim, and Mapplethorpe (2019), a creatively-named biopic starring Matt Smith from Doctor Who. Prestige is a funny thing.
There’s a cute moment in Mapplethorpe in which the fresh-faced photographer and the musician
Most “controversial” artists are forgotten long before they die, and many others are done in by their own success. denounced as a bourgeois hack. The principles of
Set side-by-side with the work of his downtown peers
Because he trafficked in images such as this, von Gloeden is often dismissed as a misguided pioneer, someone who ignored what was unique and revelatory about photography, instead using it to make pseudo-paintings. A similar frustration underlies some of the recent reflections on Mapplethorpe’s work. “What has excited most photographers since the invention of the medium,” wrote Richard Woodward in the Wall Street Journal in 2016, “is its versatile realism.…[Mapplethorpe’s] career was a struggle against photography’s bias toward the mundane, which others have seen as one of its unique strengths.” As a result, many of his trademark male nudes, Woodward concluded, “have a cold, glossy perfection, and are a terrific bore.”
But to focus exclusively on the formal aspects of Mapplethorpe’s nudes would be like reading Playboy for the articles. To be fair, Mapplethorpe took great pains to get the contrast and balance of his work just right—he and his printer
It’s a mark of Mapplethorpe’s strengths and his limitations that you can’t really understand his work without knowing the context in which he worked. The 1980s was an era of frenzied homophobia disguised by the pompous term “Culture Wars”: On the floor of the Senate, Jesse Helms lambasted the National Endowment for the Arts for awarding grants to Mapplethorpe and
What had infuriated Helms about Mapplethorpe were photographs like Lou, N.Y.C. (1978), which shows, in close-up, a man shoving a pinkie finger into his urethra. It’s still a shocking image, not just for what it shows, but how—the violence implied by the tightness of the man’s fist and the rigidity of his fingers. With his usual keen eye for texture, Mapplethorpe emphasizes bulging veins and bristly pubic hair, celebrating what’s wild and animalistic about sexuality, everything Helms tried to cover up, but couldn’t erase.
Or consider Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter (1979), in which a lovely young sub and dom sit in a bland living room and stare straight at the camera (it’s the only straight thing about the photograph). It is tempting, with 40 years’ hindsight, to view the whole thing as a smug, Arbusian joke—Brian and Lyle can’t see how out of place they are, but we can. But when you realize that Mapplethorpe took their picture at a time when BDSM was still widely criminalized in the United States, their poses become brave and genuinely moving. The fact that both men consented to use their full names in the title is crucial to the photograph’s power—they’re holding nothing back, and as a result, they radiate sexuality, seeming almost to transform the objects around them (that end table!) into kinky playthings.
There are surprisingly few allusions to the Culture Wars in the Mapplethorpe biopic, perhaps because he died just as they were beginning in earnest. Late in the film, on the way into the Whitney Museum, Mapplethorpe is wheeled past a pack of protesters with signs saying “Pornographic art is sick!” Back in the 1980s, at least, art’s enemies were mostly standing outside the building, not in it. Even in the midst of his “Conservative Revolution,” Reagan never spoke openly about doing away with the NEA altogether, but 30 years later, his successor tweets about hobbling the organization beyond the late Senator Helms’s wildest dreams. Mapplethorpe reigns in Hollywood and the Guggenheim, but the same grants that helped make him a star are just a few congressional votes away from oblivion—that’s the ambiguous victory of our moment.