3. A Tale of Two Mapplethorpes
Veröffentlicht: 30.04.2014
in der Serie Abigail Solomon-Godeau
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A large retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work has just opened at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is coupled with another Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Musée Rodin where Mapplethorpe’s photographs—I am not joking—are displayed with various sculptures by Rodin.

Mapplethorpe-Rodin, exposition at Musée Rodin, Paris, from April 8 to September 21, 2014 (installation view by Abigail Solomon Godeau).

As it happens, Mapplethorpe did photograph sculptures (torsos, heads, and backs) in ways not so different from those he used to photograph living bodies, although it seems not to have mattered if the sculptures were authentic, copies, classical, neoclassical, or kitsch. Somewhat perversely (I use the term advisedly), the photographs of sculpture are in the Grand Palais show, whereas the pictures in the Musée Rodin are mostly of living bodies (or body parts) as well as the miscellaneous self-portrait or still life. More to the point, what the exhibition really demonstrates is that for good or ill, Rodin’s sculptures, plasters, or small studies have nothing whatsoever to do with Mapplethorpe’s work and vice versa. Why would they?

The press release of the Musée Rodin makes no reference to Mapplethorpe’s sculptural choices or artistic preferences, perhaps implicitly acknowledging that any given sculpture, as an integral whole, was not what interested him. Much is made of his stated admiration for Michelangelo. But for Mapplethorpe, a part of a sculpture, like a part of a body, was the raw material with which he worked. Be that as it may, The Musée Rodin’s press release provides the institutional rationale of the exhibition:

“There would appear to be little similarity between these two renowned figures, even though Mapplethorpe continually sought to sculpt the body through photography and Rodin used photography throughout his career. Robert Mapplethorpe sought the perfect form, while Rodin attempted to capture a sense of movement in inanimate materials. There is no spontaneity in Mapplethorpe’s work, everything is constructed, whereas Rodin retains the traces of his touch and takes advantage of the accidental. One was attracted to men, the other to women, obsessively in both cases. But this did not stop Mapplethorpe from photographing female nudes, or Rodin from sculpting many male bodies. Here, however, the differences between these two artists are instantly transformed into an unexpected dialogue.”

This dialogue, however, might be better characterized as overdetermined rather than unexpected, since the point of this curatorial exercise is to burnish, sanitize, and heroize Mapplethorpe. Yet again, we can observe, in real time, the cranking up of the apparatuses of canon formation, the mechanisms by which that totem elite culture, the Great Artist, is collectively forged.1“Vingt-cinq ans après sa mort, l’événement est une occasion unique d’élever le célèbre photographe au rang des plus grands artistes de l’histoire, qui l’ont tant inspiré : Titien, Michel-Ange, Piero della Francesca, le Bernin, David, Dali, Duchamp, etc.” Jean-Pierre Aubin, Robert Mapplethorpe, exhibition catalogue, (Paris: Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux – Grand Palais). n.p. This is hardly necessary for Rodin or his work, housed in its consecrated museum, and Mapplethorpe-Rodin is displayed in that part of the renovated museum aptly called the Chapel. Moreover, in the broadest sense, because both exhibitions are collective endeavors involving different institutions (most importantly, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the source of most of the exhibited work), corporate sponsors, curators from the foundation and the two museums, the aims, approach and presentation of Mapplethorpe’s work is by no means simply the result of a few individuals’ choices. But the nature and terms of the framing discourse within which both exhibitions are conceived, consciously or not, are such as to minimize if not obscure what is arguably Mapplethorpe’s most significant work. In privileging two of his most problematic modes of production—the term is apt—and two of his blandest, a “great artist” is manufactured conforming to the hoariest and most sterile notions of art photography, with the addition of some racial raciness to supply a more edgy frisson.2As all art historians know, when producing the totem of the Great Artist, early work, if not juvenalia counts. Thus, as part of the treatment early pre-photographic works were included from his time at the Pratt art school; some Cornell-like boxes (e.g. Lamb), some collage works, drawings, and this early polaroids.

Mapplethorpe-Rodin, exposition at Musée Rodin, Paris, from April 8 to September 21, 2014 (installation view by Abigail Solomon Godeau).

I refer, in the first case, to his highly stylized, glacially chic, knowingly retro-pictures of flowers and still lives, his artfully crafted objects such as folding screens, triptychs with moiré silk panels, mirrored panels and other objetsde luxe for interior decoration. Also in this category are the impeccably printed, tastefully abstracted nudes, male and female, black and white, photographs that could easily have come from the darkroom of Edward Weston and his descendants. Platinum printing and other avatars of the fine print, frames of exotic wood, as well as the objects themselves—it is difficult not to see the influence of his various dealers, such as the Robert Miller Gallery, if not the influence of his lover and companion of 20 years, Sam Wagstaff, himself a collector of photographs.3Not only. As curator of contemporary art at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and later at the Detroit Institute of Art, Wagstaff collected in that area. This collection he sold for a considerable profit and around the time he met Mapplethrope, Wagstaff began to energetically collect 19th- and 20th -century photography of all kinds, in the early stage of what became a boom market in the 1980’s. This collection he eventually sold to the Getty for an undisclosed amount that is said to have been around five million dollars. After the sale of the photography collection he started collecting silver. But dwarfing these pictures and objects in the category of the problematic are the photographs of black men, a subject to which I return in my blog next week. But as instances of the bland—or vanity—category are many of his portraits of artists (some of them friends of Wagstaff or those he had exhibited), socialites (also from Wagstaff’s milieu), fashion designers, actresses, singers, and so on. (His other portraits of drag queens and more marginal individuals are not on view). Judging from the pictures, it seems unlikely that Mapplethorpe had with many of them the kind of intimacy and/or friendship that inspired the portraits of Patti Smith and a few others.

All of which is to say that a Mapplethorpe without the sorts of photographs he chose for his  X,Y, and Z portfolios, as well as certain of the pictures reproduced in the Black Book, is merely another art photographer with a good eye for framing, composition, a perfectionist regarding print quality, and a savvy notion of his market. Without the brutal, gritty, and, still shocking photographs of NYC (and San Francisco’s) pre-AIDS gay underworld of bars, drugs, orgies, S/M practices, in all of which he was a participant observer, one has a very partial sense of what made Mapplethorpe such an important witness of his time and place.

Be that as it may, at the Grand Palais, those pictures deemed too dangerous for the eyes of minors are sequestered in a separate, very dark and smallish room painted a blackish-purple. When I went, there was a cautionary notice posted at its entrance, and inside, it was respectfully hushed, except for the muffled titters of a couple of elderly women. But aside from close-ups of heroically sized-penises and one photograph of analingis, the really hard-core photographs made by Mapplethorpe, were not, as I have indicated, on view. Although these have been reproduced in various monographs and exhibited in such venues as LACMA, those pictures depicting fist-fucking, water sports, various S/M activities, as well as Mapplethorpe’s well known self- portrait with a whip inserted in his rectum, were conspicuously absent. On the other hand, the no-less notorious Man in Polyester Suit was on view in the main exhibition, as well as other nude men, mostly black, all freely available to the impressionable eyes of minors.

Had Mapplethorpe not been struck down by AIDS in the prime of life, as were so many of his contemporaries, Sam Wagstaff and his other lovers included, one could say he had a charmed life, at least professionally and materially. Wagstaff, who died of AIDS a year before Mapplethorpe, was not only independently wealthy, but generous: after he became involved with Mapplethorpe in 1972, he purchased a loft for him (also a Hasselblad) but he was also in a position to help orchestrate Mapplethorpe’s career. A year earlier, Mapplethorpe had become friends with John McKendry, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and thus through him was linked to a more uptown and wealthy network. Relatively early, Mapplethorpe had become highly successful and as should be obvious, his photographs had several niche markets. At 31, he was invited to exhibit at Documenta 6; the same year, the Holly Solomon gallery gave him a one-person show, and in 1978, the Robert Miller Gallery became his “official” gallery. And so on.

In the obscenity trial of 1990 that charged the Cincinnati Center of Contemporary Art and its director Dennis Barrie with “pandering obscenity” and therefore breaking anti-pornography laws, it was the task of the defense team to prove to the jury that Mapplethorpe’s photographs were art, capital A, and thus constitutionally protected free speech. (Mapplethorpe had died the previous year of AIDS at the age of 42). To make these arguments, the defense enlisted the testimony of “expert witnesses.” These included Janet Kardon, the original curator of the exhibition; Jacquelynn Baas, then director of the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California, and Robert Sobieszek, then senior curator at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, N.Y. By the time of the actual trial, of the 175 photographs in the exhibition, only seven were designated as obscene and pornographic. Two of them were of little girls whose genitalia could be seen, although their mothers’ testified that the pictures were made with their knowledge and permission and that they had tacitly assumed the pictures might be exhibited and/or reproduced (none of his pictures of children are on view in the Paris exhibitions). The other five photographs were of white men engaging in sexual activities. (I will return to this next week). To the prosecution’s challenge as to whether these passed muster as art, Sobieszek argued that “if it’s in an art museum, it is intended to be art and that’s why it's there.”'4Isabel Wilkerson, “Clashes at Obscenity Trial On What an Eye Really Sees,” The New York Times, October 3, 1990. This we might call the Duchampian or the nominative defense, and there is no reason not to take it seriously. But it was, on the contrary, the aesthetic arguments made by Kardon and others, couched in the terms of a formalist aestheticism that approached parody that actually carried the day:

“Would you call these sexual acts?” Mr. Prouty [the prosecuting attorney] asked. “I would call them figure studies,” Mrs. Kardon said. Mr. Prouty then asked her, picture by picture, what was artistic about each work. “What are the formal values of the picture where the finger is inserted in the penis?” Mr. Prouty asked in a straightforward manner. “It’s a central image, very symmetrical, a very ordered, classical composition, she said, noting that Mr. Mapplethorpe once commented on how ‘beautiful’ the hand gestures were.” 5Isabel Wilkerson, “Clashes at Obscenity Trial On What an Eye Really Sees,” The New York Times, October 3, 1990.

In the event, both museum and Barrie were exculpated, but despite the apparent victory of “free speech” as a condition for unfettered cultural production, this was just another coda to what was essentially the end of U.S. government funding for anything remotely controversial in the visual arts.6NEA grant controversy and end of funding 1986 Nevertheless, it is within the sanitizing and mystificatory terms of such abstractions as Art, Beauty, and the Nude, that the Grand Palais, and presumably, the Musée Rodin, have framed their exhibitions. By which I refer to everything from the signage, the epigraphic quotations from Mapplethorpe stenciled on the walls, the physical organization of the show, and, the basic gist of the two accompanying catalogues.

Mapplethorpe-Rodin, exposition at Musée Rodin, Paris, from April 8 to September 21, 2014 (installation view by Abigail Solomon Godeau).

The issues raised by Mapplethorpe’s work are as large as they are troubling. Both exhibitions work to occlude them. But among the issues that require consideration are the work’s various contexts, its place in the photographic canon, the role of marketplace and museum, the place of the stakeholders of an oeuvre, the various backstories (biographical and institutional) that surround both artist and work, and, in terms of its artistic claims, the complex issue of “content” and “form” in photographic production. These inevitably lead to questions about spectatorial reception, the representation of marginal communities, the psychic and social components of desire in looking, and by no means least, issues of fetishism (both commodity and psychical). And finally, such a body of work requires a difficult discussion about the politics of racial representation as these are enacted and staged in Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men, his lovers and others. These I will write about in the next blog.

5 Kommentar(e)
Nils Plath
Abgesendet am 02.05.2014 um 08:51

Of the many leads presented by the highly valid renarration of those impressions gained from visiting the two shows with Robert Mapplethorpe’s phoptographs (providing also contextualizing remarks upon on more than just the exemplary shows when providing indications to omissions and the frames of reference), I will only be able to pursue a very few of those here.

In all their ostensible beauty, Mapplethorpe’s pictures tell us (among other things) of grief work and (private and public) sexuality, (male) body awareness and the representations of surfaces (in view of representional powers), and the many means to cope with one’s - „our“ - fear of death and ways to express what appears to be a culturally deeply rooted desire of longing for an afterlife. When celebrating the ‚intimate works’ of a ‚great artist’ (displaying him in the gallery of ancestral portraits of art history, consisting mostly of white males), exhibitions like these try to convey the notion that this singular artist present gave us ‚time-transcending’ beauty. Thus, we often find pictures like these (Mapplethorpe’s) simply called ‚timeless.’ In viewing them, one apparantly looks from a given here and now into an actually unforeseeable future, from which one then will have disappeared (as something one knows for a fact and yet refuses to truely register). For a deferred moment one’s own gaze in fixating the image as memento mori (itself volatile) holds on to the present presence in which one does not have to fear and to confront one’s own future disappearance from view. As sites for viewing images as reflections of the self, museums are for that reason attractive places where images can be viewed without fear: since death there is always the estheticized death of the others (and not part of my daily life).
And yet it is self-evident that one must register the themes also formally reflected in Mapplethorpe’s pictures (as well as their appearance) – i.e. death in life and dying in the community and in society, the relation between ‚thing’ and ‚man,’ surface phenomena as forceful signs of the claim to ever just temporal power) – as significantly political. Whereever they fail to do so, museums become cathedrals for an ideology of suppression and exclusion.

The space granted I would like to use this time for just quoting two (lengthy) excerpts. In their juxtaposition both quotes echo many of the notions we have to think anew about day by day, when facing the challenges of articulating views on history and the media, on the struggles for self-determination of the so-called individual as well as so-called collectives fought under always changing epistemological as well as economical circumstances, and on the sociopolitical conditions under which dying and living both take place in view of the single event we all share (without experiencing it together).

The first quote is taken from Walter Benjamin’s essay „The Storyteller.“ His essay was written in 1936/37, a few years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War und in memory of the experiences of the Great War, reflecting upon the role of the narrative (the novel in its then contemporary format) in a time when new living forms and technological progress (newsmedia, radio and cinema, with photography a bit underexposed here) had altered the perception of time and space (for communal living) fundamentally once again.

The second is a transcript of a video James Wentzky used in his documentary „Fight Back, Fight AIDS: 15 Years of ACT UP“ (2004). What we read about is an event that was staged by members of ACT UP on October 11, 1992, the day the names quilt was displayed (as a media event and photo-op) in the shadow of the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.. The text can be found on a website of Act Up New York (its design makes it look fairly dated for today’s eyes, and thus in itself a document of activism in the early days of the internet). Photos of this impressive event that took place at the fence of the White House, noticed by only a small number compared to the thousands gathered for the official display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, are surprisingly hard to locate on the web, or so it appeared to me; see at least: http://www.artistswithaids.org/artery/centerpieces/bronski/bronski8.html. For footage see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWbzinqIlPk; more original material on this political funeral can be found in David France's Oscar-nominated documentary ‘How to Survive a Plague’ (2012), see minutes 78:15-82:30.

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Nils Plath
Abgesendet am 02.05.2014 um 08:52

„It has been observable for a number of centuries how in the general consciousness the thought of death has declined in omnipresence and vividness. In its last stages this process is accelerated. And in the course of the nineteenth century bourgeois society has, by means of hygienic and social, private and public institutions, realized a secondary effect which may have been its subconscious main purpose: to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying.
Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one; think of the medieval pictures in which the deathbed has turned into a throne toward which the people press through the wide-open doors of the death house. In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died. (The Middle Ages also felt spatially what makes that inscription on a sun dial of Ibiza, Ultima multis [the last day for many], significant as the temper of the times.) Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs.“ (Walter Benjamin, „The Storyteller“)

“ASHES ACTION October 11, 1992 and ACT UP MEETING post Ashes Action ACT UP/NY holds its first political funeral -- the ASHES Action -- in Washington, DC, on the weekend of the final exhibition of the AIDS Quilt. In a procession starting at the Capitol, 11 people from both coasts carried ashes of friends, family and lovers. Met at the White House lawn by police in riot gear, on motorcycles, and on horses, the procession - by then some 8,000 strong - broke through police lines and scattered the ashes on the White House lawn.
MALE: Phone number, address, date of birth and name right?
MALE: Yup.
FEMALE: How many people here are going to be marshalling?
MALE: And so, B.C. is going to let people who are not risking arrest, inside the fence, while the people who have earned - people who risk arrest, will continue outside the fence. And then, that will go around, right to the White House fence.
[BREAK]
[DEMONSTRATION]
GROUP: FIGHT BACK, FIGHT AIDS, ACT UP. THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING. SHAME SHAME.
[BREAK]
DAVID ROBINSON: George Bush would only be too happy for us simply to make beautiful panels--and I'm not belying the Quilt -- it's very useful, it's very important, but it's very beautiful and it does make a lot of people feel better. On some level, I heard people out there, as they walked among the panels sort of sighing about, this is beautiful. It's so good that this is happening, and we made such a wonderful panel. And I would wonder, is this making you feel like this is okay in some way? Because it's not.
What we are doing is showing everyone who sees us at the White House, who sees any of this in the paper or on TV -- who passes it on the street, we're showing them the actual results of what that White House and this administration has done. They have turned people we love into ashes and bone chips and copses. That should not be hidden. And, from this point on -- and I hope you all agree with me -- we are not going to hide this anymore, because hiding it is what they want.
[BREAK]
GROUP CHANTING: ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND DEAD, WHERE WAS GEORGE?
GROUP CHANTING: HISTORY WILL RECALL, REAGAN AND BUSH DID NOTHING AT ALL.
GROUP CHANTING: GEORGE BUSH, YOU CAN'T HIDE. WE CHARGE YOU WITH GENOCIDE..
GROUP CHANTING: BRINGING THE DEAD TO YOUR DOOR. WE WON'T TAKE IT ANYMORE.
BOB RAFSKY: This is angry funeral, not a sad one. The Quilt makes our dying look beautiful, but it's not beautiful, it's ugly, and we have to fight for our lives.
GROUP CHANTING: ACT UP, FIGHT BACK, FIGHT AIDS.
[ASHES ACTION]
GROUP CHANTING: THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING.
[ACT UP MEETING]
BOB RAFSKY: This action was coordinated by Shane, who's new to ACT UP and never organized an action before. In the van on the way down--he's going to kill me for repeating this --he confessed that he'd been having nightmares all week about this action, and that one of them was that we would all depart Washington afterwards, and leave him behind. [LAUGHTER]. (Let's do it.) We were actually very touched by that. At any rate, the next day, when I saw him pressed against the White House fence by all our bodies kneeling and weeping, as over him. I felt, felt for certain, that he would never have that nightmare again. But, if this action was cathartic for Shane and others, as it was, it was cathartic, in a different way for people like David Robinson, who was a founding member of ACT UP and, as you heard, inspired this action -- and, name will help give it some voice. Because in a certain sense, it was our funeral, too -- in that we were not so much needing it, as passing through it, and handing the baton of leadership, or what you will, to a new generation of AIDS activists who, with this action, wholly and completely emerge, so that the ashes which we mourn are also the ashes from which we rise. And, my most fervent hope for this new generation of activists, is that before you have to take on a burden of inspiring yet another generation of activists, your work will be done. [APPLAUSE].
[BREAK]
MALE: One of the things -- as we were getting out there and getting closer, I remember, I was talking -- it's hard for me to explain some of these things to people who aren't activists. Like, I was telling people we are going to do this and I try to explain very well. Well, that's sacrilegious. And I called my grandmother, who's very black and very southern, to explain this to grandma. And, I had my own preconceived what she'd end up saying. And there was a pause and she goes, "well, that's wonderful." And, I said ["what?"] And she said, "well, you know," she called me baby. She goes, "well, baby, what we used to do when they used to lynch," she's from the lynching time, "they would go out and pick the ropes after they lynched people, and they would burn the ropes and they'd put in ashes. And they would say, see, we burned your tool and you can use it against no more." And so, as we were pinned against the fence, and these horses -- literally, these horses were going to try -- I was frightened. I thought I and I just saw grandma and I just saw - here, people were throwing these ashes over and people were like -- it was just speechless. It was like, we were returning to -- it was like, George Bush, you have no power. This had never been done before. I mean, I called people like This was a great idea, you know? All the oppressed groups can bring their ashes to the White House. I mean, let's use the White House as a dumping ground for ashes. [APPLAUSE].
MALE: I just was wondering, how involved were the other ACT UP's in other places and what was their participation?
SHANE BUTLER: The messages on my machine that I answered were from all over the country -- many of them from ACT UP. So, it got the word through the ACT UP network. I know of ACT UP, Connecticut; ACT UP -- one of ACT UP New Jersey.
GROUP: [SIMULTANEOUS CONVERSATION]: Boston Houston London Long Island New York
RICHARD DEAGLE: The spiritual parent of yesterday's event - and that's David Wojnarowicz. The second time I met David was at the FDA action. He had on his back -- on the back of his jacket -- "when I die, throw my body on the steps of the FDA." And I think yesterday would have been very special for David.
One of the things I always think about in Washington is graffiti I saw years ago on the Duke Ellington Bridge that said, PIGS WILL FALL. And somebody had graffiti-ed under it, NEW PIGS WILL RISE. We only have three weeks before the election, but it ain't over yet. We've got to do this again, I'm sure. (Source: http://www.actupny.org/divatv/synopsis75.html)

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François Brunet
Abgesendet am 11.05.2014 um 21:33

Abigail, I am just seeing this entry now. Very well put, thank you.

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Chuck Mobley
Abgesendet am 14.05.2014 um 02:29

Comrade Abigail, I am only mildly ashamed to admit that if I never have to read about Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs again in my lifetime, it will be too soon. Though, of course, as one ages one finds that trying to ignore any irritant with the hope that it will “just go away” is an exercise in futility; a fool’s game.

To start, Mapplethorpe’s (rarely exhibited) early works of narcissistic indulgence can mostly be chalked up to the follies of youth or, to be more generous, experimentation and his later work was essentially as prop stylist to a massive portfolio of ultimately lifeless commercial work. It was his middle period with his monomaniacal focus on bondage/discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM) that drove out youthful folly and provided him his first (and only) serious subject matter. In particular, his 1979 photograph “Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter” demonstrated such great promise with its incongruity of a fussily (almost matronly) decorated apartment populated by “butch” leather daddies festooned in the theatrical accouterments and costuming of BDSM. The stage and its actors (the figure on a leash appropriately seated) were arranged, lit, and photographed in a 2 1/4-inch square format and printed in a masterly black-and-white “fine art photography” style. In my younger years, I initially read this photograph as if it were an ironic commentary on both the musty formalist constructs of photography and “the masculine” by appropriating the visual tropes of each—a win/win! A true postmodernist triumph! It turns out, not for the first time, I was wrong. According to “the experts,” my optimistic reading of postmodern allusion was way off base and far too generous. This was nothing more than what had come before—essentially another formal portrait of “freaks,” Diane Arbus proud. (But dry your tears; this is only one of many examples of my thinking not being in accord with the accepted general idea. Imagine my youthful dismay upon reading Jean Genet’s “Miracle of the Rose,” howling with laughter the entire time, only to discover afterward that is was not, in fact, a campy satire. However, in my defense, what postmodern young person would ever read such over-the-top, earnest obsessiveness as anything other than ironic? Likewise, my initial reading of Mapplethorpe’s BDSM work.)

It would appear that Mapplethorpe’s self-described “erotic photographs” were not the only thing that was contrived, but also everything surrounding them—the dialog, the controversy, and ultimate canonization. His 1978 “Censored” exhibition at 80 Langton Street in San Francisco speaks to the manufactured drama that was a key element of his art practice early on. (A “tale of two Mapplethorpes,” indeed. Apparently drama is an elixir of eternal life for the bore and the aspirational alike.) Following accusations of censorship of the BDSM photographs by dealer Simon Lowinsky from his commercial gallery exhibition (the more pedestrian titled “Mapplethorpe Photographs”) in February, an exhibition of this work was staged the next month at the “alternative” nonprofit gallery 80 Langton Street (notably founded by the San Francisco Art Dealers Association). Perhaps not coincidentally, a similar arrangement (collusion?) had taken place in New York the previous year when Mapplethorpe exhibited more commercially viable “Portraits” at Holly Solomon Gallery while concurrently exhibiting his “Erotic Pictures” at nonprofit The Kitchen. The formulaic modus operandi is clear: “alternative” art spaces initially help legitimize the work; commercial galleries sell it (to collectors and museums.)

Given the banal nature of most arts administrative work and that the Mapplethorpe brand is synonymous with obscenity after the 1990 trial of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center director Dennis Barrie, it’s not hard to imagine the glee that a curator of a Mapplethorpe retrospective must feel when presented the opportunity to toss pearls before swine. However, the more mundane reality is that no truly urbane person (political opportunists aside) would ever dare express shock at anything, lest they be thought unsophisticated. Inoffensive (to some) formalist hyperbole will be dusted off for use in exhibition didactics, the language of signage delineating the (youth segregated) gallery that hosts the “naughty pictures” from the rest of the exhibition must be sure to read vaguely legalese if not mildly patronizing, and morally self-righteous speeches prepared in private should a public defense of the work be needed. Yet at this point in history, it’s almost quaint to consider exhibition audiences clutching pearls and reaching for smelling salts. Who among us, young people most especially, hasn’t already seen truly horrific images online—Abu Ghraib anyone? (And, it must be said, that it is exactly this kind of censorship of information and images from “young people” that speaks to the infantilization of American culture. The ceaseless cries of “but the children!” are most noxious and illogical; anyone who went to public school in America knows firsthand that children are monsters. Why deny them the right to see that adults are also monsters? As for consensual intimacy, Americans wisely understand that kinky sex is only kinky [read: fun] if it’s taboo. Once taboos are publicized and capitalized upon, the only alternative left is the aggravation of burrowing deeper into degradation for pleasure and sport; this is but one of the sad ironies of capitalism.)

It’s important to note that while formalist rhetoric can help to build a career, it can also save one. Thanks to a parade of expert witnesses relentlessly pointing out the formal artistic qualities found in Mapplethorpe’s work, Dennis Barrie was acquitted of obscenity charges. (Jurors were reportedly resigned to the fact that if enough “experts” called it “art,” then it must be “art.”) So, in the end, perhaps Mapplethorpe’s work continues to receive only the kind of institutional attention it deserves and warrants—the same in which it was christened and canonized. After all, no one has ever accused the hierarchical “art world,” from the graveyard of the museum on down, of being overpopulated with serious intellectuals. At least not with a straight face.

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Mark Jordan
Abgesendet am 16.05.2014 um 22:36

A brilliant piece Abigail. Thank you for sharing

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