Friday, September 3, 2010

“Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick; Dick, Dick, Dick.” - Part 2: Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe, Louise Bourgeois ( 1982), Terrae Motus - Dennis with Flowers, (1983)
(Return to Part 1)

The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is most famous for his impropriety, which is not entirely fair. He was part of a generation that brought B&W chemical photography into the mainstream of the art world (color and digital prints would come later). He will forever be remembered however for being one of the first to introduce hard-core S&M to the general public.

His beautifully composed B&W images of cocks paired with ghostly white orchids are some of the first works of contemporary art I can remember being truly caught off guard by. My teenaged self was less shocked that a man would photograph penises tightly wrapped in leather cords, or even pierced by nails (although I wasn't a stranger to porn, I had still never seen anything like Mapplethorpe) – what I found most deeply shocking was that Mapplethorpe could show a picture of himself with a whip up his ass in an art gallery. I was captivated by the reality that his works were hung next to paintings and sculptures I could easily recognize as art, but that his photos were unlike anything I had seen in an art museum or gallery. It was like eating pickled watermelon for the first time, my brain was forced back and forth in gestalt flip - pickle/watermelon/pickle/watermelon - but unwilling or unable to synthesize the two. Mapplethorpe's photos were obviously pornographic, but just as obviously art - porn/art/porn/art - until seeing them my experience had told me a photo could be one or the other, but not both.
Associate Justice Potter Stewart (1976); Robert Mapplethorpe, self portrait (1980)

In an famously silly attempt to legislate the difference between "hard-core pornography" and art, the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” One thing that Potter might have used as a sign, was any glimpse of a big hairy dick. 

My teenage self would have never been confused by a B&W photo of a female nude - naked ladies are the most common image in art. Tiny twee peckers are the kipplized remains of the classical world. Putti, a thousand variations of the Baby Jesus, and pissing manneken clutter the historic landscape. Small hairless limp dicks are de rigueur of highbrow classicism as well - they just adorn beefy men or teenage boys. Rodin and Warren looked with reverence to the example of the ancient world – its glowing white marble, but also its unabashed, but always-understated sexuality. Mapplethorpe created an unlikely classicist art of big dicks.
Priapus (ca. 65-79 AD); Robert Mapplethorpe, Greg Cauley-Cock (1980)

The marble statuary of the ancient Greeks and Romans is not associated with the sorts of heavy pendulous cocks Mapplethorpe favored. Vulgar pornographic representations are easy to find along side the classical art preferred by moderns like Rodin and Warren – but they are not considered classical or even art. From hugely endowed dwarves in Roman graffiti, to hugely endowed bronze miniatures of Egyptian musicians, right up to the grotesquely massive penises exported to Europe in nineteenth-century in Japanese prints - there is an underground that I can’t imagine Warren would have been comfortable with. (Rodin would have been, he was a bawdy guy, but I am certain he never would have tried to show or sell them as art - at least not unless he could drape it in a robe.) 

It seems Michelangelo’s error struck a bargain for the modern reinterpretation of the ancient world: The hedonism and homosexuality could be alluded to, but only with tiny little peckers, that bargain was broken by Mapplethorpe.
Andres Serrano, Piss Christ (1987); Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll (1975)

Mapplethorpe bridged the cool still white world of classical statuary with the vulgarity of the underground. In her book, Just Kids, Mapplethorpe’s friend and lover Patti Smith writes:
Robert was not a voyeur. He always said that he had to be authentically involved with the work that came out of his S&M pursuits, that he wasn’t taking pictures for the sake of fake sensationalism, or making it his mission to help the S&M scene become socially acceptable. He didn’t think it should be accepted, and he never felt his underground world was for everybody.
But Smith makes clear that while Mapplethorpe made no apologies for his nudes, but he did not intend them to for everyone:
He’s not sorry and doesn’t want anyone else to be… He didn’t think his art was for everybody. When he first exhibited his most hard-core photographs, they were in a portfolio marked X, in a glass case, for people over eighteen. 
So even Mapplethorpe had a sense of propriety – or perhaps an expectation of propriety, of what could and could not be accepted. His work caused a firestorm in the 1980s as conservative politicians and religious leaders lashed out in self-righteous rage. Andre Serrano, Carolee Schneemann and others whose work was deemed vulgar and even blasphemous were targets of the storm that swept through the art world. These artist and the museums and galleries that supported them were guilty of exposing the socially acceptable to an underground world that is as old as homo sapiens.

By now photographers have crossed every imaginable line that can be crossed, every taboo broken. The internet has made video of every possible sex available for private, anonymous viewing. If the modernist were right to claim that the average American in the 1960s lived with the material comforts equivalent to Louis XIV of France in his palace, then today we are all privy to the most extreme hedonism of Caligula. But penises are still unambiguously pornographic.

Since "culture wars" of the 1980s the socially acceptable has become far more open to increasingly vulgar mediums and imagery. B&W photos are passe, and S&M is no longer much of an underground mystery, and can hardly be counted as a mark of shame (there was really very little shock over RNC members visiting an S&M themed club – any fuss was a mater of hipocracy, not bedrock morality). We are living through a tsunami of porn and despite dire warnings, it doesn't seem to be the end of the world. There are however still strongholds of propriety, formats and setting where it is not socially acceptable to expose the underground world of great big cocks. Until recently big budget blockbuster films were one such stronghold, but that bulwark is crumbling. (Continue Reading Part 3)
Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut (1978); Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe at Cony Island (Setember 1st, 1969)

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