Asking to Be Looked at

Wayne Koestenbaum

  • Mapplethorpe: A Biography by Patricia Morrisroe
    Macmillan, 461 pp, £20.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 333 66941 X
  • Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe by Arthur Danto
    California, 206 pp, £20.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 520 20051 9

New York’s Guggenheim Museum contains in an annex a covert Robert Mapplethorpe gallery, a sober exhibition space which, like the masterpieces of its namesake, seems consecrated to the unusual and the mortifying. The current show – Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs of corpses, amputees and hermaphrodites – holds a grotesqueness sufficient to remind the visitor of how sweet, how antique already, the infamous Mapplethorpe images have become. At least his models were alive.

Circumstance has forced Mapplethorpe’s art into the unhappy position of being exemplary – of the racially objectifying gaze, of homoerotic curiosity, of free speech triumphantly exercised against tyrannical censorship. No artist – and Mapplethorpe was a fine one – deserves such treatment. Patricia Morrisroe’s biography has the virtue of the emphatic. In no uncertain terms she shows that Mapplethorpe was just a fellow who worked assiduously to take pictures of what obsessed him. The nature of his preoccupations, and the movement of his photographs from a Manhattan demi-monde into international notoriety, had everything to do with luck and with the shabby splendour of an era so misunderstood that I urge us not to generalise about it but only repeatedly to observe its random peculiarity, and, in noticing how extreme and lacquered were Mapplethorpe’s documents of that era, to allow ourselves a shudder of envy, before we turn away.

I don’t wish I were Robert Mapplethorpe – most times when I read biographies of famous artists I wish I were them – but I give him credit for getting somewhere first. He was among the first to promote and record a certain radical transvaluation of the rotten, the rejected; the meaty, the monstrous, the mathematical. (See also Renaud Camus’s Tricks, or Edmund White’s States of Desire: to the company of Byron’s ‘Princess of Parallelograms’ we should add the type of the counting-house trickster, the stud-libertine for whom quantity is quality.) I approach the corpus of Mapplethorpe, and the life under consideration, with a bias, a predilection for what Susan Sontag once baptised ‘the pornographic imagination’. And if photography – Mapplethorpe’s, at this moment – incites my regard, it is because some great specimens of that relatively new art are indistinguishable from pornography. I want to see weirdness documented. I don’t fistfuck, but I find photos of the act instructive. If I attend a photo show that lacks nudes, I consider the visit a waste. I say this not in order to advertise or flaunt my own perversity but to suggest that a prurient interest in seeing sex and an aesthetic interest in seeing photographs can’t be easily dissociated from one another. I agree with the painter Ellen Phelan, who said, defending Samuel Wagstaff’s habit of pursuing handsome artists (including Mapplethorpe): ‘A lot of people get driven around by their sexual interests, and there are worse bases for aesthetic judgments.’ In some circles, that measuring-stick of taste is called the ‘peter meter’.

This biography insists that we find in Mapplethorpe’s early life the seeds of his later leanings. Interesting to hear that child Robert ‘killed his turtle, Greenie, by impaling the pet on his index finger’, but this act doesn’t make him satanic – merely unreverential of animal spirits. (In childhood I allowed a turtle to die, and I don’t practice coprophagy.) His father ‘spent his career examining the insides of electrical appliances to see if they passed safety regulations’; his mother was ‘a fanatical housekeeper and often cleaned to the point of exhaustion’. She also smoked – so heavily that the children ‘reeked of nicotine’. Housecleaning, chain-smoking, appliances: these period appurtenances and afflictions, surely as a tuna casserole topped with Corn Flakes, speak Cold-War Americana. ‘His father once forced him to eat burned eggs while he sat on the toilet seat.’ As a collegiate subject to hazings, he was ordered to crawl into a bathroom on hands and knees and ‘eat excrement from a toilet bowl’, though the offensive stuff turned out merely to be ‘mashed bananas and chunky peanut butter’. He first masturbated while reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover – a classy vehicle to inaugurate the venerable habit. Art-historical parlour game: hypothesise the circumstances of the first time Cézanne masturbated. (Or Nadar. Or Duchamp. Or Arbus.)

Not yet sexually self-aware, Mapplethorpe visited Greenwich Village ‘to stare at homosexuals’ and ‘to bask in their malevolent aura’. Transplanted to New York’s nervous, ambiguous Chelsea, he quickly realised that sex would become his great subject. He made sculptures from jockstraps, and hung near his bed a ‘masturbation machine’ – a ‘mirror with dozens of white lights that blinked off and on, like a carnival roulette wheel’. He formed one provocative early piece by taking ‘a pair of his blue jeans, stuffing the crotch with several socks, and wiring the pants so the groin pulsated’. Another collage from his fleet apprenticeship was entitled Tight Fucking Pants. He encouraged Sandy Daley to make a vérité film called Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, later shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; and in a Daley movie about Patti Smith’s menstrual period, our hero is shown changing her sanitary napkin.

The relationship with the ‘surrealistically rude’ Smith proved catalytic. (Robert, too, would later be characterised as ‘lyrically selfish – that’s when you’re selfish to the point where it becomes a kind of poetry.’) Smith earns my admiration for describing her poetic method this way: ‘I’d sit at the typewriter and type until I felt sexy, then I’d go and masturbate to get high, and then I’d come back in that higher place and write some more.’ Worse advice has come from the mouths of writing teachers.

Mapplethorpe’s philosophy: ‘sex is the only thing worth living for.’ Redefining the enduring and the transient, he declared: ‘I was never into quickie sex. I’ve only slept with maybe a thousand men.’ He liked some partners to eat his excrement, and ‘was careful not to wash beneath his underarms because he believed perspiration odour was vital to his sex appeal’. His haunt was Keller’s, on New York’s West Street, ‘a social gathering place for men interested in biracial sex; whites were known as “dinge queens”, blacks “dairy queens” ’.

If we now think of Mapplethorpe as a sexual warrior who made museums hospitable to raw gaiety, his work was in reality nurtured by underground skin-industries, and his achievement was to build a credible bridge between the divergent milieux. He did a cover photo for the gay S/M porn magazine Drummer, and it was through this far-left-of-centre gig that he discovered some of his first models. Yet he was hardly alone in traversing libidinal frontiers. For example, at virtually the same time as Mapplethorpe’s early experiments, Vito Acconci was publicly masturbating ‘under a wedge-shaped ramp’ in New York’s Sonnabend Gallery: ‘He called his piece Seedbed, and his sexual fantasies were incited by the presence of the gallery-goers.’ What Morrisroe coldly calls Mapplethorpe’s ‘homosexual obsessions’ paralleled the chimeras of other artists, though they might not have pursued their eidolons as indefatigably.

The root of his rigour was a reverence, deep as Thoreau’s, for the real; that is why he photographed fistfucking. ‘I recorded that because it happened to me .... In fact ... the fist in that picture belongs to an art director for one of the better art fashion magazines ... they were friends of mine.’ So the darkly venturing fist can be traced to a world of influential men. That fist belongs to – J. Edgar Hoover? Roy Cohn? Truman Capote? The daisy chain doesn’t stop. A hostile critic in the Village Voice will write that the famous photo of a black man in a suit ‘with his fly open and his elephant cock sticking out’ is ‘ugly, degrading, obscene – typical of the artist’s work, which appeals largely to drooling, lascivious collectors who buy them, and return to their furnished rooms to jerk off’; but it is impossible and morally distasteful to segregate Mapplethorpe’s collectors from Ansel Adams’s or Henri Cartier-Bresson’s – and would the critic prefer it if the rooms were unfurnished? The worst insult is to call a work ‘masturbatory’. It is because Mapplethorpe’s images are jerk-off fodder that they should be of surpassing interest to serious students of the imagination.

Morrisroe, willing to give details, has produced a readable, wry, sharply phrased chronicle. One is grateful that she has gone out and done the research. If the book has a failing, it lies in the biographer’s lack of tolerance for her subject’s excesses, and her occasional tone-deafness to gay liberation’s utopian promise, before Aids complicated the intuition that at last the sexual body had been released from its manacles. One wishes that she felt more joy at the prospect of sexual multiplicity, more sadness at the closing of the erotic playground. One wishes that she could disconnect the oeuvre from the sensational death, or that she could thrill to the note of the sleazy. Any biographer of Mapplethorpe needs to appreciate porn’s cultural and artistic significance, and needs to feel, as Arthur Danto observes in his perceptive essay Playing with the Edge, that with ‘Aids a form of life went dead, a way of thought, a form of imagination and hope’.

Danto dignifies Mapplethorpe’s enterprise by calling it a search for transcendence, and cites Yeats: ‘Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.’ Calling the Seventies aesthetically ‘the most important decade of the century’ (that wasn’t my experience), he takes seriously the photographer’s claim that ‘to me sex is one of the highest artistic acts’; and with professorial legerdemain, flashes Hegel’s term aufheben (‘to negate, or to preserve, or to transcend’) on Mapplethorpe’s images. One senses the heady atmosphere of a classroom in which, like a thunderstorm, acts of intellectual recuperation threaten to break.

To read Danto’s essay in public is compromising, even though it is published by a university press and mentions Hegel – for the handsome volume reproduces such ‘explicit’ photographs as a self-portrait of the artist ‘from behind, in leather chaps and cowboy boots with a bullwhip stuck in his hairy anus and looping out onto the floor like a rat’s tail’. Riding a train, with this essay as my companion, I was seated by good fortune next to an attractive, probably heterosexual stranger who might have been appalled had he glimpsed – in his peripheral vision – this self-portrait, to which Danto’s analysis does entire justice:

There are plenty of male behinds in the history of art, but there can be relatively few anuses in that history, roughly for the same reason that while there are whole battalions of female nudes, there are relatively few displayed vaginas. The vagina does not show itself the way the penis does in the frontally presented nude figure, and can be seen only when the body is specially arranged to show it – only when the woman spreads her legs, as in the famous painting by Courbet rather pompously titled The Origin of the Universe. And so it is with the anus: the buttocks must be spread apart.

Italics mine. I enjoy the adverb ‘roughly’: apt but slippery.

In his preface, Danto recounts seeing the artist’s unpublished set of working photographs, stored in a carton labelled ‘SEX’, at the Mapplethorpe Foundation: ‘It was ... an extremely painful experience to go through the photographs, and I was unable, finally, to look at everything the box contained. I gave up halfway through, and when I got home that evening my wife wanted to know what had happened to me. I looked pale and shaken, and it took a while before the images faded.’ No doubt this is an accurate recounting of the experience, but as a literary moment it is odd and fabular: acts beyond the pale of wedlock are juxtaposed with the safe haven of ‘wife’, to whom the traumatised anthropologist returns after his day-labour.

Another odd, evocative moment, in which the critic describes the largeness of the penises Mapplethorpe photographed, also takes the form of an autobiographical aside. To put these ‘well-hung’ men in perspective, Danto moves from a literary to a personal anecdote, and then back to literature:

In a famous episode of A Moveable Feast, F. Scott Fitzgerald expresses concern about the size of his penis, Zelda having said it was inadequately small; and Hemingway suggests he compare himself with what is to be found on classical statues, saying that most men would be satisfied with that. In my nearly four years as a soldier, I would have noticed it if anyone was equipped like the Man in the Polyester Suit, or Mark Stevens for that matter. Robert Burns in one of his nastier verses wrote, ‘Nine inches doth please a lady’ – but something of that dimension would have been negligible in the baths and washrooms of the Seventies if Mapplethorpe’s models are typical.

Here, remarkably, a self-identified straight man (note the ‘wife’) discusses penis size, admits to having checked out other men, and acknowledges the pastoral, non-toxic inevitability of men descrying other men’s privates under the forgiving dispensations of communal life. Military service provides a pool of evidence, a fount of realism which equips the critic to understand how romantically out-of-proportion are the artist’s dream members. This is a digression, though one not irrelevant to what Mapplethorpe’s photographs propose, which is, in sum, that men’s bodies ask to be looked at.