Beauty + Terror

Kevin Kopelson

  • Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive by Frances Terpak and Michelle Brunnick
    Getty Research Institute, 240 pp, £32.50, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 60606 470 2
  • Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs by Paul Martineau and Britt Salvesen
    Getty Museum, 340 pp, £40.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 60606 469 6

In New York in the 1960s, your first sight of gay pornography may well have been in public, looking in a sex shop window. If you were a gay kid, but closeted you would have reacted with pleasure, certainly, maybe even bliss – what Roland Barthes called jouissance. But there would also have been an inexplicable, almost sickening lust, and the fear of being seen looking. If you could bring yourself to buy one or two of these magazines, sealed in cellophane, or were allowed to buy them, your reaction – now perusing a magazine at home, in private – would perhaps then have included shock at discovering that the sex acts on display, or simply suggested, were at all possible; hope that you yourself would soon be performing them; anxiety that you yourself might be gay; shame about being gay; the fear, as well as nervous excitement, about what, beyond the sex, adult life would be like for you; and awe, if not also envy, of the almost impossible beauty of these men – all of them white men – shown naked on the page.

Self-portrait for the ‘Don’t Touch Here’ exhibition announcement by Robert Mapplethorpe (1973)
Self-portrait for the ‘Don’t Touch Here’ exhibition announcement by Robert Mapplethorpe (1973)

If you were also very shy, as Robert Mapplethorpe was (born in 1946, he was in the 1960s still a very young artist making jewellery, collages and assemblages inspired by Joseph Cornell, and not yet taking photographs inspired by Nadar, Stieglitz and Steichen), you wouldn’t merely have been afraid of being seen, you would have dreaded it. In private, you would have dreaded what life would be like. Alongside the hope that you yourself would soon have sex there would also, perhaps, have been hopelessness. You yourself, you may have felt, would never be able to respond – properly – to a come-on, or be able to seduce anyone else.

If you were raised Catholic, as Mapplethorpe was, it might also have seemed to you – as visions of Christ on the cross danced in your head – that the adult male body shown naked, or nude, rather, or at least the white male and rather Christ-like body shown nude, was a figure of transcendence. But the shame you felt about being gay would – I can only imagine, as I myself am not Catholic – have been an especially guilt-ridden shame. If you were into drugs already, as Mapplethorpe was, well, I’ve never done drugs either, so I can’t really imagine what else your feelings would have involved. But I imagine it would have been something else.

Mapplethorpe never put his actual reaction, public or private, into words of that sort. He put it, eventually, into photographs, and not just the homoerotic male nudes, which show both black men and white men, as well as the somewhat pornographic, sometimes seemingly painful and violent – or sadomasochistic – semi-nudes (those men are usually in leather). He put it into self-portraits, artist portraits, society portraits, celebrity portraits, figure studies and even still lifes – almost all of them done in black-and-white. And he expected, for some reason, or perhaps he just hoped, that other people, gay or not, shy or not, Catholic or not, druggy or not, would react to them as he did. Perhaps, then, the Mapplethorpe aesthetic should be said to have involved ‘defamiliarisation’ – ostranenie, as Viktor Shklovsky called it – on acid. Or maybe defamiliarisation on poppers. ‘Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life,’ Shklovsky didn’t quite say. ‘It exists to make one feel things, to make the cock cocky.’

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[*] Koestenbaum wrote about Mapplethorpe in the LRB of 25 January 1996.