Exhibit for the Defence: The Selling of Robert Mapplethorpe

By Michael Torosian

The Globe and Mail, 28 November 1992

The artist dies, the oeuvre is complete, the time has come for an assessment to determine his place in contemporary art history. This is the normal chain of events for artists of stature or fame, but in the case of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989 at the age of forty-two, the posthumous evaluation had to be deferred. In the year following his death, Mapplethorpe’s work was engulfed in a fire storm of controversy. The incendiary component was a group of sexually explicit images, in particular those presenting homosexuals engaged in S&M. Legally Mapplethorpe’s work was exonerated and certified as art, but the debate had been conducted at such a level of hysteria and paranoia that the ensuing sensationalism obliterated any real appraisal of his talent. In an apparent effort to vindicate Mapplethorpe and assert his place in photography, a new book has been issued, assembled by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

The book is in every way a monument. With more than 260 photographs it is one of the largest retrospective monographs ever published in U.S. photography. By comparison, the lavish catalogues issued by the National Gallery of Art in Washington on master photographers Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz contained one third as many images. The only feasible objective for creating a book of such heroic dimensions is to support the critic Arthur Danto’s contention that Mapplethorpe was one of the most important artists of his era.

The essay, sensitized by recent history, reads like part character-witness deposition, part defense summary and part art history lesson. Danto constructs the specious argument that, however repugnant some viewers may find Mapplethorpe’s erotic work, it is above reproach because of the high morality of the artist himself. I know of no time in the history of mankind when morality was a prerequisite for great art. Surely the historical parade of artistic decadence, from the intrigues of Cellini to the indiscretions of Picasso, did little to corrupt great artists’ talents. Danto imbues Mapplethorpe with qualities that ensure “dignity” and “moral space” to his photographs; and counterpoints that by characterizing Diane Arbus as someone who “betrayed trust” producing work that is “vaguely exploitive” and regards Henri Cartier-Bresson as a predatory “stalker”.

The tacit conclusion is that Mapplethorpe’s virtues made him a superior artist, but it’s a hard sell.

Danto’s aesthetic claims for Mapplethorpe are based largely on a fascinating exploration of Hegel’s concept of Aufheben, the contention that the artist’s vision transcends his subject matter. (Magritte declared that a pipe was not a pipe; Danto declares that a penis is not a penis.) But in the end the essay is less an analysis and more a plea for understanding. It seems as though the specter of Mapplethorpe’s notoriety has once again intruded upon his artistic evaluation.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s original photographs themselves are wondrously beautiful objects and their essence is preserved in the high production values of this edition. His sense of illumination was exquisite. The objects of his attention shimmer with a radiance that celebrates light. Sexuality and sensuality pervade everything he surveyed - flowers, sculptures, faces, bodies - and what is liberating about his work is that he approached everything reverentially, whether sacred or profane. But note, reverence is not a moral judgement, it is aesthetic rapture.

This volume contains the most extensive collection of self portraits of Mapplethorpe that I have seen and it is a revelation. All his work has a theatricality about it, but in the self-portraits there is a complex psychology at work. He gives the viewer access to his demons, obsessions and delights; it is both an invitation and a challenge. Ironically, these works show the shallowness of most of his other portraits, in which highly stylized poses substitute for emotional and psychological evocation. It’s a strange contradiction that an artist willing to go over the edge ran so often to the safest territory. His final works, photographs of sculptures enveloped in a black that seems to reach to infinity, are a fitting tribute to his economy, grace and taste.

As exceptional an object as this book is in its typography and design, it fails to justify its own grandeur and the extravagant philosophical claims it makes for Mapplethorpe’s photography. His work, however, is stylish and provocative and the art scene is poorer for his premature passing. It may be years before Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre can be viewed in a more purely aesthetic context but so far it has survived the chorus of outrage it provoked and there is every reason to believe it will survive the inflated intentions of its executors.

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