02 August 2006

Mapplethorpe: Thinking About Politics & Events

There is an exhibition of Mapplethorpe's work at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh at the moment. The Guardian ran a piece on it -"Such Dirty Pretty Things." Unsurprisingly the author discovered that Mapplethorpe seems not to have been a very swell guy. So what! His work is terrific and raises all sorts of interesting questions about politics. I am not referring to the obvious issues of free expression that trail in the wake of right-wing objections to his depictions of sadomasochistic, gay sexual practices. Those are important, but we might raise similar issues when discussing all sorts of artistic endeavors. In other words, Mapplethrope is hardly unique in that respect.

[Calla Lily, 1986. Gelatin-silver print, edition 10/10, 23 7/8 x 19 3/4 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. 93.4302. © The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe. ]

Instead, it is interesting to consider the extent to which those images themselves were political in the 1970s. They are not pictures that urge us to man the barricades for the cause of gay liberation or sexual liberaiton more generally. But they do, as philosopher Arthur Danto points out in his book on Mapplethorpe, make a striking effort to legitimiate a way of life that was marginal. [I refer here to Athur Danto. Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996 (now unfortunately out of print).] This is important because it pushes our conceptions of politics away from a pre-occupation with "events" - wars, elections, demonstrations, and so forth - and toward a broader understanding of political action as in a sense world disclosing. I am not altogether happy with that characterization but it will ahve to do for now. This is an abstract topic to which (perhaps to your dismay!) I plan to return. I offer it as a counterpoint to the personallized, gossipy approach that too often passes for criticism and commentary on photography.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this image, for its fragile elegance - though there is something that makes me think it may be stronger than it looks. I don't know too much about Mapplethorpe, but I did read the piece in the Guardian - I am intrigued by your description "world disclosing" - do you mean in a self revelatory sense, in that Mapplethorpes life/work makes us think about the potentialities within, that we may keep hidden, sometimes even from ourselves?

02 August, 2006 22:12  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Well, this image conveys a sort of eroticism, I think. You are right about the strength too.

Mapplethorpe's S&M images disclose a world and the sort of relaitonships and selves it might sustain that in many ways is wholly foreign to the experience of many, many people (less so now, perhaps, than in the mid-1970s). They are about relaitons of power and desire and trust that Danto, for instance, had an admitedly difficult time comprehending. All of that is unsatisfying and I need to re-read his book. But he is pretty clear that by aestheticising those relations as he does Mapplethorpe quite literally was disclosing a world, rendering it visible, in a way that viewers might not be able to help seeing, despite themselves. And thereby he was pressing a claim for the men (mostly) who inhabit that world.

02 August, 2006 23:09  

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