If Mapplethorpe Made Me a Pervert, Then There's Always Esther Rantzen Waiting to Save Me
Bywater, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
Esther and Robert: a marriage made ... well, perhaps not in heaven, but certainly in some seething empyrean of desperate co-dependency. Mapplethorpe, the darkly female Yin, all arse and groin and crimson joy; Rantzen, toothily bright, interminably positive, raucously bellowing her moral opprobria from her gaudy media sideshow: "Invisible worms! Look! Invisible worms! Surely you can see them, too?"
How they need each other, the Mapplethorpes and the Rantzens; the one trying to reveal our dark secrets through an aesthetic spyglass, the other hunting through life in search of ugliness. "I am bad, but this - look! - is beautiful," says Mapplethorpe. "You think things are beautiful, but look: I will show you filth," says Rantzen; "Am I not truly good?"
I wonder what it would be like to see the Hayward's big Mapplethorpe retrospective without any extraneous baggage, but that would be impossible. You'd have to have been raised in some remote fastness, not only removed from all art but also a place where Esther Rantzen - the the moral equivalent of KwikSave or Do-It-All - had never penetrated. And you would have to be quite sexless, too, though familiar with all the exigencies of human sexuality and able to view it with a dispassionate eye. Perhaps an agnostic Muslim brothel-keeper could have the right clear and disinterested vision, but anyone else would have at least one of their instincts or learned bigotries assaulted.
And that's where the problem lies. Mapplethorpe isn't just another slick operative, trading on the American legal ruling that if something is art it cannot be pornographic. He is a technically accomplished photographer with a clear and coherent artistic vision. We want him to be good. We want him to fit in. We want to be able to say: "Mapplethorpe is the last great Victorian photographer," or "Mapplethorpe is a direct descendant of Rodin!" or "Mapplethorpe is a deeply moral allegorist."
You can argue any of those positions. Victorian? Yes; Mapplethorpe appears more in love with the truth of photography than is nowadays considered cool. Like his Victorian progenitor, the ability of the camera to project an affidavit of reality excites him: here is musculature, here are stamens, this is what the light on these surfaces - a vase, grapes, petals, a wooden bench, a feather-boa coat, a gun, a shaven head - really looks like. Isn't his decision also to show us dicks (erect and so-so), men in leather masks, bum-clefts, fisting, watersports, even Ron Stevenson with a giant bung hanging from his penis - just an extension of this delight in precise representation? Look! You won't have seen this before! Here's what it really looks like! (And I wonder whether this, too, is the reason for his status among dreadful American "collectors": the illusion he offers that our dark secret loves can be purified into a neo-Hellenic gentility by an exquisite perfection of surface, in a society obsessed by surface appearance, what a powerful lure.)
A descendant of Rodin? Yes, too. The organiser of this retrospective, Germano Celant, puts it nicely: "The goal that counts for both [Mapplethorpe and Rodin] is a `corporality' that provokes the viewer, dislodging and shifting the confines between good and evil, beautiful and ugly, moral and immoral from their accepted and common locations." And we shouldn't forget that Rodin's The Kiss, now swooned over by sighing teenage couples and a must-see on every school culture week-end, was once denounced by the Rantzens of the day as obscene, degrading, a clarion-call to indiscriminate copulation. …