Mapplethorpe and the New Obscenity. (Essay)

By Kidd, Dustin | Afterimage, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview

Mapplethorpe and the New Obscenity. (Essay)


Kidd, Dustin, Afterimage


Robert Mapplethorpe is now widely known as one of a pair of artists, along with Andres Serrano, who catapulted the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) into the crisis that is widely referred to as the "culture wars of the arts." (1) As a result, Mapplethorpe is now generally associated with a particular kind of obscene art. The association is unfair for at least two major reasons. First, the key decisions that implicated the NEA in the funding of "obscenity" were made not by the artist, and not even by the NEA, but by mediating arts organizations-specifically, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, that used a $30,000 NEA grant to mount a retrospective of Mapplethorpe's photography. Second, it is important to recognize that Mapplethorpe's relationship with "obscenity" was a development of the culture wars and not a fundamental dynamic of his work. His photographs also dealt with the still life or portrait as their subject, and his own records indicate an uneasiness about including his sexually explicit, homoerotic, and sadomasochistic photographs amongst artistic collections of his work. (2)

When the Mapplethorpe retrospective Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment first appeared in Philadelphia in the fall of 1988, under the curatorship of Janet Kardon, the images in the exhibit were largely critiqued by the art world in terms of overly formalist principles, with little application of the term of obscenity. In Kardon's essay "The Perfect Moment", which was written as a guide and introduction to the exhibit, she describes Mapplethorpe's work as follows:

There is a drama in each photograph; edges are used as the perimeters of a proscenium, with subjects strategically sited within those boundaries and caught at a moment of absolute stasis. Most sitters are portrayed frontally, aligned with the camera lens, in direct eye contact with the photographer and, in turn, the viewer. Nudes generally assume classical poses. (3)

This is the language of formalism, a perspective that emphasizes the analysis of form over and above the issues of content or social context. (4) Kardon is reacting to Mapplethorpe's skill and creative decision-making as a photographer. Her remarks range from comments about the composition of the photographs to comparisons of Mapplethorpe's subjects to traditional forms, such as the classical pose. Regarding Mapplethorpe's use of homoeroticism and sado-masochistic sexuality, she says, "although his models often are depicted in uncommon sexual acts, the inhabitants of the photographs assume gestures governed by geometry, and they are shown against minimal backgrounds" (5) Again, the language is that of formalism. Kardon turns, for support to Roland Barthes's earlier writings about Mapplethorpe's work. Barthes's collection of notes on photography, Camera Lucida, identifies certain kinds of photographs as unary. Unary photographs capture the visual image of particular moments, but they do nothing more. They are flat photographs with singular interpretations. The photographer in the case of the unary photo is not an artist and imparts no artistic or creative decisions. Journalistic photography often exemplifies the concept of the unary, but Barthes points to pornography as well.

Another unary photograph is the pornographic photograph (I am not saying the erotic photograph: the erotic is a pornographic that has been disturbed, fissured). Nothing more homogeneous than a pornographic photograph. It is always a naive photograph, without intention and without calculation. Like a shop window which shows only one illuminated piece of jewelry, it is completely constituted by the presentation of only one thing: sex: no secondary, untimely object ever manages to half conceal, delay, or distract...A proof a contrario: Mapplethorpe shifts his close-ups of genitalia from the pornographic to the erotic by photographing the fabric of underwear at very close range: the photograph is no longer unary, since I am interested in the material. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Mapplethorpe and the New Obscenity. (Essay)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.