Unreal Nature

May 11, 2016

The Pursuit of Beauty and the Solicitation of Desire

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

Mapplethorpe’s most lasting impact as an artist was his redrawing of the boundary line of the aesthetic, to include that which had previously been excluded from it.

This is from the essay ‘Robert Mapplethorpe’s Queer Classicism’ by Jonathan D. Katz found in Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs by Paul Martineau and Britt Salvesen (2016):

… Many other artists photographed erotic, and even homoerotic, scenarios before and during Mapplethorpe’s career. But their work tended toward a mode of ostensible realism, as if to implicitly convey the idea that what was being photographed functioned in documentary terms, as a positivist account of what life looked like. By girding the erotic in a self-contradictory antirealism, a manifest staginess, Mapplethorpe ensures that eroticism in his photography is never merely a slice of life.

What sets Mapplethorpe’s work apart is that its eroticism is a function of its classicism, and vice versa. He made viewers look at the erotic in new ways precisely because of the way he photographed it. The treatment of eroticism (and especially socially marginal eroticism) with such bravura compels people to look closely and carefully at what many still prefer not to see. Furthermore, Mapplethorpe’s work seductively elicits a response of aesthetic pleasure from the encounter with images that might in other circumstances trigger discomfort or even disgust.

Robert_Mapplethorpe_Exhibition
Mapplethorpe exhibition 2009 [image from Wikipedia]

… It would seem, indeed, that Mapplethorpe’s most lasting impact as an artist was his redrawing of the boundary line of the aesthetic, to include that which had previously been excluded from it. … The irony in this, an inherently political irony, is not in the familiar notion that “beauty is everywhere,” but rather that human sexuality, in all its permutations, aspires to the same transcendental possibilities as the most exalted religious subject — for they both deploy the flesh in an effort to lead beyond the flesh.

… Pornography and art, in Mapplethorpe’s formulation, shared the pursuit of beauty and the solicitation of desire — and any dividing line between these two kinds of looking was specious. On this score Mapplethorpe was clear, and he often articulated a hope to combine the raw, instinctive power of pornography with the formal beauty of fine-art photography with a view to generating a particularly vigorous hybrid of the two.

… Sexuality wasn’t in the photograph; it was the photograph, which is to say that Mapplethorpe’s classical affect was an indissoluble amalgam of his pictorial means and his subjects.

… A precisely composed and framed subject could make any image, even one that was flat-out erotic, into a paradigm of the classical. … If anything can become anything else, then the perception of essential difference is only that: a perception. Mapplethorpe’s art is a serious, even activist, triumph of style over substance.

-Julie

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