in media res

thoughts on Mapplethorpe, censorship and the power of the erotic by aristea F
March 23, 2008, 10:29 pm
Filed under: aristea, media ethics, photography | Tags: , , ,

Since there seems to be a holy(…) silence covering the blog lately, and intrigued by the unexpected popularity shown in statistics of the facebook posts (especially the first one), I decided to change course a bit and check on the alertness of those ‘in the middle of things’ and the others in the middle of term papers. I have been busy with the pornography issue lately and the long-lasting debate around censorship-obscenity between(but not exclusively) feminists. It’s a tricky one and I won’t post on the debate before I have gone through the term paper process. Nevertheless I want to talk about Robert Mapplethorpe.

I like Mapplethorpe, I first saw his photos in a taschen photo book of male nudes I acquired long after his death and I could not turn away. But then some were very difficult for me, particularly the ones that are not entirely nudes but still in the erotica genre. Some others were the impetus for my own art studies. I lay here my personal experience to demonstrate that when it comes to erotica and desire some matters will be unquestioned. Namely social matters. Race.

Then, holding a publication from a prestigious publisher like taschen, one knows they are not holding pornography but art, even if they take it in the bedroom once in a while. I am not sure about definitions, if pornography is defined as produced with the aim of ‘sexual arousal’ and Mapplethorpe did not produce his photographs aiming at sexual arousal but I am aroused when I look at them, does that make them pornographic? What is art, what is erotica and what is pornography? Who is to say and who is to care about it?

Apparently definitions are essential to legislation though laws such as the 1959 Obscenity law (revised 1964) are based on culturally and historically shaped ideas such as that of ‘obscenity’. But I should care too if I am to have a Mapplethorpe book in my possession if Mapplethorpe is to be announced ‘extreme pornography’ at some point( I know this is sci-fi scenario but I use it for the sake of the argument) and such possession criminalized. And is it not completely ridiculous to think that an image should be sanctioned by ‘art’ so that it’s ok to stand on the bookshelves or hang on the wall or even be placed in a student blog? Or is it just that the ones that can afford a 500 thousand US dollars Mapplethorpe on their wall can afford being sexually aroused in a gallery or their living room?

Apparently the art tag is not enough. In the US in 1989 the bill pushed by Jesse Helms forbid the National Endowment for the Arts from funding ‘obscenity’ in art works. This included depiction of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, children and sexual acts (see Judith Butler ‘The Force of Fantasy’). Almost ten years later, in the UK, the academy is not enough either. The University of Central England in Birmingham library was deprived of their Mapplethorpe book for a year when a third year student doing a project on art and pornography was questioned by the police. The University were initially asked to remove pages of the book, then it would be returned to them. The whole story can be read here.

For Audre Lorde the erotic is power and oppression has always distorted and suppressed that source of change. I cannot overstate how erotic I find Patti Smith in this picture(and out of it) but I do think that the police force would have difficulty saying why this Mapplethorpe picture is equally or more powerful than ‘Jim and Tom, Sausalito 1977‘ pissing on each other.

aristea f 08


3 Comments so far
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Mapplethorpe is the kind of person people love to hate, but I find I neither love nor hate his pictures, rather I quite like them. I have never found his pictures interesting in either a pornographic or erotic sense. When I first encountered them long before the internet they were quite shocking in their content, however today they seem very mild. Obviously I’m not now writing about the flowers. The flowers are very sensual which is interesting for me because the famous pictures with the bull-whip and suchlike are not sensual at all.

The black and white nudes to me do seem rather “of their time”. I think he made black and white nudity fashionable in the eighties and then those birthday card companies got hold of the idea and made it so popular that it became rather naff. The Mapplethorpe ones do have an originality about them still I think.

However I think personally Mapplethorpe is mostly about politics, style and presentation which he was excellent at, but I feel he may not be as big on content. Some might say the politics are content and while this is true I think that with Mapplethorpe they are all of the content.

Comment by giantinsect

I remember the birthday cards, yeah, esp. those with
naked men and babies, it was the ‘new man’ time as
well. But I did not know Mapplethorpe then(was a bit young). I agree with you that its all politics and I think that representation is politics, the flowers to be pictured as erotic or sensual is a political statement, it re-defines what can count as erotic. I’m not really sure what more you expect when you say ‘he may not be as big on content’ -do you mean that you find them ‘mild’ as you say?

Comment by aristea F

Hi Aristea

When I write that ‘he may not be as big on content’ what I mean is that as artistic items they don’t communicate more to me than the politics, style and presentation which he was very good at.

Comment by giantinsect

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