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Mapplethorpe in Grand Palais

Whitewash: Artist and Models

When one reads this passage [from Martinique by Michel Cournot] a dozen times and lets oneself go; that is, abandons oneself to the movement of its images—one is no longer aware of the Negro but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis. (Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Masks)*(1)

By no means the least ironic aspect of the Mapplethorpe enterprise is the ways by which the fetishism that is so prominent a feature within the work is replicated in its celebratory discourses as well as its exhibition formats.*(2).  If we accept Freud’s model of the structure of fetishism by which the male subject recognizes a physical fact (i.e., women do not have penises) and simultaneously rejects/denies/represses this disturbing observation by investing a surrogate object with compensatory significance, a number of contradictions in the discourses generated by Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre are clarified. Indeed, one of the reasons that this model of [psychic] fetishism is useful in critical thinking is that it helps account for logical contradictions, famously encapsulated in Octave Mannoni’s “Je sais bien, mais quand même” (I know, but nevertheless).

Here are some of the contradictions I have gleaned from the Grand Palais’ exhibition catalogue as well as the two current exhibitions themselves:

1. Yes, one knows that there are any number of photographers both prior to and contemporary with Mapplethorpe where nude men are photographed as aesthetic objects (including those by his friend, the New Orleans artist George Dureau, or his contemporary Peter Hujar) but…Mapplethorpe is singular in his artistry and originality vis à vis the male body.

 

©Georges Dureau  

©Robert Mapplethorpe

2. Yes, one knows that first through his relationship with John McKendry, a Metropolitan Museum curator, and shortly after, in his long term relationship with Sam Wagstaff, then amassing an enormous collection of 19th and 20th century photographs and mentoring Mapplethorpe’s work and career, he assimilated—I would say, mimicked—the style and the forms of “classic” photographers such as Brassaï, Edward Weston, Imogene Cunningham, Edward Steichen, Herbert List, George Hoyningen-Huene, among many others, but…his “inspiration” comes from Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio, Francis Bacon, and so forth…

©Brassaï                                                                    ©R.Mapplethorpe        

3. Yes, one knows that he was madly ambitious and his work and career were managed and shaped by Wagstaff, the Robert Miller Gallery and other art world professionals, but…like any great artist, Mapplethorpe possessed a singular vision (genius will out).


4. Yes, one knows that various biographers have documented his appallingly racist comments about black men’s minds and bodies, his obsession with black men’s genitalia but…Mapplethorpe elevates his subjects into the empyrean of art, and even gives their first names, and sometimes their last names in the title(!)*(3)

5. Yes, Mapplethorpe’s black lovers and models were primarily from what is called the “underclass,” but… he gave each of his models a signed print.


6. Yes, except for creating his foundation a year before his death he manifested no interest in racism, gay rights, or AIDS militancy, but… he and his work can be somehow aligned with Jean Genet, whose political activism was unceasing and crucially part of his later writing. In other words, it is not bad faith that underpins both the whitewashing of Mapplethorpe’s character, or the sanitizing of the racial, if not racist fantasies that are the sine qua non of his representations of black masculinity. It is rather the combined force of investment—in all its senses—from the ideology of the great artist to the monetary value of the work, from the increasing dependence of institutional art spaces such as the Grand Palais on corporate financial support and blockbuster attendance, both of which determine exhibitions, and in the current instance, collectively produce this totem of art photography, l’artiste maudit whose “scandalous” subjects assure its audience (or purchasers) of their sophistication, tolerance and connoisseurship. *(4)

In 1993, on the occasion of the Whitney Museum’s Biennial exhibition, Glenn Ligon presented his serial work Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-1993). Consisting of 91 photographs of black men cut from Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, framed and sequenced in the same order as the publication, these were accompanied by approximately 70 quotes and citations that Ligon had collected during the two years of the work’s production.
Mounted and framed between the two rows of images, these included excerpts from literary texts, from the civil rights movement, Christian evangelical tracts, comments by other artists, some by the models themselves, “found” texts, and observations by random men Ligon had queried in gay bars. What determined Ligon’s placement of the texts in relation to the images, I do not know, but even if randomly positioned, they served to re-frame Mapplethorpe’s pictures, both as individual images and as a collective ensemble.

This re-framing, however, revealed little about Ligon’s own opinion of Mapplethorpe’s work (Ligon is black and gay).*(5)

Instead, it re-framed the pictures as a kind of open question to the viewer.  Insofar as the short texts embraced race and racism, desire and sexuality, domination and subjection, history and political struggle, as well as individual responses, the spectator was enjoined to interrogate her own responses to the imagery in far more complex ways than the pictures, on their own, might prompt. Moreover, in addition to complex issues of form and content in photography (as well as that of authorship; not for nothing is Ligon an alumnus of the Whitney Program), Notes on the Margin implicitly acknowledged that the bedrock of all and every response is located in individual subjectivity, the elements that constitute the personal, including racial and sexual identity—and possibly—the politics of the viewer. An important aspect of Ligon’s project was thus the way that it further opened for question, rather than adjudicated the politics of representation as they are raised by Mapplethorpe’s unapologetically aestheticized, fetishized, and objectivized photographs of black men as icons of his own desire.
More than a decade after Ligon’s Notes on the Margin, and nearly thirty years after The Black Book’s publication, the exhibitions now at the Grand Palais and the Musée Rodin (and the catalogue accompanying the former exhibition) give little indication that there might be any real problem with the Mapplethorpe oeuvre other than its more sexually explicit gay subjects (most of which are not in any case, on view). I refer again to the issue of race, the elephant in the living room, an issue massively and unmistakably evident in Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men, but apparently invisible as such to French critics and viewers. (As always, the indispensable Elisabeth Lebovici, art conscience of France, is the exception).*(6)

Although Michel Guerrin’s review in Le Monde is bracingly shrewd about the self-censorship so apparent in the Grand Palais, as well the mutually reinforcing apparatuses of scandal and market, the political and ethical stakes that arise in the domain of race and representation are unremarked.*(7)

As one would expect, the visitors at both exhibitions are overwhelmingly white; security staff and other low-level personnel are (mostly) people of color. This is perhaps neither here nor there; the art world in France, as in the U.S, is overwhelmingly white, and even those artists resolved to invent new kinds of public spaces, new forms of address, engage new publics, or contrive new approaches in the service of the democratizing culture, are generally trumped by the more powerful determinations of class and the power differentials between museum, the space of elite culture, and the street.*(8)

Even at the time of their initial exhibition and publication as a book, Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men were subject to considerable controversy. Aside from the more predictable forms of outrage originating in homophobic, right wing, or anti-pornography camps, some of the most substantial critique was produced by black intellectuals, for whom the issues raised by racial representation were anything but academic.*(9)

Kobena Mercer’s 1986 essay “Reading Racial Fetishism” is a case in point, a scathing analysis of how Mapplethorpe’s photographs operate on racial, sexual, and political levels:

Approached as a textual system, both Black Males (1983) and the Black Book (1986) catalogue a series of perspectives, vantage points and “takes” on the black male body. The first thing to notice—so obvious it goes without saying—is that all the men are nude. Each of the camera’s points of view leads to a unitary vanishing point: an erotic/aesthetic objectification of black male bodies into the idealized form of a homogeneous type thoroughly saturated with a totality of sexual predicates. We look through a sequence of individual personally named Afro-American men, but what we see is only their sex as the essential sum total of their meanings signified around blackness and maleness. It is as if according to Mapplethorpe’s line of sight: Black + Male = Erotic/Aesthetic Object. Regardless of the sexual preferences of the spectator, the connotation is that the “essence” of black male identity lies in the domain of sexuality. Whereas the photographs of gay male S/M rituals invoke a subcultural sexuality that consists of doing something, black men are confined and defined in their very being as sexual and nothing but sexual, hence hypersexual.*(10)

Drawing on a number of theorists, including Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall, and Frantz Fanon, Mercer scrutinized the works from many perspectives, including the codes of art photography and sculpture, the mechanisms of fetishism, the binary structure of the racist imaginary, the function of the racial stereotype, among many others. Among the most incisive of his arguments is his discussion of Mapplethorpe’s treatment of skin, what Frantz Fanon had called the “epidermalization” of [colonial] racist projection.

As each fragment [of the body] seduces the eye into ever more intense fascination, we glimpse the dilation of a libidinal way of looking that spreads itself across the surface of black skin. Harsh contrasts of shadow and light draw the eye to focus and fix attention on the texture of black men’s skin. According to Bhahba, unlike the sexual fetish per se, whose meanings are usually hidden as a hermeneutic secret, skin color functions as “the most visible of fetishes” (Bhabha 1983: 30). Whether it is devalorized in the signifying chain of “negrophobia” or hypervalorized as a desirable attribute in “necrophilia,” the fetish of skin color in the codes of racial discourse constitutes the most visible element in the articulation of what Stuart Hall (1977) calls “the ethnic signifier.” The shining surface of black skin serves several functions in representation; it suggests the physical exertion of powerful bodies, as black boxers always glisten like bronze in the illuminated square of the boxing ring or, in pornography, it suggests intense sexual activity “just before” the photograph was taken… In Mapplethorpe’s pictures the specular brilliance of black skin is bound in a double articulation as a fixing agent for the fetishistic structure of the photographs…Here, black skin and print surface are bound together to enhance the pleasure of the white spectator as much as the profitability of these art-world commodities exchanged among the artist and his dealers, collectors and curators. *(11)

Mapplethorpe’s production is now retrospectively inseparable from the history of AIDS in the U.S., and almost all contextual discussions of his work include references to its devastations in the NYC cultural world. It was the cause his death, that of his companion and patron Sam Wagstaff as well as many of his lovers, friends and models. In a certain sense, therefore, this makes of his work a form of memento mori for a particular milieu, one that encompassed different classes and races, lives all brutally cut short. But for many of the now middle-aged or elderly survivors of the halcyon days of pre-AIDS sexual underworlds who now write about Mapplethorpe, his milieu and imagery, there exists an element of nostalgia that suffuses it, thereby muting, when not foreclosing the more troubling considerations of racial stereotyping within gay (and straight) white culture.*(12)

One element of this nostalgia is the utopian notion of an unfettered and polymorphous—although primarily gay—sexuality as an agent of liberation, in which forms of sexual expression are believed to subvert what I would call patriarchy, but others now refer to as “hetero-normativity.” Both nostalgia and gay identity politics operate to paper over issues of race and class that were not then, much less now, resolved by interracial sexual relations or particular sexual practices.
As was already evident at the time of his first posthumous exhibitions, Mapplethorpe’s photographs provided fodder for an increasingly powerful right-wing reaction, fueled by vicious homophobic wellsprings, within which Mapplethorpe’s life and work could be viewed—as was the epidemic itself—as the just punishment for wild, promiscuous and perverse sexuality (and drugs, but that is another story). This coalescing of a moral panic, the ascendancy of the religious right, the so-called culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, and a wide scale sociopolitical backlash led to a certain re-thinking by the earlier critics. This is apparent in Ligon’s comment in the footnote, but discussed at length in Mercer’s revision of his argument written in 1989, three years after his initial essay. “This chain of events,” he remarks, “has irrevocably altered the context in which we perceive, evaluate and argue about the aesthetic and political value of Mapplethorpe’s photographs.*(13)

Basically, Mercer put new emphasis on Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality and the address of his work to a gay black male spectator, affirming the models’ beauty and desirability. Locating his own desire in relation to the image, and his own identifications, Kobena therefore modified his earlier analysis of the imagery as trafficking with the most pernicious racist stereotypes. Certain aspects of his rethinking are those that Mapplethorpe’s apologists, such as White, have subsequently employed. These include, but are not limited to Mapplethorpe’s having been a sexual partner of these men, and as a gay man, his status as a subordinated subject, his act of making black men aesthetically present, the transgression of barriers between high and low, and so forth. “Once grounded in the context of an urban gay male culture, as one of the many subcultures of modernity, Mapplethorpe’s ironic juxtaposition of elements drawn from the repository of high culture—where the nude is indeed one of the most valued genres of the dominant culture—with elements drawn from below—such as pornographic conventions or commonplace stereotypes—can be seen as a subversive recoding of the ideological values supporting the normative aesthetic ideal”*(14)

That Mercer’s reconsideration of his earlier essay is longer than the initial one (which is, obviously, far more polemical) is suggestive. Much of the argumentation is strained, circuitous, hard to pin down, and, as he freely concedes, personal. But asserting that the nude (sex unspecified, but surely he means the female nude) is ipso facto a sign of elite culture, obscures the fact that it is largely dead as an artistic genre (for good reason) and more to the point, it is precisely feminist theory, criticism and practice that helped to make it obsolete. (I am not here referring to the naked body as such, whether in performance or other media). In other words, if feminism teaches us anything in terms of the politics of corporeal representation, especially photographic representation, it is that relations of domination and subordination, ideologies of gender, voyeurism, objectification—and preeminently affirmations of fetishistic desire, are inevitably sustained if they are not subverted, de-sublimated, or otherwise “ruined.” Mercer’s argument as a gay male subject who finds his desire affirmed in Mapplethorpe’s images is thus perhaps analogous to those gay women who find erotic or pornographic representations of women pleasurable or arousing. My point is not that they shouldn’t, much less that such imagery is “bad” and should be censored, but how such imagery operates for gay women or women in general, has little to do with how it operates in general. Here, as elsewhere, context counts, but the context of Mapplethorpe’s current exhibitions in Paris, or better, its total absence of context other than its museological finery, that is, its mode of address, is a major problem. A serious presentation of Mapplethorpe’s production, instead of exhibiting his kitsch religious artifacts or juvenilia, might well have included his contemporaries working with similar subjects in a similar milieu (e.g., Hujar, Dureau, Mark Morrisroe, etc.), possibly some Tom of Finland graphics and gay magazines to link with mass cultural forms, and crucially, the programming of such works as Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, Isaac Julian’s Looking for Langston, and mixed media from activist collectives like Act-Up and other organizations.
All of which is to say that the ethical and political issues that arise around certain types of representation of black bodies by white photographers, should not be willed away, and Mapplethorpe’s status as participant observer in a particular time, place, and milieu, should not exempt his work from critical analysis. Especially in France, where debates and discussions about race and representation, so important within Anglo-American contexts, appear disappointingly absent.

ABIGAÏL SOLOMON-GODEAU

 

[1] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Classics, 1986) p. 169-70.

[2] I mean “enterprise” in the dictionary sense insofar as the proper name Robert Mapplethorpe encompasses his foundation, his galleries, individual dealers, the museums that exhibit or acquire his work, its auction market activities, the corporations that sponsor and/or own his work, the (vast) publishing of monographs or coffee table books dedicated to his work, and so forth.

[3] See, for example, Patricia Morrisoe, Mapplethorpe: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1995). See as well the interview “Take 17: Mapplethorpe Mentor George Dureau,” in Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera, Palm Drive Publishing: San Francisco, 1994, sourced at www.JackFritscher.com, May 8, 2012.

[4] The corporate funding for the Grand Palais show comes from Aurel BCG an investment firm and the “cooperation,” (by which I assume its loan of Mapplethorpe’s work) of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

[5] “I asked myself if those photographs were racist. I realized then that the question was too limiting, that it was more complicated. Can we say that Mapplethorpe’s work is documentary or fetishistic? Maybe, but at the same time he put black men into a tradition of portraiture to which they’ve never had access before.” Glenn Ligon, quoted in Carley Berwick, “Stranger in America: Glenn Ligon,” Art in America, May 2011.

[6] See her blog, Le Beau Vice, and her essay on the Grand Palais exhibition.

[7] Michel Guerrin, “Le mauvais Mapplethorpe,” Le Monde, 19/04/2014.

[8] The current exhibition of Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation/space Flamme Eternelle (Présence et Production) at the Palais de Tokyo is an apt example. The security staff, fire prevention personnel (because of the eponymous flame), are men of color; the cleaning staff (each day produces a huge mess) are a specially contracted Portuguese cleaning company; the visitors appear to be overwhelmingly white and young.

[9] It needs also be acknowledged that black women artists and intellectuals, notably Ntozake Shange, have endorsed Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men. See, for example, Robert Mapplethorpe and Ntozake Shange, Black Book (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1986).

[10] Kobena Mercer, “Reading Racial Fetishism,” in Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle (New York and London: Routledge, 1994) p. 174.

[11] Mercer, pp. 183-4.

[12] See, for example, Edmund White’s remarkably ingenuous essay in the exhibition catalogue “Génération Mapplethorpe,” in Robert Mapplethorpe (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 2014) pp139-161.

[13] Mercer, p. 189

[14] Mercer, pp. 198-199.