I discovered Robert Mapplethorpe early last year on one of my many browsing tours of the Harvard Book Store. Coming from a society stifled by religous dogma, Mapplethorpe showed me a whole new world of expression. The New York artist's photography was a fascinating contrast of individual sight, perception and depiction. But just like the video is no substitute for movies on the big screen, a book is no substitute for the experience of standing in front of four larger than life images of Ajitto huddled up on a pedestal. So, this week, I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) to see the work bigger than life.
Most visitors to Mapplethorpe's controversial "The Perfect Moment" arrive eager to discover for themselves exactly what sort of art manages to get Jesse Helms so uptight. In this instance, they usually leave with the perception that it does not take much. Helms' charges that the pictures are pornographic can only reflect his artistic ignorance and socially illiteracy.
I have to admit, though, that even having seen most of the photographs before did not prepare me for the sheer intensity of the images that I was confronted with. One aspect of Mapplethorpe's art that critics can agree on is his presentation. They all admire it. Even my limited experience of the art world has made me more and more appreciative of the fine art of presentation, and the Mapplethorpe collection proved the artist to be a master of framing and exhibiting. His style adequately complements the aesthetic setting inside the small ICA.
But it is the photographs themselves that draw crowds. The technical quality of the prints is simply and inarguably exquisite. Some critics argue that his photographs are just "warmed-over pictorialism," are overly pretty. This leads some to argue that despite his photograph's controversial content, his work is actually mainstream and conservative. Mapplethorpe himself maintained he would have been a sculptor if he had lived a 100 years ago.
The formality of the man's work is rich with unique sensitivity and sight. But it is his willingness to acknowledge a particular kind of subject matter that sets him apart from others in the eyes of the public. As a gay man in New York, he had access to a community that was invisible--and disturbing--to many Americans.
In a wonderful documentary accompanying the show at the ICA, one critic noted, "People think nothing of a female nude. Robert photographed male genitalia just like he photographed anything else."
I saw a good deal of male genitalia at this exhibition. But I am more reluctant than government officials to call it pornography. It is a repressive morality that can foster a preverted imagination that sees so much evil, and I certainly don't want that kind of morality legislated.
The only works that really could even border on the pornographic would be those in the notorious "XYZ Collection". Some people wonder how graphic the photos can really be. Very graphic. Graphic enough to disturb, but isn't that in some ways the responsibility of art? To unsettle us, to define for us the extent of our own sensitivity to images that are real and true. The graphic photos, after all, are as aesthetically and technically superb as the rest of the images. We are not reacting to something in them as much as we are reacting to something in us, that establishes boundaries of so-called taste and tolerance.
What the exhibition offers, really, is the ultimate challenge to our sensibilities. Mapplethorpe photographed his life and the life around him. His still-lifes depict beauty and intense eroticism. His portraits of celebrities and friends are marked by highly aestheticised definition and exaggerated characterization. He forces us to ask ourselves where we draw the line between the visual appeal of the daring revelation of taboo images and the depiction of images for the sake of sexual arousal.
Mapplethorpe himself grappled with that line. He once said, "The feeling I got [photographing] was a strange stomach reaction, and thought it would be extraordinary to get that gut feeling from a work of art. I'm not talking about arousal. The feeling was stronger and much more interesting than that."
The most salient and sad fact is that a show of art of this unique value comes to the common public only through controversy. As a friend of Mapplethorpe once said, "One man's celebration is another man's decadence." Admittedly, Mapplethorpe's works would have drawn crowds even without the "XYZ" controversy. But the throngs lined up inside and outside the ICA are drawn there by curiousity over a fiercely debated and publicized affair, involving issues of sexuality and expression, involving rallying and standard-bearing.
Unfortunately, good artists are too often ignored by a public starved for sensationalism. People have chosen to respond only to art that gains notoriety, deservedly or not. Recently, the writings of Salman Rushdie and the music of 2-Live Crew have gained psychological and economic have benefited from such publicity, sometimes undeservedly. It would be unfortunate if, amongst heated debates concerning the rights, roles, and responsibilities of artists, art paid the price. The questions of freedom of expression, sensitivity, morality, sexuality and sensuality, aesthetics, and culture need to be answered someday. Repression of anything that sparks debate like that is something I don't particularly care for.
The only objectionable experience on my visit to the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Boston ICA was the piece of red paper stuck on the windshield of my mode of transport that I found upon returning from a three-hour feast of pure visual exhilaration. It seems that in situations like the Mapplethorpe fiasco, everybody has to pay some price.