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There are two good ways to become famous in America. One is to possess rare genius or, at the very least, an appreciable talent. The usual suspects come to mind: Hemingway, Gershwin, Hopper. Another is to appeal to a particular cultural neurosis, a peculiar demographic phenomenon. It was the latter which brought the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe more fame than he ever could have imagined and, in the eyes of many, more fame than he ever deserved.
Mapplethorpe is most famous for his entanglement with the protracted and unintentionally humorous debate over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in the late eighties. Always a contrarian, the critic Robert Hughes turned up his nose at Mapplethorpe by virtually ignoring him: "Conservative," he sniffed, "in every sense but the sexual."
Ironically, as Hughes himself pointed out, Mapplethorpe never got a cent from the NEA; the museum putting on his "The Perfect Moment" exhibit did. But the symbolism was enough to suffice. The artist, who died before the controversy reached its real boiling point, turned Jesse Helms and other politicians into kids at a peep show. For a brief moment in art history, "that bullwhip" was more famous than the Mona Lisa.
In reality, the artist was neither the satanic cultural polluter portrayed by right wing detractors, though he might have appreciated the comparison, nor the tortured soul martyred on the altar of true art. Mapplethorpe's ambitions were simpler and, frankly, more selfish than that. He wanted to be a star, and that's what he got, at least for a while. In the words of his former lover and patron Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe was finally "the belle of the ball."
It's not surprising that biographer Patricia Morrisroe wanted to write about Mapplethorpe. He managed to capture America's consciousness quite a bit longer than the usual fifteen minutes allotted the average pop-art rebel. For a man whose work seemed hopelessly mired in subculture, Mapplethorpe bridged a lot of cultural gaps. His most recent incarnation as a kind of Ansel Adams for the East Village set well served the artist's quest for superstardom. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also tends to breed, well, familiarity. The socially acceptable Mapplethorpe, particularly his sedate though well-rendered floral photographs, is still cropping up in respectable, and highly visible, places.
Now Mapplethorpe has turned up to be reevaluated in the light of serious art criticism. In Mapplethorpe--A Biography, Morrisroe succeeds for the most part in defining the myth without being suckered in by it. Though her informed discussion of Mapplethorpe's work is unlikely to convince serious detractors of the artist's merit, it provides an interesting study in art history of a decidedly different sort than we are used to. She traces the artist's influences, from Picasso to F. Holland Day, along with his growing interest in gay pornography as a medium.
Still, Morrisroe's discussion of Mapplethorpe in the context of art history sometimes fails in not being extensive enough. Her portraits of specific artists and writers are well-rendered but too often fall short. Her cultural analysis too often resorts to cliche, as in her description of the climate at Mapplethorpe's school, Pratt, during the early 1960s: "In November, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, shattering America's idealistic view of itself. But no single incident triggered the sixties: instead, it was a steady buildup of events that converged, then exploded."
A personal rather than a primarily critical biography, Mapplethorpe succeeds, to the reader's relief, in its study of the artist's life. Though occasionally turning to psycho-babble, particularly in her discussion of Mapplethorpe's relationship with his conservative Catholic parents, the author gives a clear and well-rendered portrait of her subject. Even those turned off by the artist's work should find the odd story of his life compelling, if unsavory, reading. Her unsentimental rendering of Mapplethorpe's funeral is particularly successful in capturing the strange convergence of influences that made him the man he is.
Also fascinating is Morrisroe's account of Mapplethorpe's early incarnation as a macho frat boy, with his membership in the Perishing Rifles, Pratt's elite military organization, the description of whose hazing practices brings to mind nothing so much as the gay sadomasochistic rituals that came to fascinate the artist later in life. "In this case the "masters"...bound the pledges penises with one end of a rope, then attached bricks to the other end and ordered them to hurl the brick across the room."
Ironically, one of the most interesting threads that runs through the book is Mapplethorpe's long-time relationship with the singer and writer Patti Smith. After the failure, for obvious reasons, of their sexual relationship, the two became lifelong friends finding comfort throughout their lives in their own warped version of domestic living. Morrisroe imbues the story with both affection and a knowing irony, as in her account of Smith's and Mapplethrope's household routines which included a fifty-fifty division of everything from household duties to a varied and plentiful drug stash.
Occassionally, however, the biographer's perceived duty to empathize becomes a burden. She too often minimizes Mapplethrope's sociopathic impulses, which appeared early on in childhood, when, according to the book, he took delight in killing his pets. Morrisroe also gives a bizarre account of the older Mapplethorpe's torture and starvation of his pets monkey, Scrath, whose skull he kept as a souvenir after the animal's death. Too often, these disturbing incidents are attributed to the various social pressures that Mapplethrope faced: Catholicism, his parents, his background. To be sure, much of the artist's behavior was supposed to be part of the act; Mapplethorpe loved to play the part of the lapsed Catholic boy, the Byronic poet famously coaxing his subjects to "do it for Stan."
But Morrisroe never fully accounts for the troubling lapse between art and life, where Mapplethorpe's association with the dark forces seemed to go well beyond mere aesthetic fascination or adolescent rebellion. In one of the book's most disturbing passages, Morrisroe discusses Mapplethorpe's almost pathological hatred of black men, who were ironically, some of his favorite subjects to photograph. Bragging that he could always "catch a nigger with coke," he made a routine practice of picking them up in bars, even after discovering that he was HIV positive.
At one point, Morrisroe quotes the writer George Stambolian on the subject of Mapplethorpe's sadomasochism themed work; "The gay sensibility of the 1970's was celebratory," he says. "Men were dancing in the discos and going to the bars, and sex became a kind of religious experience--but Robert didn't capture that ecstasy." Considering the pervasiveness of the legend and the pornographic fascination of the life, it's hard to tell whether Mapplethorpe's work will outlast His reputation or whether it will fall prey to the difficulty pointed out by Stambolian.
Regardless, Morrisroe has created a memorable portrait. She knows her subject well, though in the end, it was Mapplethorpe who may have been his own best critic. In a chilly bit of self analysis, a passage that comes closest to untying what Morrisroe calls the "Gordian knot" entwining art and sexuality. Mapplethorpe says: "When I have sex with someone I forget who I am. For a minute I even forget I'm human. It's the same thing when I'm behind a camera I forget I exist."
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