Robert Mapplethorpe: a criticism of a critic’s work

Originally published in Dreamwidth, NOV. 19TH, 2004 02:59 PM

Because of the impact of Robert Mapplethorpe, not least in some of our very own endeavors, I went to read up on him. Following is an email sent by me to Arthur C. Danto, author of the book I discuss below.

Dear sir,

I am in the process of reading your book “Playing with the edge: The Photographic achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe” and I came across several points at which I must take issue with your analysis.

Please let me precede such criticism by stating that I consider the greater part of your essay to be highly insightful, especially when you deal with the serious eroticizing of art within the serious artistry of eroticism that Mr. Mapplethorpe intended and achieved. I am very grateful for the presentation of your reactions to Mr. Mapplethorpe’s exhibition in 1988. I was much taken by your analysis of the extent to which trust was an issue in his work as compared with that of Mr. Winogrand and Ms. Arbus (with whose work I am entirely unfamiliar).

But I was initially jarred by your description of “a black leather garment, cut away to expose his buttocks and genitals …” (p. 130) for what was to my eyes a very ordinary pair of leather-community chaps (which are understood to be different in material and function from those used by riders). Now, it may be that you were drawing attention to the function these are playing in this situation, but you did not then name them, which caused me to believe you did not recognize them. However, when I later began at the start of the book to read through, I found that you did recognize chaps in other photographs, leading me to wonder whether you recognized them only when they are worn more properly over jeans.

I found, a few pages later, the statements “… it seems to me, immensity must play an important part in this aestheticizing, and hence in the vision from within which the (male) genitals are perceived as beautiful. And this is disappointingly as reductive and mechanistic an attitude as that which thematizes big breats in women.” (p. 132) On the following page you complain that the genital measurements of Mark Stevens and the Man In A Polyester Suit are not typical in your experience of the world, in a fashion that leaves the reader with the impression that you wished Mr. Mapplethorpe had used models more close to normality, an impression enhanced by your evocation of Louise Bourgeois’ recalling of the use of gigantic phalluses in antique theater as subjects of humor.

Your complaint puts me forcibly in mind of the complaints of feminists (of which I am one) that images of beautiful women designed to appeal to men’s tastes do not in the least approach normality in the female body and face. The reason that I am so forcibly put in mind of these complaints is that we feminists were saying, as you did not appear to notice yourself doing, that the artists claim we are not desirable simply as we stand.

One of the amazing things about the homosexual community (to which I belong as a female member) is that the object of one’s desire has roughly the same form as one’s self, leaving one in the possible position of competing, aesthetically, with the object of desire.

Which is very destructive to one’s self-image as well as to any relationships.

A more healthy position to take is to admire, with amazement, all of one’s possible objects of desire, and through that admiration, also admire one’s own body – regardless of its own limitations and imperfections. Which is something our culture has always condemned when it has not made such admiration impossible.

I can assure you that I have personal experience with heterosexual gentlemen having the dimensions indicated in the above portraits, and I can also assure you that such dimensions are sufficiently rare as to be objects of admiration and lust within the gay male community. And, from an analysis of heterosexual pornography, objects of profound envy in the straight male community.

I would also like to wonder in your general direction why, in a society in which Pamela Anderson and Dolly Parton are considered to be visually compelling by so many heterosexual men, you are surprised that men attracted to other men – and who lack any hint of the kind of body-liberation philosophies feminists have developed – would find massive phalluses to be equally visually compelling. Mr. Mapplethorpe was not engaged in the liberation of the male erotic image from chains of sizism or muscle-centrism; he was engaged in the liberation of the male image from its chains of aneroticism. And you must admit – you do admit – that he achieved this aim. I am always suspicious of criticism that complains that the artist did not achieve the critic’s aims.

Next, I would like to comment on your analysis of the picture “Rosie.” I believe that you were suffering from a profound misunderstanding of the physical structure of the image that led you to misunderstand Mr. Mapplethorpe’s possible motives in taking the picture.

The child’s dress is not pulled up. It is pulled down over her knees. And she has pushed the skirt further down with her arm. Her problem is that her knees are pulled up in a semi-defensive position, which then acts to expose her bottom and genitals.

My daughters assumed the same position innumerable times at roughly the same age, and were always thunderstruck that I could tell when they had neglected to put on underwear.

The picture’s message is simply this: In our innocence, we have no idea how much we are exposing to an observant world.

I think a similar misunderstanding shapes part of your analysis of the picture “Jim And Tom, Sausolito.” The misunderstanding is of the function of the hood Jim wears, which you saw as “menacing,” and which is more visible in the portrait “Jim, Sausalito.” You noted that it has zippers for eyes and mouth. What you may not have known is that this is a submissive’s hood, designed to limit, at his (or her) dominant’s discretion, vision, speech, and access to food, water, and other’s bodies. It has been buckled around Jim’s neck with a collar. It is unclear, in this set of pictures, whether he has the use of his eyes, though it looks to me as though he clearly does not in the other.

Tom is the dominant partner. He is not being humiliated. He is asserting complete control.

Jim’s left hand is behind his back, out of the way, unable to balance him or to grasp the head of his partner or to stimulate his own skin. Only his right hand is in use, and then only as a means of controlling the direction of his stream of urine. His hands are gloved, cutting him off from a great deal of his sense of touch – he is not being allowed to pleasure himself in this process.

Tom is saying: All your body and all of its functions are for my pleasure and my use. This, too, is mine.

The statement would be different if it were Tom who was wearing the hood and gloves.

I do not know to what extent this information would alter your essay. It is very possible that others have pointed these things out to you before now. But I felt that I should write to you concerning them.



Dear [glitchen]

Thanks very much for taking the time and the trouble to write so thoughtfully about my book, from perspectives that were not available to me. I am not likely to revise the book, but I would certainly think about your criticisms if I should do so. I am not at all sure that your observations materially affect the argument, but would have to think about this seriously were I to undertake revision, especially your detailed discussion of the hood in Jim and Tom in Sausalito. Meanwhile, it would probably be interesting to you to get to know the work of Winogrand and especially of Diane Arbus.

Many thanks and best wishes,

Arthur Danto

Tuppence in the change bowl.

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