Is Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography subversive of gender stereotypes or does it produce a new kind of spectacle for public consumption?

HIAR10066 Dr. A. Dimitrakaki S1149325 Wednesday March 14 2012

2 Mapplethorpe produced his artworks at a time when a younger generation of artists was attempting to reinvent the artistic tradition. rouse a multitude of responses. His artworks challenge widely accepted norms. and. Through both his choice of subject matter and his artistic methods. 9.”’ and.2 Robert Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre calls into question what is acceptable in art. 9.’ particularly with regard to taboo sexual topics. The ‘growing appetite for erotic experience’ that materialized in the 1960s and 1970s allowed for Golden 1994. he was ‘left with the task of trying to find alternate subjects and materials to revitalize what they perceived as a stagnant aesthetic mood. during which a shift in aesthetic preferences took place.4 Mapplethorpe developed as an artist shortly after the civil rights movement became a powerful force. both positive and negative. 24. and what kind of subject matter is appropriate. Mapplethorpe’s photographs present the viewer with subject matter that is customarily veiled from popular culture and mass consumption. the women’s movement blossomed. Marshall 1988.1 As such. in doing so. along with his contemporaries. in the mind of the spectator. 10.’3 Mapplethorpe’s artworks emerged at a time of political and social change. both technically and aesthetically. Mapplethorpe’s photography produces a new kind of spectacle for public consumption. 1 2 . 4 Marshall 1988. he worked in the era of ‘“painting is dead. and a sexual revolution took place across the United States. His photos subvert gender stereotypes and offer an ‘antidote to the binary and assumed notions about good and bad. Mapplethorpe’s photographs aim to expand the conventional boundaries of the medium. 3 Marshall 1988.

32. leather.’8 Conditioned by protests against the Vietnam War. was able to produce a collection of photographs that explored the relationship between photographer and photographed. and by doing so create artworks that were ‘participatory and confrontational. and sexuality through the use of frames. allowed him to experiment with his medium and investigate unconventional subject matters.5 Mapplethorpe. as well as the relationship between photographer and his medium.3 Mapplethorpe to invest his artworks with explicit sexual themes. then. but also manifest the notions of sexual liberation that were prominent in the 1960s and 1970s.’6 His artworks are thus relevant to his time in both form and content for they not only represent the revitalization of aesthetics that took place. 7 Wolf 2007. danger. the Civil and Women’s Rights movements. especially his Polaroids. 5 6 . pain. Mapplethorpe’s Wolf 2007. the Polaroids are ‘marked by spontaneous invention. paper bags. his aim was to combine the formal with the subjective. and an increased interest in homosexuality and queer culture. 8 Wolf 2007. 22.’7 The efficiency of the Polaroid form allowed for Mapplethorpe to ‘remain enthralled with his subjects as he photographed the sexual energy between them. toward rebellion. Mapplethorpe’s exploration of explicitly carnal themes developed over the course of his career. The artist considered his photographs as objects— he explored themes of pleasure. 21. plastic and wood. Unlike his later works that were carefully crafted and controlled in the studio. Mapplethorpe’s artworks from the early 1970s in particular attest to his awareness of the concerns of contemporary photography. His early work. Marshall 1988. 14. moving his artwork away from conformism.

’ Cooper attributes this to the fact that a man’s body does not ‘lend itself to abstraction’ in the same way as a woman’s. his work becomes more intense and esoteric. can be seen as a response to and reevaluation of the depictions of the male nude in classical art. and is open to a wide range of readings. Marshall 1988.9 Through these small.’ and its visibility is an ‘area of controversy. to be simple. nude women seem to be natural and goddess-like. 183. at first glance. Quoting John Ashbery. Mapplethorpe uses the body as an artwork. Mapplethorpe’s photographs of men.”’11 Gradually. whereas ‘”for some reason men merely look undressed. the body of the male has shifted from being unnatural and embarrassing to more blatant and visible within the contemporary artistic canon. In Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography.’ and in doing so. Mapplethorpe was able to look at the world around him with a curiosity and appreciation for its beauty. 13. intimate images. and gives careful attention to his methods of presentation. 9 10 . The male nude has a long history of being acceptable for study in classical art. 11 Cooper 1990. his photos call for a reevaluation of traditional notions of the ideal body.4 early works display a ‘childlike wonder and a pure delight in seeing’ the world in a different kind of way. 32. As Mapplethorpe’s career progressed. He used photography as his medium for he thought it to be the best artistic technique to assert his statement of the arbitrary nature of socially accepted binaries.10 His nudes appear. ‘whether Wolf 2007. but it is from their simplicity that their beauty emerges. Cooper explains. in particular. however. Mapplethorpe is attentive to the ‘tension between his abstracted bodies and the realism of their flesh. Emmanuel Cooper contends that the even today the male nude is ‘still an area of debate.

it can be diffused by a process of fetishization that ‘renders the black masculine “menace” feminine through a process of patriarchal objectification. therefore. 188. yet he simultaneously subverts the usual assumptions about the ‘”the classical. 134. whether this threat is real or symbolic. 17 Golden 1994.’14 Mapplethorpe’s photographs. 194. however. is in line with the trend of reviving the male body as an ideal form. many photographers challenged the construction of masculinity in a patriarchal society. but also as reiterations of the ‘colonial fantasy. Cooper 1990. 14 Cooper 1990. and poses a threat to the seemingly secure identity of the white male ego. bell hooks. especially those that concentrate on the black male nude.15 Mapplethorpe’s images. 131. in her discussion of race and gender identity in “Feminism Inside: Toward a Black Body Politic. are deemed as disruptions and challenges to conventional ways of seeing in that they deal with both issues of race and sexuality in an unorthodox way. 195. The questioning of stereotypical ‘”macho”’ characteristics and the deconstruction of traditional representations gave rise to a multitude of reconstructions of masculinity and the male image as one that is ‘non-aggressive [and] pro-feminist.”’13 Due to the ‘new radical gay consciousness’ that arises in the 1960s. 186.” explains that there is a ‘perceived threat’ that is integrated into the image of the black male body. Mapplethorpe. through his inversion of gender stereotypes Cooper 1990. She contends that. 15 Golden 1994. religion or classicism’12 and these continue in photography. 12 13 . can indeed be read as subversions of the conventions of traditional masculinity.5 involving allegory.’16 The African-American subject is objectified into otherness. 16 Golden 1994.’17 Mapplethorpe’s photographs to some extent accomplish this.

however. By allowing men to lose their potency and force. the visual hegemony of Mapplethorpe’s ‘non-progressive white male owned and operated images of the black male body’ can be countered by a the dissemination of a substantive body of oppositional representations. are exploitations of popularized and perpetuated ‘obvious racist stereotypes. regardless of the artist’s intentions at the time of creation. it is clear that his photographs are necessarily political. hooks points out.6 he is able to remove some of the negativity that surrounds the traditional representation of the black male. In his examination of the body as a political icon. Mapplethorpe ‘tap[s into] and provoke[s] that old tyrannical nonsense of a punitive system ruled by the gods—with supposed consequences which are said to be brought on when you decide for yourself what is right and wrong to do with your own body’ and attempts to untangle such a myth. Embedded in images such as the Ajitto series (figure 1). Many critics. issues of a white photographer photographing black subjects surround much of Mapplethorpe’s work. 138. Consequently.19 As demonstrated by both the positive and negative responses to Mapplethorpe’s photography. consider Mapplethorpe’s nudes to reaffirm and celebrate racist and sexist iconography rather than repudiate it. that for an ‘oppositional aesthetic’ to emerge. attention may need to shift away from the black male nude. 18 19 .20 Mapplethorpe especially accomplishes this demystification Golden 1994. Golden 1994. the male body is refigured into one that is liberated rather than isolated. hooks suggests. 20 Marshall 1988. 136.’18 Mapplethorpe is criticized for fetishizing the black body in a ‘purely objectifying manner’ and seldom doing the same in his photographs of white figures. then. 84. As such.

he portrays the ‘”weaker sex”’ as very strong. and muscularity. The artist has claimed to have been attracted to Lyon because she was a woman who was closer to the male physical ideal. 45.’23 Mapplethorpe’s subjects allow him to illuminate this break through his depictions of details and qualities that are often deemphasized or excluded altogether. In her discussion of Mapplethorpe’s societal role. thus calling attention to a reconstruction of what Marshall 1988. He uses Lyon’s body to ‘articulate contradiction.’21 Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Lisa Lyon are often considered to be ‘reversal[s] of the superman image’ in that they render the female figure as one of power. and the isolation of a singular body part in an almost phallic position all contribute to a portrayal of the female body that breaks with traditional notions of femininity being associated with weakness and softness. making fluid supposedly stagnant norms. Marshall 1988. 23 Woolf 2007. 80. and Mapplethorpe through the medium of photography. strength.22 Mapplethorpe’s Lisa Lyon from 1982 (figure 2) blurs the line that so often divides male from female.7 through his representations of women. The muscularity of the arm. and reverses the categorizing devices ‘through which society splits and fragments. 80. 21 22 . Ingrid Sischy maintains that Mapplethorpe finds figures ‘whose physical work on their bodies asserts the break with the traditional views that have made their bodies the property of others. Lyon and Mapplethorpe together deconstruct stereotypes of femininity—Lyon through the conditioning of her body. and to cut through society’s assumptions of gender and nature’ and in doing so allows for an expansion of the seemingly fixed gender categories. the hair in the armpit.

26 Cooper 1990.27 Much of Mapplethorpe’s artwork unsettles societal norms and standards regarding both sexual preferences and gender. Perhaps less explicitly than the portraits of Lisa Lyon. Mapplethorpe’s photographs of both himself and other notable cultural icons exhibit the human body in unconventional costumes and poses to emphasize the fluidity of gender categories. Mapplethorpe exposes this seemingly oxymoronic duality and makes anew many of the gender stereotypes that often underlie critical receptions of artworks. Smith appears traditionally masculine in her stance. and Self Portrait from 1980 (figure 5) all portray the male or female body in a manner that is oppositional to traditional notions of feminine and masculine. unlike painting and sculpture. Mapplethorpe generates images that contend with gender stereotypes. Marshall 1988. and outfit. Patti Smith (Horses) (figure 3). Dennis (figure 4). Mapplethorpe’s dozens of portraits of Lyon. 24 25 . photography ‘cannot be totally removed from real life’26 and thus draws critical attention to the artifice of the sexual roles and identities that people inhabit. make-up. along with the realism that is embedded within photography allowed Mapplethorpe to formulate a new kind of spectacle of the human form. whereas Dennis glances away from the camera with a debonair air of wistfulness. and positioning. 78. 27 Golden 1994. Mapplethorpe’s self portrait Wolf 2007. the cultivation of strength and control is integrated into an image of beauty and grace. Through the use of lighting.8 the ideal body looks like. gaze. 195.25 The combination of an unorthodox subject. clothing. 45. 200.24 With women bodybuilders. For.

30 Marshall 1988. Although a camera has a quiet sound. As such. Mapplethorpe’s art not only disquiets stereotypes of gender. both of and from the self. one that does not categorize at all. immersion in sex and in photography brought liberation. a lot of noise has surrounded Mapplethorpe’s pictures. and gender. less stereotyped portrayal of the human body. Mapplethorpe draws attention to topics that tend to be concealed from mass consumption. Images such as these have greatly contributed to both the popularization of and controversy surrounding Mapplethorpe as an artist. 28 29 . 83. He utilized the camera as a vehicle through which to explore and expand the boundaries of the consciousness and what is accepted as beautiful. such as Mark Stevens (Mr. Mapplethorpe’s photography deconstructed traditional convictions regarding sexuality. race. 10 ½) (figure 6) and Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter (figure 7).29 For Mapplethorpe. allowing for the emergence of a new. are Mapplethorpe’s images that depict bondage and other sexual fetishes.9 coalesces the identities of both genders. 30 Wolf 2007. 51.’28 Mapplethorpe’s strategic use of the formal elements of photography to expose shocking and stimulating subject matter was a product of both the artist’s personal intentions. but those of accepted sexual practices as well. a new category. More explicitly erotic however. perhaps. Marshall 1988. Mapplethorpe goes beyond what has traditionally been considered representable and his photographs ‘explode’ the secrecy that is often associated with the subject of sex. 14. creating. as well as the socio-political context in which he worked. Mapplethorpe aimed to instill through his photographs a ‘dignity and beauty’ to subjects and themes that were ‘outside the accepted norms of behavior.

Robert Mapplethorpe (London. Unwin Hyman Limited) Golden. Richard.) Marshall. Sylvia. Abrams. Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography (London. 1988. Thelma.10 Works Cited Cooper. 1994. 1990. Polaroids: Mapplethorpe (Munich. Inc. 2007. Harry N. Secker & Warburg) Wolf. Prestel Verlag) . Emmanuel. Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art (New York.

Robert Mapplethorpe (London. Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography (London. 2007. ‘Robert Mapplethorpe: The Philadelphia Story.1: 119-128 Cooper. Thelma. Prestel Verlag) . Emmanuel. Secker & Warburg) Tannenbaum. Judith.) Marshall. Harry N. Abrams. 1988. Gary.’ Art Journal. Duchamp and the Ends of Photography. 1991. Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art (New York. Winter 1991: 71-76 Wolf.’ Angelaki Journal of the Theoretical Humanities. 2002. Richard. 7. ‘Mapplethorpe. 1990. Polaroids: Mapplethorpe (Munich.11 Bibliography Banham. Sylvia. 1994. Inc. Unwin Hyman Limited) Golden.

40 x 30. The Israel Museum. Jerusalem. . 1981. Ajitto. unique gelatin silver print.12 List of Illustrations Figure 1: Robert Mapplethorpe.

1975. Collection of Laura L Carpenter. 1982.13 Figure 2: Robert Mapplethorpe. two unique gelatin silver prints with mat and frame. . Lisa Lyon. 30 x 30. Patti Smith (Horses). unique gelatin silver print. Figure 3: Robert Mapplethorpe. Collection of the artist. 25 x 39 ½.

unique gelatin silver print.14 Figure 4: Robert Mapplethorpe. Figure 5: Robert Mapplethorpe. 1980. 45 x 23 1/2. Collection of the artist. 1976. Dennis. unique gelatin silver prints with mat and frame. . Self Portrait. Collection of Howard and Suzanne Feldman. 30 x 30.

Mark Stevens (Mr. 20 x 16. edition 5. 1979. 20 x 16. 10 ½). 1976. gelatin silver print.15 Figure 6: Robert Mapplethorpe. Figure 7: Robert Mapplethorpe. gelatin silver print. Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter. . edition 10.

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