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BOOK REVIEW / Stripping away the anxieties: 'Mapplethorpe' - Arthur C Danto: Cape, 60 pounds

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE took pictures of celebrities with their clothes on and black men with their clothes off. The celebrities have surnames - Rossellini, Saatchi, Mailer, Schwarzenegger; the blacks mostly don't. The juxtaposition of these two kinds of picture sent a frisson through the New York art world in the 1980s: they made Mapplethorpe himself a celebrity. And it is Mapplethorpe's black nudes that are the basis of the claim that he extended the range of the photographic representation of the human figure, rather than simply challenging the limits of public tolerance.

For he also, as is well known, took pictures of men in the act of sex, pictures that have occasioned indignation on the part of guardians of public morality and fanciful assertions of their artistic significance on the part of Mapplethorpe's apologists. The public exhibition of these pictures reopened a weary controversy about art and the limits of decency, a controversy that intensified after Mapplethorpe's death from Aids in 1989 and the cancellation of an exhibition in Washington DC. They may also be said to have opened the way for Stephen Meisel's recently published photographs of Madonna. What Meisel's laughably tacky pictures reveal, by contrast, is the technical quality of Mapplethorpe's - the seriousness with which he regarded his subjects and the sustained efforts that he made to elevate them to salon level.

You'd think more photographers would have noticed the fact that people, like photographers, come in black and white (among other colours) and that the way light falls on them varies accordingly. Mapplethorpe saw that the luminosity of black skin and the greater visibility of black musculature extended the formal possibilities of photography of the human figure. And he explored these possibilities more exactingly than any previous photographer, exploiting his own sexual predilection to aesthetic advantage. The generous collection of his work presented in this book demonstrates his achievement in bringing formal composition and the techniques of studio photography to subjects that lay largely outside the realm of art. It does not, however, entirely dispose of the ethical questions raised by this achievement.

The pictures are a conscious act of provocation, playing on the twin anxieties that underlie American life: that of racial difference and that of male homosexuality. But they pander to a stereotype engendered by these anxieties, the black man as a purely sexual creature. Like Baron von Gloeden's turn-of-the-century studies of Sicilian youths, Mapplethorpe's nudes - limited editions, platinum prints - seem designed for a market of privileged oglers.

Would it be different if the photographer were black or straight? Or female? Perhaps. Black commentators, in particular, have had a hard time saving the appearances for Mapplethorpe. But the more he has been attacked from the right, the more the left has fallen into line to defend him. Here, for example, is Kobena Mercer in an article entitled 'Skin Head Sex Thing' in the spring 1992 issue of New Formations, a journal of impeccable political correctness, retracting his earlier criticism of Mapplethorpe:

Once we consider Mapplethorpe's own marginality as a gay artist, placed in a subordinate relation to the canonical tradition of the nude, his implicitly critical position on the presence/ absence of race in dominant regimes of representation enables a reappraisal of the intersubjective collaboration between artist and model.

Such is the language of contemporary culture-criticism. You could put it another way: Mapplethorpe and the black guys both knew what they were doing - they exploited each other. (It's plausible. A friend of mine was photographed by Mapplethorpe. Asked what it was like he said: 'He had his way with me. Then I had mine with him.') Mapplethorpe's black nudes are in control of their sexual aspect. But unlike those of the New Orleans photographer George Dureau - one of Mapplethorpe's few precursors - they do not seem to be fully in possession of their dignity.

Mapplethorpe's many self-portraits, scattered tellingly through the book - in leather, in drag, in flagrante delicto - show at least that he is not asking his models to do anything he wouldn't do himself. This is not photography as voyeurism; it is, for better or worse, photography as participant observation.

It is hard to find praise for the pictures of sado-masochistic rituals and paraphernalia. In these pictures Mapplethorpe frequently abandons the rigour of formal composition in favour of the defiant gesture. Here is a leather-clad man urinating in someone else's mouth. If golden showers are not your cup of tea, this picture seems to say, tant pis. Could there be something coercive, sadistic even, in its relation to the viewer? The rationale of Mapplethorpe's S & M portraiture is presumably the following: these are portraits of people who define themselves by their sexual tastes, so the pictures incorporate visual symbols of these tastes. A portrait of a monarch has orbs and sceptres; a hunter has guns and trophies; so sado-masochists will have whips and chains and leather masks. Most people, though, will find these pictures very unpleasant. Even big game hunters don't usually have themselves depicted at the moment of the kill.

A grave irony hovers over Mapplethorpe's work, but there is no humour, no warmth. No one ever smiles. (There is one exception: the artist Louise Bourgeois, whose grin is as gleeful and shocking as the giant sculpted phallus she is carrying under her arm. Here is one bourgeoise who will not be epatee.) For Mapplethorpe, coolness is all. His photography aspires to the condition of sculpture. Models are often posed as masks or statues. He is an anti-Pygmalion. His last pictures are, in fact, of actual statues, white marble busts bathed in light until they are translucent; the opposite extreme from the black nudes which made him famous. There is something chilling in this reduction of flesh to stone.

Roland Barthes, an admirer of Mapplethorpe, wrote that all photographers are agents of death: their pictures, he said, serve to remind us that the moment they recorded is gone. As Mapplethorpe himself approached death, chronicling his own decay in stoical self-portraits, it seems that he reached out to the imperishable, the inanimate. But his most affecting photographs are those that show the breath of life: men and women at their physical peak, impermanent, catching the brightness that falls from the air.

(Photograph omitted)