The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last - No 28: Robert Mapplethorpe
Sunday 18 July 1999
At first glance, Robert Mapplethorpe would appear to be an exception to the rule in that, even if his work includes celebrity portraiture - Andy Warhol, Patti Smith - he is best-known for his photographs of mostly anonymous sitters. Since his alone is the household name, and since the eclat of his talent is indisputable, surely he has been guaranteed everlasting tenure in posterity?
If it isn't as simple as that, it's because of the nature of his subject- matter. In a word, sex. Like some privileged creditor, sex always takes precedence. A naked penis by Lucian Freud is still primarily (just about) one element in a painting by Lucian Freud; when photographed, by even as brilliant a practitioner as Mapplethorpe, it abruptly reasserts its objective identity as a naked penis. It, rather than the quality of Mapplethorpe's "vision", is what our eyes are drawn to, and it would be absurd to pretend otherwise.
That fact, in itself, need not constitute an obstacle to posthumous fame. But what, for many, is shocking in Mapplethorpe's work is less the nudity as such than the unjudgmental depiction of violent sado-masochistic acts, invariably between males. Shocking, though, for how much longer? When one recalls that, at the turn of the last century, a glimpse of a well- turned ankle, as they used to say, was enough to provoke a sexual frisson, and when one then considers how far along that road we've already travelled, logic dictates that, as the new century unfolds, representations of sex will become graphic to a degree that we cannot currently imagine.
Heaven knows where it will all end - but, wherever it does, it's certain that even the raunchiest of Mapplethorpe's photographs are going to look unutterably tame by comparison.
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Should Apple buy Greece?
- 2 Michael Douglas regrets 'embarrassing' Catherine Zeta-Jones with oral sex comments
- 3 Drummer Lee Rigby's family reject 'extremist' groups using Woolwich murder for political gain
- 4 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 5 Fox News anchor asks 'what's to prevent' three people from marrying after same-sex marriage legalised
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Extend Right To Buy to tenants of private landlords, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn says
David Cameron struck double blow in his hopes to win Britain a new EU deal
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato