Are his pictures art - or merely porn?

IN THE NEWS: ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE
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The Independent Online
"DEALING WITH sexuality is always difficult, and it would be easy to write Robert off as an exhibitionist. But all he did was to reveal to us a part of our lives: it was just another kitchen sink, but this one had gold taps and designer handcuffs." Perhaps if the men of the West Midlands Paedophile and Pornography squad had read this description of Robert Mapplethorpe's work they would not now be engaged in an exercise in book-burning, writes Steve Boggan.

The words were written by the late film director Derek Jarman shortly before he, like Mapplethorpe, died of Aids. What Mapplethorpe was doing with his images of black and white men embracing, of a bullwhip up his backside, of the sado-masochists who invited him into their bedrooms, of a penis in a polyester suit, was chronicling real life, albeit in a world most of us never inhabit. Whenever the argument of art versus pornography arises, Mapplethorpe's name is always thrown into the debate, with as many supporters as detractors. Yet few would dispute the quality of his work and materials and even those who find his images unpalatable rarely argue that his intention was to titillate in the way of pornography.

Yesterday, those who like him and those who don't were united in their astonishment over the police's decision to seize the book. "Bizarre is the only way to describe this," said Emma Dexter, exhibitions director at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which gave him his first British solo exhibition in the early 1980s. "Art has to be about the society in which we live and the setting in which he lived had some profoundly hypnotic images of desire and sexuality. Whether you like what he and his friends did is another matter, but I don't find it pornographic."

His friends ranged from Andy Warhol to Patti Smith, the singer and poet with whom he lived for a while in his New York loft. (He was bisexual.) Born in New York City in 1946, Mapplethorpe studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the 1960s. He first began drawing the attention of the avant-garde set with a series of underground films including one in which he starred, entitled Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, in 1971.

He dabbled in sculpture but gradually became consumed by photography. In the early 1970s he took pictures with Polaroid cameras, cutting up the images and mixing them with pictures from pornographic magazines. He had his first exhibition in 1972.

His early work was supported by the wealthy American photograph collector Sam Wagstaff, who became his lover and patron. Later, however, everyone who was anyone paid to have their portrait taken by Mapplethorpe, usually at around $10,000 a sitting.

But it was his work exploring the freakish side of sexuality and his fascination with black subjects, who often became lovers, that earned him his reputation for controversy. One of his pictures, entitled Man in Polyester Suit, features a black penis hanging from the trousers of a business suit.

Many of his images featured apparently violent sado-masochistic sex, although Jarman remembered him as a gentle lover. After his death from Aids in 1989 at the age of 43, Patti Smith described her relationship with him as "intense and bizarre", likening him to a devil. His famous self-portrait has him growing devil's horns.

"I think that he was a skilful photographer and some of his work had a certain artistic quality but a good deal of it was worthless in my opinion," said Martin Gayford, art critic for the Spectator. "Nevertheless, I would not want to see it persecuted by the civil authorities. I thought we were above burning books in this country."

HORROR AT HAYWARD

Mapplethorpe always courted controversy. In 1996 the Hayward Gallery withdrew two pictures from an exhibition after consulting police. One was of a five-year-old girl wearing a dress but no underwear sitting with her legs open; the other was of two men engaged in the homosexual practice of "fisting". Esther Rantzen (above, right), chairwoman of ChildLine, described the picture of the girl, Rosie, as "horrific" although it drew no complaints when it was exhibited in New York.

A KICK FROM CLICKING

During a BBC Arena programme accompanying his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 1988, Mapplethorpe said he got a kick from pornographic images that he never got from art. He said that was what led him to make art from pornographic images but he did not see the end result as pornographic.

MONKEY BUSINESS

Mapplethorpe was set up with a camera and studio by the millionaire photography lover Sam Wagstaff, according to the late film director Derek Jarman. Jarman told of how, during an early meeting, Wagstaff gave Mapplethorpe a diamond pin in the shape of a monkey. It remained pinned to his lapel until he discovered that it was worth a fortune. Jarman believed it had been made by Faberge and described it as an example of how he felt Mapplethorpe had sold out.

A FAUSTIAN PACT

"There is a closed room in Robert's work. Something even secret to Robert," wrote Jarman. "His life was, to me, a Chinese box. You opened the first and there was another box inside. And the last contained a wad of dollar bills held in the hands of some of the most powerful men in the American art world. Robert's story is the story of Faust."

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