The descent of high art into mere pornography

'Why does photographer Wolfgang Tillmans contribute to the seedy pages of a gay porn mag?'
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The Independent Online

A kind anonymous reader has sent me a pornographic magazine - a slightly surprising thing to open with your morning mail, I must say. Nevertheless, perhaps guessing that I was probably not likely to see Honcho! in any kind of routine way, he - I suppose it was from a male reader - encloses a note drawing my attention to pages 24-31.

A kind anonymous reader has sent me a pornographic magazine - a slightly surprising thing to open with your morning mail, I must say. Nevertheless, perhaps guessing that I was probably not likely to see Honcho! in any kind of routine way, he - I suppose it was from a male reader - encloses a note drawing my attention to pages 24-31.

For a moment I was really very puzzled; it is a series of shots of a naked skinhead, displaying himself in what is not a very appealing way, under the actively unappealing headline - you have to forgive me for this - "Wanna party in my hole?". And then I noticed the name of the photographer, and all was made clear. So that's how Wolfgang Tillmans spends his time.

For anyone still puzzled, Wolfgang Tillmans is a very fashionable photographer. His photographs of city life, of random street moments and drop-outs posing in squats have won him huge acclaim. They are very individual and accomplished, bedraggled but oddly cheerful.

Anyone wanting to see his works can head off down to Tate Britain in London, where he has been shortlisted for this year's Turner Prize. His room consists of a few dozen photographs, casually fastened to the wall, of things in the street which caught his eye. He is a very good photographer, and it was something of a surprise to learn that he thinks it worth his while to contribute to the seedy pages of an American gay porn mag.

It may be, of course, that this is a one-off enterprise, perhaps some part of a serious future art-work. In the Tate show, Tillmans shows some of his more respectable magazine work, not in their original prints, but as they were reproduced, and the magazines lie open in glass cases. One can imagine that a pornographic magazine would look very unusual, if exhibited in the hushed atmosphere of an art gallery under glass, and it's possible that Tillmans only published these photographs in so very peculiar a place for the sake of that future exhibition.

There again, it's possible that he just wanted to be a pornographic photographer. Certainly, these photographs don't look like art to me; they look like pornography, with their efficient and slightly alarming concentration on body parts. Whether there is anything wrong with a high-art photographer occasionally dropping his Turner-prize persona and going out to work in the lowest of genres is, however, an interesting question.

In the past, of course, plenty of artists and photographers have supplemented their public work with harmless drudgery, or work intended for a much more specialised audience. The traditional outlet for this is fashion photography and illustration. Corinne Day, for instance, has moved seamlessly from being someone who shoots spreads for the style magazine The Face to become one of the most admired photographers in town. Andy Warhol's early illustrations for fashion magazines are so charming and interesting that they have come to be seen as a crucial part of this artist's work. Once, such work was regarded as purely functional; as time has gone by, it has been absorbed into the oeuvre of a major artist.

The same is true of all those artists who started in the low art of commercial satire. Daumier was a caricaturist who became a great artist; Lyonel Feininger's cartoon strips for a Chicago newspaper are a crucial part of the work of this austere Bauhaus guru.

But if we try to think of anyone who turned from pornography to high art, it is more tricky. Of course, there are great erotic artists, who produced work which could never have been displayed; Fragonard, Feliçien Rops, Aubrey Beardsley, or, as far as photographers go, George Platt Lynes and Robert Mapplethorpe. But none of these are exactly producing pornography. Their erotic work can be lewd, but it is not commercial pornography; it is highly wrought, odd, and unmistakably high-art in tone.

So I find Tillmans' pornographic essay quite unnerving. It is functionally efficient in the way that, say, George Platt Lynes's nudes aren't, and that isn't just a question of the surroundings it finds itself in. And the unmistakable pornographic gaze has the undesirable effect of infecting quite a lot of Tillmans' other work. He is greatly interested in sexuality, in a way which has previously struck one as interesting. But, going to see the Turner Prize show, I found myself looking at his photograph of a man's shaved genitals in quite a new, and not a very helpful way. It suddenly looked as simple and boring as pornography.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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