Talking Balls: on a response to ‘Mapplethorpe’

The other day I posted an excellent article from Fluster Magazine about Robert Mapplethorpe. Needless to say, it featured a big cock or two.

Someone surprised me by suggesting that his use of the human body as a subject was somehow exploitative, demeaning the owners of said cocks and thus, by implication, us the viewers.

I beg to differ. Strongly.

“I search perfection in form. I do it with portraits, with penises, with flowers. A subject is not different from another. I try to catch what seems sculptural to me.” ~ Robert Mapplethorpe.

“A subject is not different from another.”

There should be no taboos in art, no ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’: it’s about art, about why and how you make it. It is not to condone the gratuitously offensive; it is merely to state that everything in nature, ie everything,  is open to the (female or male) gaze of the artist, and all has an equally valid claim on her/his attention. Compare this, from Rodin:

“To any artist worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as in an open book, all the inner truth.”

Go down the ‘exploitation’ route and you may as well say that Mapplethorpe exploits calla lilies.

The fact is, all art objectifies.
It takes a thing, an idea, a scene, an emotion, and turns it into something else: the art object. This holds as much for solipsistic, expressionistic abstract art as it does for traditional representation. Good art is transfigurative; it contemplates the subject and then, crucially, says something about it, presents it to the viewer afresh. Mapplethorpe’s classical, clean, sculptural photography does exactly this: never have a cock and balls, or simple flowers, been raised so high. Far from demeaning his subjects, he puts them, often literally, on a pedestal.

All of which is quite a different thing to pornography, which is unquestionably exploitative of both subject and viewer. Porn never has anything new to say; indeed, it relies on repetitive sameness, the pressing of the same buttons, in order to find its market. And it does so by by-passing the intellect entirely and homing straight into one’s pants. This is real commodification.

Mapplethorpe’s art is not only beautiful, it is also, like anything worthwhile, deeply considered, deeply intelligent.
It pays to engage with it on something like the same level.


Fluster Magazine article :

16 thoughts on “Talking Balls: on a response to ‘Mapplethorpe’

  1. “Good art is transfigurative”.
    Pithy, poignant, perspicacious. Print me up the t-shirt.

  2. I did get this far, so I’m a diamond! I clicked through to see if the “like” came from an actual blogger, or an advertisement program spamming me. And now I see an actual artist, writer, and thinker liked my post about Philip Seymour Hoffman. I love this post, and thank you for it.

    • Thank you, Crystal! You are indeed a diamond. I’m not an artist, though – I leave that to my husband – just an art lover. I liked your post for the subject matter and for the fact that you can really string a sentence together, so your blog is actually a pleasure to read (unlike some!).
      Thanks again; I shall follow you post haste! 🙂

      • My humble thanks for the compliment on my writing. I’ve always defined “artist” by the way someone sees the world (not necessarily what s/he does with a medium), so perhaps I believe I’m meeting more artists than I really am. I will grant that you must define yourself, so I won’t! Following back atcha.

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