Even posthumously, Robert Mapplethorpe continues to incite controversy with his sexually charged photographs, many of which involve homosexual and even sadomasochistic imagery. Born November 4, 1946, Mapplethorpe celebrated sexuality in his art right at the beginning of the American culture wars of the Reagan years. The specter of AIDS added another deadly dimension to the debate, generating fear and misunderstanding of homoerotic art in general and Mapplethorpe specifically, thanks to his NEA grants. Conservatives couldn’t accept that their tax dollars could subsidize works such as Ajitto (above, from 1981), even if the reality was that such subsidies were a miniscule percentage of the government budget. Free of the cultural and sexual context, images such as Ajitto could be taken for Renaissance-like celebrations of the human body. Sadly, Mapplethorpe could only find that freedom in death, and just barely. West
Edward Weston’s nudes and studies of flowers and other natural forms inspired many of Mapplethorpe’s modern interpretations. Photographs such as Calla Lily (above, from 1986) allow the natural form of the flower to take on a whole new existence as a work of art itself, elevating the natural forms in the same way that Georgia O’Keeffe did in her paintings, with the same sexual undertones, of course. Many forget this side of Mapplethorpe today, as well as his stint as the photographer to the stars. Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Peter Gabriel, and many other artistically inclined celebrities of the time all posed for Mapplethorpe, helping him generate the income that allowed him to pursue his more controversial work.
After the public learned that Mapplethorpe had contracted HIV in the late 1980s, prices for his photographs ghoulishly soared. The disease ravaging the gay community at that time had claimed one of its most visible figures. In his Self-Portrait of 1988 (above), Mapplethorpe’s face seems much older than that of a 41-year-old man. The skull atop his walking stick almost echoes his own face. Mapplethorpe places that skull forward in the frame, pushing it and his mortality into our consciousness. Within a year, AIDS took his life. American cultural conservatives continually resurrect their image of Mapplethorpe whenever necessary to point towards all they see as wrong with the arts and society today. Clearly, many of his images are intended to offend, to shock the viewer into seeing an aspect of life they may not understand or appreciate, but cannot deny. Perhaps one day those who are shocked and appalled will allow themselves to see the other images of flowers, of celebrities, and of beautiful, healthy human bodies and see all of Mapplethorpe’s art and life rather than the two-dimensional ideological caricature he has become.