Mapplethorpe: Art or Pornography?


18 Sep 2017

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art: the expression of creative skill through a visual medium such as painting

or sculpture.

pornography: printed or visual material intended to stimulate sexual

excitement. (1)

The question of art versus pornography is one that has long dogged the visual Arts of all mediums. Nudes on stage, actors fornicating on screen, and artists painting, drawing, sculpting, or photographing naked subjects or explicit acts, have all been scrutinised, discussed and argued over. Some have even been taken to court. Some depictions of naked forms do not even cause a stir. Nobody protests against the Romantic images of naked men or of the paintings and sculptures by Pre-Raphaelite artists of nude mythological beings. What is it then that determines whether something is classified as art or pornography? I would postulate that it is not quite as simple as categorising a piece as one or the other, and I will discuss this during the course of this essay.

We must at this point turn to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of pornography and the key word “intended”. The deciding factor appears to lie in the intention of the artist; if he or she intends to “stimulate sexual excitement” the result will be pornographic. Mapplethorpe has admitted that his pieces are homages to desire, and that he himself was sexually stimulated whilst photographing his male nude subjects. It would be unfair to say however, that his photographs are not expressive of “creative skill”. His images, which I will examine in greater detail later in the essay, are formally beautiful and skillfully posed and shot. Can a piece of work be both art and pornography? Mapplethorpe himself insists that he makes pornography that is art (2). If an artist’s technique is masterful, why should the fact that the piece is sexually stimulating to others prevent it from being classed as art? Why can’t a piece of art have multiple functions?

Some view Mapplethorpe’s photography purely as pornography, believing it impossible to classify photographs of naked men and women as art. When Mapplethorpe’s retrospective exposition The Perfect Moment exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms was the most forceful objector. So outraged was the Senator that he would carry around photographs from the exhibition to illustrate his point to journalists. One photograph he would often present was “Rosie”, showing a young girl of two or three pictured with her crotch exposed, which he argued constituted child pornography. Others have agreed with Helms. In 1996 the image was removed from a London exhibition on the grounds that it might attract paedophiles. As many others have argued however, this view casts both Rosie and Mapplethorpe in an unfair light. As with many of his other photographs of naked individuals, what is most striking about “Rosie” is the humanity and innocence of this little girl; it is what is revealed about the figure that is most interesting. Nakedness is represented in the Bible as the state of innocence to which we must all return if we are to know God. In Genesis it is only when Adam and Eve fall from innocence and know evil that they realise they are naked. Saying 37 in the Gospel of Thomas alludes to the innocence of naked children:

His disciples say to him: "On what day wilt thou appear to us, and what day shall we see thee?" Jesus says: "When you strip yourselves without being ashamed, when you take off your clothes and lay them at your feet like little children and trample on them! Then [you will become] children of Him who is living, and you will have no more fear." (3)

“Rosie” is only seen in a sexual context by those with the predisposition to see it in that way, whether they be paedophiles or hard-line moralists (4). Rosie herself, aged 23 at the time of the London exhibition, protested that the photograph was beautiful and innocent and not at all indecent (5). She had even hung a copy on the wall of the restaurant she managed.

Mapplethorpe’s most explicit photographs are seen as obscene by many who are not moralists or particularly religious. His X Portfolio contains graphic pictures of homosexual sexual acts and bondage, such as ‘Helmut and Brooks’, which depicts one man’s arm inserted up to the elbow in another man’s anus. ‘Man in Polyester Suit’, another of the photographs often produced by Helms to show journalists, depicts a black man’s semi-erect penis protruding from his flies. It is an odd image, the picture having been cut from just above the man’s knees to his chest, directing the gaze to the penis. Is this pornography? Against the cheap suit, Celant asserts, the penis becomes an object of beauty, like an emergent flower, beginning to bloom with desire. It is erotic, certainly, but is it obscene? Many certainly view ‘Helmut and Brooks’ as obscene and, accordingly, not art.

In 1987 Dennis Barry, Director of the Cincinnati Museum of Art, was put on trial for exhibiting The Perfect Moment. In court his Defense asserted that the aesthetics of Mapplethorpe’s work made his photographs art and not obscenity. In Janet Kardon’s essay, written as a guide and an introduction to the exhibition, form is emphasised as the focus rather than the content or context. Even when faced with explaining the photographs depicting homoerotic sexual acts Kardon extols the virtues of Mapplethorpe’s camera technique, almost ignoring the sexual content altogether:

There is a drama in each photograph; edges are used as the perimeters of a proscenium,

with subjects strategically sited within those boundaries and caught at a moment of

absolute stasis. Most sitters are portrayed frontally, aligned with the camera lens, in

direct eye contact with the photographer and, in turn, the viewer. Nudes generally

assume classical poses… although his models often are depicted in uncommon sexual

acts, the inhabitants of the photographs assume gestures governed by geometry, and they

are shown against minimal backgrounds" (6)

Returning to ‘Man in a Polyester Suit’, Kardon refers to the image as “outrageous” but only because the shot has been set up to appear as a clothes advertisement, making the juxtaposition of the penis “unsettling” (7). As Kidd writes, it is interesting that Kardon uses the term “outrageous” rather than ‘obscene’, and that it is not the act of photographing a penis that is “outrageous” but the actual penis itself, being rather large (8). The reason for this being, Kidd continues, that the term ‘obscenity’, has sociological and legal implications.

In terms of the sociological implications, the obscene is a subversion of what is sacred, and is also separate from daily life – it is perceived as taboo, especially by religious organisations. Its legal implications are what led Dennis Barry to victory in his court case. Congress defines the ‘obscene’ as:

1. the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that such project, production, workshop, or program, when taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;

2. such project, production, workshop, or program, depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and

3. such project, production, workshop, or program, when taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. (9)

The defense successfully argued that Mapplethorpe’s work had artistic value – it is formally beautiful and striking, and the composition is masterful. His photographs could certainly be argued to fall under the first two definitions but all three definitions must fit for something to be considered ‘obscene’, therefore legally Mapplethorpe’s photographs could not be labeled as such.

Flageolle extolled the “exquisite tonal qualities of the platinum print and controlled studio lighting” of Mapplethorpe’s photography, which can be observed in both his ‘hard-core’ and less explicit work (10). Photographs such as ‘Ken and Robert’ and ‘Ken and Tyler’, where Mapplethorpe juxtapositions black and white models, are made even more striking by using black and white film and posing the subjects in a rigid, symmetrical stance. All of Mapplethorpe’s photography is extremely precise, which actually adds to the eroticism of the images. In pornography models tend to assume very overt poses, leaning into the camera and pushing their assets towards the lens, and by extension towards the viewers. Much of Mapplethorpe’s work however, is more restrained in that regard. Subjects may perform explicit sexual acts, urinating in other man’s mouth for example, but it often seems to be personal, intimate. In ‘Jim and Tom, Sausalito’ the two men are almost unaware of the camera, a feeling heightened by the placement of them in the shadows. Mapplethorpe’s figures can sometimes feel almost cold, and distant, looking past the camera at something we cannot see.

However, as Samaras has contended, pieces of art cannot merely be considered for their formal qualities, as that “relegates art primarily to the role of timeless visual entertainment not historicised cultural elucidation” (11). Mapplethorpe’s photographs showed the public another world. The homosexual and S&M communities were brought to the attention of thousands of people. Mapplethorpe wanted to capture new images. His intentions were not to shock; “I don’t like that particular word ‘shocking’. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before” (12), he told ARTnews in 1988. In photographing those “things” he also showed a multitude of people things they had never seen before. “The point of making art is to educate people” Mapplethorpe once asserted (13). He wanted to force the public into awareness of gay issues. If Mapplethorpe’s primary intention is not to sexually stimulate viewers of his work, does that mean it cannot be pornography?

Yet Mapplethorpe certainly wanted to capture the latent sexuality of every living thing in his photography. Even flowers become objects of desire and sexuality. His photographs of flowers are almost more erotic than his nudes. There is a raw sexuality in the way in which he photographs them; the calla lilly’s stamen takes on a phallic shape, the stems of two poppies writhe around each other. Unlike much of his other work, he often uses colour film to photograph his flowers, capturing their vibrant colours, bursting with sexuality. Mapplethorpe sees no need to photograph his flowers any differently than his nudes; “My approach to photographing a flower is not much different than photographing a cock. Basically it’s the same thing” (14).

His black and white photographs of single, naked black men seem to be more a study of the perfect form than pornography. The visually striking image of ‘Thomas’ recalls ‘Vitruvian Man’, Da Vinci’s mathematically and architecturally calculated drawing of the perfect human physique. With his arms stretched out to the perimeters of the circular barrier he stands in, his muscles rippling, skin gleaming, Thomas presents a striking and beautiful image of man. An untitled photograph taken in 1981 shows, apart from his penis, the rippling quadriceps of an extremely fit man. It is his gleaming thighs, reflecting the light and producing shadows, which draw one’s attention in this photograph, rather than the penis, which is shrouded in darkness.

Mapplethorpe’s earlier work juxtaposed pornographic acts and images with classic poses and studio lighting, resulting in the disruption of both the pornographic and the classical and creating an uneasy mix. His later photographs of beautiful, gleaming male bodies are almost totally preoccupied with aesthetic beauty, with Mapplethorpe controlling the rigid poses. There is certainly a pornographic dimension to Mapplethorpe’s work but it is not traditional pornography. In many of the photographs, the subjects’ faces cannot be seen. Penises hang alone, boobs are held almost begrudgingly, the subjects uninterested. Nor does the pornographic define Mapplethorpe’s work. It is also a study of aesthetic beauty, educational, and a presentation of exquisite formal technique. Mapplethorpe’s work could be described as pornographic art; a combination of explicit sexuality and a formal exquisiteness.


1 Soanes, Catherine, ed. Oxford Compact English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.


2 Cited in Levinson, Deborah A. ‘Robert Mapplethorpe’s Extraordinary Vision: A review of The

Perfect Moment’. Aug 6 1989.

3 Cited on

4 Tozer, John. ‘In the Eye of the Beholder’. Variant, issue 6.

5 Cited in Gerry, Lyn. ‘Cut! At the Edinburgh Festival’. 1997.

6 Kardon, J, Mapplethorpe, R. The Perfect Moment. Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art.

1988. ps. 9-10

7 Kardon, J, Mapplethorpe, R. The Perfect Moment. Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art.

1988. p. 11

8 Kidd, Dustin. ‘Mapplethorpe and the New Obscenity’. Afterimage. March-April 2003.

9 Public Law 101-151, November 5, 1990. Reprinted in Richard Bolton, ed., Culture Wars:

Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts. New York: New Press. 1992. p. 286.

10 Flageolle, Andree. ‘Mapplethorpe and Baudelaire’. History of Photography. Winter 1995.

11 Samaras, Connie. ‘Feminism, Photography, Censorship, and Sexually Transgressive Imagery:

The Work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jacqueline Livingston, Sally Mann, and

Catherine Opie’. New York Law School Review. Vol. XXXVIII Nos 1-4. 1993.

12 Cited on

13 Cited by McDonald, Robert on

14 Cited by Celant, Germano. ‘Robert Mapplethorpe: Man in a Polyester Suit’ ArtForum.

September 1993.


Bolton, Richard, ed. Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts. New

York: New Press. 1992.

Kardon, J, Mapplethorpe, R. The Perfect Moment. Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art.


Soanes, Catherine, ed. Oxford Compact English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.


Afterimage. March-April 2003

ArtForum. September 1993.

History of Photography. Winter 1995.

New York Law School Review. Vol. XXXVIII Nos 1-4. 1993


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