"Robert Mapplethorpe Self Portrait, image obtained from Elvert Barnes' flickr"
by Asri Alhamdaputra
Mapplethorpe is my hero.
I've never felt like more of a stereotype than by saying these words. As an artsy femme queer majoring in art, claiming my love for Mapplethorpe is like saying the sky is blue. First of all, he's fine AF. Have you seen his self portraits? Leather zaddy alert. But more importantly, his works are deliberately irreverent, putting jarring homoerotic depictions of male sexuality in front of your face. In the 70's, capturing close-up pictures of dicks was unheard of, let alone celebrated. Mapplethorpe was the O.G. gay that paved the way for all of today's instathot gays; Mapplethorpe walked so Adam Rippon could run.
But his ingeniousness goes far beyond the idea of taking explicit homoerotic pictures. He blurs the line between high art and pornography; his photographs are soft and intimate, yet simultaneously harsh and upfront. He normalizes BDSM subculture and elevates it onto a pedestal for the mainstream to acknowledge. Namely, Mapplethorpe laughs at 50 Shades of Grey, representing the BDSM community accurately instead of romanticizing it to fit the fantasies of a middle-aged suburban white mom. He questions the notion of censorship in the world of art, and explores many unconventional iterations of the nude form.
Needless to say, Mapplethorpe's sensual while critical portraits of erotica awarded him the reputation of being the L'Enfant Terrible of the art world. Many museums canceled Mapplethorpe’s show during his solo exhibition tour in the late 80’s on the basis of their hesitation to political involvement with his art.
But let’s be real, all art, with or without intention, is political. That’s just the T. In the late 80’s, during the pinnacle of the AIDS crisis, the heat of the ACT UP’s movement, a time where people still believed AIDS was sent by god to punish gay people, turning down a chance to exhibit Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait with a Bullwhip (1978) is not just contradictory to what museums are supposed to do (serving for the public’s greater good), it’s discriminatory to an entire group of people who are literally dying by huge numbers daily.
Perhaps that’s what makes Mapplethorpe a legend; his ability to make the viewer scrutinize the politics of museums and the art world in general. Mapplethorpe’s portraits are not only close-ups of dicks; they are close-ups of dicks with the intent of normalizing images of male genitalia for the mainstream to see. It inquired deliberately why the female nude is considered high art while close-up of dicks is subversive and political. It’s close-up of dicks, and it’s art, deal with it!
But sis, let’s address the elephant in the room. Do you think Mapplethorpe was a bottom? I mean, Self Portrait with Bullwhip? Truly this is what the entirety of this column is about, discussing how much of a power bottom Mapplethorpe truly was. He was the messiah us bottoms want and deserve. As a femme non-binary queer, I can only dream of taking a straight up bullwhip up my ass and pose so effortlessly to take a fierce photo. This, of course, adds to the long list of reasons why Mapplethorpe is an important icon in my life. He spearheads media representation for bottoms. Because it’s fun and games for the straights to be an ally for the gays, until the images of penetrative gay sex are publicized. Then, all of a sudden, it’s seditious.