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>> Consensual Subordination
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>> Interview with Germano Celant
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Dionysian Debauchery:
Mapplethorpe, the Male Nude, and Advertising Photography

In the everyday imagery of mass culture, it was Robert Mapplethorpe who first gave the motto "sex sells" its justification in respect to the male body. At the same time, Mapplethorpe also insisted on representing the phallus and on emphasizing the pornographic models that once trained his eye. Brigitte Werneburg on the boundaries of the "classical tradition" and key aspects of Mapplethorpe's photographic work, which to this day still hasn't found its place in mainstream culture.

Bruce Weber: Cameron, 1990. ©Bruce Weber

Light-colored jeans, highly polished, untied boots, a pair of legs crossed over one another, photographed from the knees down: Untitled; an extended arm, a part of the shoulder and head still visible: Self-Portrait - these were the images that marked Robert Mapplethorpe's sudden appearance as an advertising photographer. In 1999, ten years after his death. Unspectacular, black and white, the size of a passport photograph - this was how the designer Helmut Lang implemented Mapplethorpe's photographs for his current fashion advertising campaign.

The campaign's layout was brilliantly conceived. Never before had the photographer's appearance been staged this inconspicuously. Yet his influence on advertising and lifestyle photography was probably always just as marginal: limited to the outer fringes, in the background, solitary. This doesn't contradict the established fact that, in terms of everyday mass cultural imagery, it was Robert Mapplethorpe who first gave the motto "sex sells" its justification in respect to the male body. Or the widespread belief that Mapplethorpe was responsible for allowing the male body to appear at all on an everyday basis - beautiful, powerful, naked, and seductive. Or the near certainty that Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, and Calvin Klein advertising would have been inconceivable without Mapplethorpe, just to name a few of the most well-known lifestyle photographers and advertising campaigns in which male physical beauty has played a central role.

Herb Ritts:
Dijimon with Octopus, 1989

©Herb Ritts Photography inc.;
Courtesy Fondation Cartier

Another Mapplethorpe motif in the Helmut Lang advertising campaign, however, reminds us that key aspects of Mapplethorpe's work never found their way into mainstream culture. An old woman with a mischievous smile and dressed in a feather jacket: Louise Bourgeois, the artist holding the casting of a huge phallus under her arm, marks one of these blind spots. It lies right at the center of Robert Mapplethorpe's work. His photography revolves around the cock, or to be more precise: it's the center of his universe. And as much as he flatters them with his lighting, as perfect as his selection and staging of the phallus may be - large, powerful, well-proportioned, and beautifully shaped (although nearly never erect) - Mapplethorpe does not idealize. The phallus in his images is not a symbol for the law of the father, as in Louise Bourgeois' critical approach. Mapplethorpe remains concrete, treating the penis as a perceivable entity.

Yet this view never really found its way into visual advertising. The phallus reigns here, but it remains, nolens volens, invisible. The scrim on which the male body becomes an advertising device is still Jean Loup Sieff's photograph of the naked Yves Saint Laurent. Sieff's photograph is probably the most influential motif in this context. In 1971, long before the first public appearances of Mapplethorpe's work, it was run in the international magazines to introduce Saint Laurent's first men's perfume Pour Homme. Pour Homme's approach has been retained to this day: a shadow covers the penis on the photograph, and in the filmed version, the camera sweeps away just at the right moment. In other words, it's not presented as a challenge, but rather cut off and cut away; according to Freud, this is supposed to arouse the envy that characterizes the world. It's not allowed to be concrete, as it's threatening to become in the desire of gays - and women, for that matter.

Jean Loup Sieff: Yves Saint Laurent, 1971
©Jean Loup Sieff

Mapplethorpe, however, insists on the penis, and he insists on the pornographic models that trained his eye. As critic Mark Thompson said, he approached the motifs he found "in terms of lighting, composition, and all the other considerations that are important for a work of art." The philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto calls the aesthetic of representation that grew out of this process "simultaneously Dionysian and Apollonian ." While the Apollonian side was now meeting with considerable acceptance on the part of the public, which loved the austere classicism Mapplethorpe employed to stage his "abnormal" subjects, it was this "abnormality" that the 36 senators were referring to who went to battle in 1990 against his posthumous, remarkably well-attended exhibition The Perfect Moment and its support through the National Endowment for the Arts. When the male body was discovered in the eighties by advertising and lifestyle photography, however, the situation became inverted: The subject was now Apollonian, and the style of representation Dionysian. It appeared casual, everyday, and journalistic, taking on the heritage of street and news photography and presenting the man as an athlete of classical antiquity - sporting a muscular chest, broad shoulders, flat stomach, narrow hips, and long legs. Which was practical, especially in a political sense: this neo-classicism largely excluded the black man, who formed the center of Mapplethorpe's photographic and sexual fascination.

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