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George Bussey holding his head with both hands, face not visible.

George Bussey, 1979

Looking Again At Robert Mapplethorpe’s Gorgeous Provocations

As Phaidon releases a new book of the groundbreaking photographer's work, Esquire's editor-in-chief assesses his legacy.

Last summer, writing in The New York Times under the headline “Has Robert Mapplethorpe’s Moment Passed?”, the critic Arthur Lubow made the case for the prosecution of the priapic provocateur’s once unimpeachable reputation. (Unimpeachable in liberal circles; to the religious right he was a source of outrage and contempt.)

Mapplethorpe, who died from Aids aged 42, in 1989, remains a countercultural icon, a sainted downtown darling, his star burnished in recent years by the bestselling memoirs of his erstwhile lover and collaborator, Patti Smith. His photographs, starkly composed in his studio, apply the same formal rigour to a picture of an orchid, or a portrait of Debbie Harry, as to a photo, gorgeously composed, of a muscular arm inserted almost up to the elbow into another man’s anus, or a chunky cock emerging from the flies of a three-piece business suit.

Lubow’s argument was that Mapplethorpe was a superficial figure whose photos of minority sex acts have lost the power to shock, and whose pictures of nude black men are, to use the current catch-all, troubling.

It is, and presumably has always been, cool to profess oneself unshocked — by images or words or events. Much more sophisticated to raise a weary eyebrow and turn on one’s elegant heel. Without wishing to sound like a pearls-clutching bluestocking, I confess that, leafing through a sumptuous (also chunky) new coffee table book from Phaidon, Mapplethorpe’s work retains its power to stop me in my tracks, unsure whether to stare in amazement and appreciation or to look away, discomfited.

As to Lubow’s accusation that the artist’s “glorifications of black men feed into old, odious stereotypes”, the argument seems to me analogous to the one that would censure — even censor — all images of nude women made by clothed men, from antiquity on.

Mapplethorpe’s eye was highly sexed, he looked on his subjects with calculation — doubtless he objectified them, men and women, flora and fauna — but there is tenderness and wonder, too. Frequently, the photographs are beautiful.