Master of the Zeitgeist — Patricia Morrisroe’s Mapplethorpe: A Biography
In the six years since Robert Mapplethorpe’s death at the age of 42, two biographies of the photographer have appeared. The number is perhaps small for an artist whose work, during the waning years of the Reagan/Bush era, nearly single-handedly reignited censorship mania in America : Mapplethorpe’s exhibit, “The Perfect Moment,” opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in late 1988; six months later, Washington, DC’s Corcoran Gallery abruptly canceled the same show and, a year after that, “The Perfect Moment” prompted law-enforcement officials in Cincinnati to prosecute the director of its Contemporary Arts Center for obscenity.
Still, the biographies we do have before us are profoundly revealing. What they reveal, ironically, speaks more loudly of our revisionist and schizophrenic times than it does of the books’ subject.
First out of the gate was Jack Fritscher’s 1994 Mapplethorpe, Assault with a Deadly Camera: A Pop Culture Memoir, An Outlaw Reminiscence, which the author should be embarrassed to have written; and now comes Patricia Morrisroe’s Mapplethorpe: A Biography, which the author should be embarrassed to have us read. Not since Dotson Rader’s 1985 life of playwright Tennessee Williams, Tennessee: Cry of the Heart, in fact, has a biographer made it so clear that she found her subject pitiable.
And perhaps never in American publishing have book reviewers and journalists made so obvious their delight at being able to express disdain for the sex lives of gay men; for photography as an art form; and for the celebrities, sycophants, and sugar daddies who make up the beau monde and without whom both Vanity Fair and the National Enquirer would find themselves with very little to write about. Judging from the major considerations of Morrisroe’s book that have appeared recently in the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, and the Wall Street Journal, among others—with titles like “The Devil’s Disciple,” “Fallen Angel,” and “The Road to Abnormal”—you’d think Morrisroe had written the ultimate exposé of Art World Babylon. In fact, the accomplishments of Mapplethorpe: A Biography are more modest—but the commentary on Morrisroe’s book is as American as apple pie and as contemporary as welfare cuts.
So let’s get right to the prurient details: Everything you’ve heard (or, possibly, imagined) about Robert Mapplethorpe’s sex life is true. He was what would probably be called today a “sex addict” and he engaged in sexual practices designed to outrage as much as possible the voices of an uptight Catholic upbringing that rang in his head. (An antique meaning of “debauch,” significantly, is “to forsake allegiance.”).
With an arrogance reminiscent of Caravaggio, who chose street urchins and pickpockets as models for paintings meant to decorate the Vatican, Mapplethorpe transformed his quondam tricks into photographic subjects before showing them out into the cold light of a Chelsea morning. Later, portraits of men whom Mapplethorpe had besmirched with his own shit would hang in the nation’s finest galleries and museums.
Mapplethorpe’s photographs of sadomasochist sex, moreover—including the infamous “X,” “Y,” and “Z” portfolios—were not the work of a photojournalist on some assignment in the sexual “netherworld” (a word Morrisroe overtaxes). Rather, Mapplethorpe was documenting his own sexual interests (fisting and well-endowed black men, to name only two). Whether he did so to be shocking or because he was courageous is beside the point. Only those who believe that an artist’s work is mute unless accompanied by a psychological profile would take interest in such a debate.
But that is, evidently, just what Patricia Morrisroe does believe—along with many of those who have reviewed Robert Mapplethorpe’s life in the guise of reviewing Morrisroe’s book. In fact, one of the most irritating aspects of Mapplethorpe: A Biography is Morrisroe’s unstinting effort to explain Mapplethorpe almost entirely in the context of his sexual psychology and, in the process, to create intellectual distance between herself and her subject.
Having determined that Mapplethorpe was, so to speak, a sexual artist, Morrisroe explores his childhood, adolescence, and adult life in a manner that is frustratingly predetermined: If Mapplethorpe’s greatest accomplishment was to become our most infamous pervert photographer, Morrisroe suggests that nothing is so appropriate as the attempt to understand him as the accumulation of sexually tinged childhood peccadilloes, a fascination with the Occult, and an ineptitude at sports that identified him as a budding sissy. (We learn, among other things, about the first time Mapplethorpe masturbated, a detail whose inclusion is a kind of establishing shot for the book’s overarching theme.)
When it comes to Mapplethorpe’s adult gay life, Morrisroe proceeds like Margaret Mead on a junket to the inscrutable tribe of the urban homosexual, supplementing her innocent ignorance with quotations from experts. We hear from Brian Pronger on gay masculinity, Vito Russo on media images of gays, Frank Rich on the “homosexualization of America,” John Peterson on “black men and their same-sex desires,” and Randy Shilts on the frequency of gastroenteric disorders among gay men who engage in anal intercourse. Morrisroe has certainly done her library work. Yet a nagging question remains: How is it possible for one so natively unfamiliar with Mapplethorpe’s milieu to determine that it shaped—not to say consumed—his life?
What is clear, in fact, is that Morrisroe did not understand Mapplethorpe’s times—neither the art that was being made in the period nor the lives of many gay men in those years—and that she had little sympathy for either. Mapplethorpe emerges as the anti-poster boy for the “fast-lane” New York City gay life of the 1970s that we’ve all heard so much about, and Morrisroe’s book invites the reader to judge some (or all) of Mapplethorpe’s behavior as “excessive.” (So much so, in fact, that novelist Michael Cunningham’s review, published in the June 1995 Elle, was omitted from America Online’s electronic version of that magazine—even writing about writing about Mapplethorpe is sometimes too much.) There’s even a sense of relief—perhaps more in the comments of reviewers than in the biography itself—that the outcome of Mapplethorpe’s Faustian existence was an operatically appropriate end (La Bohème updated for the 21st century) in the form of his death from AIDS.
It may be true, as Morrisroe and her informants point out over and over, that Mapplethorpe was not a nice man, that he “used” people, that he was selfish and manipulative, that he was fanatical about being in control, and that he was obsessed with fame and adulation. That Mapplethorpe was racist, in fact—to choose one hot-button issue—seems beyond dispute. But that is hardly a shock given his lower-middle-class upbringing in a white American suburb (Floral Park, Queens) in the 1950s and the attitudes of his family and contemporaries. Discussion about whether Mapplethorpe’s work was racist, meanwhile, has barely begun to take place. But that is not what occupies Morrisroe.
Rather, she explores the question of whether Mapplethorpe was sexually racist, if such a thing exists. She makes much, for example, of Mapplethorpe’s reported practice of calling black lovers “nigger” during sex. It is, of course, absurd to argue that such behavior is irrelevant to Mapplethorpe’s racial attitudes. At the same time, in the absence of a consideration of sexuality that incorporates contexts most of us aren’t prepared to discuss, neither is it possible to know exactly what to make of it. Significantly, in the commentary Morrisroe provides, the response of the black partner in these interchanges is never recorded.
Having dispensed with Mapplethorpe’s private life, Morrisroe and her commentators go on to indict Mapplethorpe’s artistic work out of both sides of their mouths: He was a sellout for the fashion shoots and flower photos that paid him extravagantly and he was an attention-seeking brat for the sex photos that brought him notoriety. Nor does any reviewer miss an opportunity to voice at least one of the trendy platitudes that now pass for criticism of Mapplethorpe’s work: “He was really a minor artist, you know” or “The SM photos aren’t his best work” or—even more cynically—“He took advantage of having AIDS to make himself famous.”
And yet there is something suspicious in the posture of those who stand back now, holding perfumed hankies daintily over their noses, to survey the wreckage of Mapplethorpe’s tortured life. “How could such a monster have existed?” they seem to ask. That question, at least, is answered by Morrisroe.
No one, she makes clear, ever gave Robert Mapplethorpe any reason to quit being such a jerk. No one demanded that he treat others ethically. No one stopped inviting him to parties. No one refused to work for him or to sleep with him (no matter what he called them). No art dealer ever refrained from using Mapplethorpe’s illness as an excuse to urge potential buyers to hurry up their purchases. None of the current righteous handwringing about what a creep Robert Mapplethorpe was, then, is sufficient to get his friends, colleagues, and business associates off the hook: Mapplethorpe made buckets of money for them, took them along to glittering little soirees populated by the truly fabulous, got them laid, and invited them to weekends in the Hamptons. Because of that, they allowed him to be what he was. And after he died, they lined up to say how insufferable they had always found him to be.
That’s what comes of failing to outlive your enemies, but it is not the customary fate of one who fails to outlive his friends. If Robert Mapplethorpe was morally bankrupt, he thrived as an equal among peers. Until the biography he deserves is finally written, that is the story that remains untold.