For the second post in this series, I decided to talk about iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I don’t actually find his work arousing for the most part, which just goes to show that nudity isn’t always sexually stimulating. He’s more cerebral to me. His images speak to the intellectual side of my brain, rather than the sensual. I’m including him, however, because his photos say something about human sexuality. In 1989, he stirred a big controversy over public funding for the arts because of the explicit nature of his images, particularly the homoerotic and sadomasochistic pieces. A lot of discussion about obscenity and censorship ensued, and many museums refused to exhibit his work, even at the cost of millions of dollars in donations that were given elsewhere as a result. Dennis Barry, museum director for The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, was actually brought up on obscenity charges for displaying Mapplethorpe’s work. He was found not guilty by a jury.

Mapplethorpe-statueThe nudes are beautiful from an aesthetic sense. I find it telling that he also photographs statuary. He often treats his live human nude subjects in much the same way–as emotionless works of art. Objects, not people. They are truly stunning from that perspective. Just as the sculptors create their nudes, Mapplethorpe’s models have sculpted their bodies into a veritable anatomy lesson. It is their work as much as his that is on display. I can’t help but admire the effort and dedication it must have taken for these people to make themselves into living works of art. I am awed by the man in the above photograph. Do I find him sexually appealing, though? His body makes me smile and is certainly visually pleasing, but I have trouble imagining actually having sex with him. I’d love to run my hands over him, worship at his feet and make him an offering of pleasure. But to undress and have him touch me? I just can’t see it. Maybe it’s because his perfection is so intimidating, but the very idea makes me want to hide under the bed. He’s distant, so unobtainable he hardly seems like a human to me. (Mapplethorpe’s nude portraits of famous individuals  are more emotionally revealing, but I won’t touch on those because they veer out of the realm of what I consider erotic. In my purely subjective opinion, of course).

Mapplethorpe-kissOddly, it is the less explicit images that I find stirring. This one, for instance, raises my temperature. Partly because I love kissing, I’m sure, but it’s mainly the emotional and sensual connection between the two men that I consider erotic. It helps that I find the subjects more approachable. I see desire there, not just physical beauty. The focus isn’t on their sculpted, perfect bodies, but on the intimacy of their interaction. I might not imagine having sex with either of them, but when I look at the image I do see something sexual, instead of looking at it from a purely aesthetic point of view. Maybe I need to find passion in a work of art in order for it to inspire sexual feelings?

Mapplethorpe - Jack in PulpitThe images that turn me on most, though, are his shots of flowers. (I know, I’m weird.) There’s something about these visual euphemisms for sexual organs that arouse me more than photos of genitals. They’re more sensual. More subtle. They communicate how I feel about the human body, better than a picture of the body itself. I see the beauty of human sexuality in them. Looking at this image, I am reminded of how I feel when I’m touching a man, enjoying the pleasure of our interaction rather than just looking at some random penis. And don’t forget that flowers are the sexual organs of plants. How cool is it that so many of them look like our own?


Mapplethorpe hugThen there are the pieces that speak to me on a more spiritual level, the nudes that are a contrast of light and dark. Pale skin pressed to deep brown. I see yin and yang, the two halves of the divine energy of the universe, but it becomes more personal, more emotional when represented by people. Yin is the receptive, softer, dark force, while yang is bright, hard, and penetrating. These concepts are part of everything, but in this image I see them in the arena of human intimacy.  Sex is a give and take on both sides, each person shifting from one role to the other at some point, one moment demanding, the next yielding. To me, these images represent that dynamic between lovers. And then there’s the racial aspect, the beauty of two cultures coming together (no pun intended). I grew up in a time when there was more of a taboo about this, so I imagine it has a bigger impact for me than it does for a younger crowd. It shows the beauty of overcoming prejudice and connecting with people who are different, finding common ground and opening ourselves despite social pressures.

Aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and occasionally arousing, Mapplethorpe makes me think. The more I view it, the more depth I see in his work.