Queer Culture

Beauty in Bondage

Robert Mapplethorpe used old forms for forbidden content.

01.20.14 9:44 PM ET

Who else could this shot be by than Robert Mapplethorpe? It’s a 1980 image titled “Leather Crotch”, and it’s in the Mapplethorpe survey now at Sean Kelly gallery in New York. I visited with a smart artist and an art-historian friend, and somehow we got caught up in the same-old Mapplethorpe debate: Is his aesthetic too conservative and Edward Weston-ish for its own good, or can we ignore that because of the radical subjects he shoots? Afterward, I realized the obvious solution to the (non-)issue: Mapplethorpe’s art matters most when it uses the old Modernist tropes to display his new subjects. Finding a new, radical language to show bondage gear would have been almost a capitulation to the sidelining that gay culture had suffered for decades; by using the established language of elite art, Mapplethorpe could insist on a retrospective insertion of gay culture into the aesthetic mainstream. He could be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, while saying that wolfskin is in.

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