‘Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures’ Should Strike New Conversation

Robert Mapplethorpe (self portrait, 1980) (HBO)

Even if you don’t know much about the life of Robert Mapplethorpe or how he became a hugely influential artist, albeit a controversial one, you surely have seen some of his photography work.

While his work did shock some people, one of the things you’ll learn from tonight’s HBO documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” is that shock was not what was on his mind when he was creating provocative images that, yes, often involved nudes and sexual positions.

The documentary from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (World of Wonder) not only serves as an insightful look at Mapplethorpe’s life, but also should spark new conversation about his work and what it means to be open in life, including sex and sexuality.

I talked to Bailey last week about his impression of Mapplethorpe (who died of complications from HIV/AIDS in 1989) and what his intention was with his art, and how talking about it today is as relevant as back in the late ’70s and ’80s when he rose to fame.

Watching the film brought back a lot of memories to not just the controversy of Mapplethorpe, but to his work. What drew you and Randy to tackle this subject? It's so important to make sure it stays relevant, I think.

Fenton Bailey: Well, I agree with you. The work is really so important because as much as things may have changed, in a way, things haven’t changed at all. Mapplethorpe says the whole point of art is to keep an open mind and I think to challenge people to explore themselves. And it just seems like we live in a time where we seem more against that idea of an open mind and being open to things, we seem more against that than ever before. Someone like Jesse Helms may not be around and yeah, I guess you can google images on the Internet, but then, on the other hand, you’ve got someone like Trump and a whole host of nonsense going on, with anti-gay legislation and the like. It’s just…it’s extraordinary. So, he’s definitely as relevant if not more relevant than he ever was.

We discovered that in the course of making the film. Randy and I knew who he was, and we were aware of the name Mapplethorpe. But we were living in the East Village in the '80s, so we never met him, but we certainly knew of him. Then, of course, with the trial in Cincinnati, we knew about that, too, and making the film was a real journey of discovery. And it was all thanks to Sheila Nevins of HBO, who suggested we look into the subject, and when we did we were astonished to discover that there hasn't been a full telling of his story in terms of a documentary, since before his death.

What [Mapplethorpe] had to say about his work was a big revelation because lots of people have had lots to say about Mapplethorpe over the years, but I think in a way, we just haven't heard from Mapplethorpe himself. And when we started researching and found all these interviews and recordings, we were like, "This is the way to do it." Let the artist tell his story in his own words.

Robert Mapplethorpe (HBO)

In talking about his early years, it sounds almost like photography found him since, in the doc, he even used photos of his father’s in school and claimed them as his own.

FB:  I definitely think photography found him because he always knew he wanted to be an artist. Even when he was a kid and even before he even knew what an artist was, he knew he wanted to be one. I don’t think he ever had any intention of being a photographer. And of course, photography, contemporary photography, wasn’t really considered fine art. And certainly, the subject matter wasn’t considered beautiful, suitable material for art.

So, against that you have to set the fact that he always was trying to think, what's going to cut through? What's going to separate me from everybody else? What's going to be memorable? Because he really believed, as an artist, that part of being an artist wasn't just making beautiful work and sitting around waiting to be discovered, it was also hustling and cutting through the clutter and the competition of other artists and making sure that you were noticed and recognized as an artist. That was absolutely crucial, and I think he felt incredibly honest about that. I think a lot of artists, even today, pretend that they don't want to be famous and they just get discovered. So, of course that's just not true, and Mapplethorpe was quite willing to tell the truth about things.

The fact that he was coming into his own as an artist as the gay rights movement was taking off, how much would you say that was an influence on his work, because the world was kind of changing right in front of him?

FB: I would never characterize Mapplethorpe as a gay activist, for example, but he absolutely was a pioneer. And he was always, really, out of the closet not just as a gay man, but in every sense. He was just very open and honest about what he was doing and why he was doing it. At a time when I think, again, many artists attempted to cloak themselves in mystery. And remember, the art world…there were a lot of gay people in the art world, but it was predominately a closeted world. So, I think that openness and honesty wasn’t just about being gay, it was about art, about being an artist. So, I guess the two movements do go hand-in-hand.

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What do you think the purpose was to his art? Because you can look at it and say, "Oh, it's to shock people or it's this or that." But I don't think his intention was to shock anyone. What do you think?

FB:  No, I don’t think he was into shock. I don’t think it was about shocking people. I think, he said, the whole point about art was to open something up [and] for people to explore themselves. That’s what he saw himself as doing. The life he was leading was the work of art and then the pictures were documenting that. And by showing pictures to people, he could encourage them to explore themselves in the same way that he was exploring himself. And it was all about living a full, open, authentic life. And that’s not about being an artist necessarily, that’s about being alive today. And I think that was his whole point. It’s like, why are we here, what are we doing? We aren’t exploring ourselves and keeping an open mind. And I think that’s what his work was about. And I think that’s why his work is actually as relevant, as important today as it was then, if not more so, you know.

It’s interesting that there will still be discussion about whether his work is art or pornography, given some of the images, but where is that line?

FB:  I think it’s also the fact that, obviously, we live in a society that is saturated with sexuality and pornography [that] is instantly available to anyone. What’s not available is a discussion about it. That’s what’s so taboo and forbidden and dangerous about what makes Robert doing them and is still relevant now, because although you can Google search and find any of these kinds of activities or subjects online, what you can’t find is them as a part of life. And I consider the power of art, which, obviously, they are and ultimately there is a connection between political hysteria and sexuality. I think you just have to look at the political landscape and the people who are trying to roll back gay rights and acceptance of sexuality, just as a part of our lives. The hypocrisy out there and ignorance is pretty disturbing.

“Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” airs at 9 pm on Monday on HBO. Check listings for subsequent air dates. If you’re in Los Angeles, visit the Getty Center where a Mapplethorpe exhibit is up until the end of July.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.