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Robert Mapplethorpe

Many will wonder when looking at the controversial life and work of Robert Mapplethorpe if Robert Mapplethorpe art is to be put on display in the gallery or in the kitchen blender of some angry conservative.

In a time where being gay was still illegal and homosexuals were hiding in mafia-owned bars, an artist would rise up and face the trials of being an out man during the 80’s in the United States. The setting was a conservative time in America. But the artists were some of the most creative and daring. One of them was Robert Mapplethorpe facing jail time for collaging found objects with pornography. But his work made strides not only with gay men but women. Robert Mapplethorpe art would change society and culture in and out of museums and galleries. During a turbulent time, Robert Mapplethorpe art challenged gender norms and the female nude.

Robert Mapplethorpe art

Robert Mapplethorpe lived from 1946 to 1989. He was born in New York and he died early due to an AIDS-related illness in Boston. In 1970 he obtained his B.A. in painting and sculpture from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (Guggenheim).

Robert Mapplethorpe’s true ambitions lied in photography. Armed with a Polaroid SX-70 Mapplethorpe created some of the most visually shocking images of the time. Nothing short of beautiful, the artist would shoot creative compositions of flowers and portraits with an interesting balance of light and dark. He once said, “I don’t think there’s that much difference between a photograph of a fist up someone’s ass and a photograph of carnations in a bowl.” Of course, Robert Mapplethorpe art was more than just photographs of carnations. He was also making collages of pornographic material and images of muscular male nudes that danced between rugged and fluid. Even the women in his photographs seem to have the shadowing ridges of a fit body. Robert Mapplethorpe art was all captured merely with his Polaroid and his genius sense of design.

Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe Art

Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe were also armed with sexuality in their fine artworks. They would use their sexuality in art and politics throughout the 80’s.

These boys were two peas in a pod. They were two balls in a sack. And they were both magicians of fine art. “Both men were gay, both expressed their sexuality in their art, and both helped to establish New York as the centre of the contemporary art world” (Phaidon). Both being gay and living in a growing art metropolis, they were uniquely positioned to use their sexuality as subject matter.

However, for Warhol, things were no more pleasurable than a person’s first piercing. It wasn’t easy. “Andy also came of age before the Stonewall Riots, and as a young man could not have enjoyed the same degree of sexual liberation as Mapplethorpe did, in the post-Stonewall era” (Phaidon). For Warhol as a young artist and Mapplethorpe as an adult, being gay in the States was no easy fete.

It was by no means an easy task to use one’s homosexuality both artistically and politically in this way but it strengthened Robert Mapplethorpe’s artwork.

Gender Norms in Art Museums

Robert Mapplethorpe art brought more than just pricks and dildoes into the museum. He brought gender into the museums.

It doesn’t take a masters in mathematics or women’s studies to realize that finding women artists in a classical art museum is next to impossible. Like in Robert Mapplethorpe art, The Guerilla Girls and their famous print  Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989) demonstrated this phenomenon. “They formed in response to the International Survey of Painting and Sculpture held in 1984 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition included the work of 169 artists, less than 10% of whom were women” (Manchester). Just in case the math is too hard, that’s less than 16 artists in this particular exhibit that were women. It was hard to meet a female artist in the 1800’s and is equally hard to see their work in galleries and museums 300 years later.

Robert Mapplethorpe art flipped art history upside down by manipulating sexuality and gender roles.

There were definitely no benefits for being homosexual during the 1980’s but Robert Mapplethorpe was able to utilize it in his art. Robert Mapplethorpe art was bringing attention to gender because he was a gay man depicting the male instead of a straight man depicting the female. Normal behavior was opposite of this.

Gays in America were very much oppressed in daily life but through his art but, Mapplethorpe was able to make his sexual orientation commentary. In the 80’s being gay was a scandal so there was already commentary spreading around about gender and sexual orientation. Changing the gender of his subject matter was all Robert Mapplethorpe needed to do to bring attention to the role gender plays in museums and galleries.

He was able to use homosexuality as a means to draw attention to the unfairness regarding gender in museums and galleries. Robert Mapplethorpe art brought awareness of gender inequality into the

The Male Nude

Robert Mapplethorpe art was challenging the very culture reflected through it.

Up until Mapplethorpe, fine art was the female nude. There were no drag queens, gay bars, or tv shows about homosexuals in the 1800’s. And women too were left out of the cultural spotlights. The homosexual and the female were both shunned as seen in the visual language of the 1800’s:

Today, the nude essentially brings to mind a female body, the legacy of a 19th century that established it as an absolute and as the accepted object of male desire” – Masculine / Masculine. The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day

Because of so many male artists painting the female nude in the past, it is expected for the nude to be female even in contemporary times. Seeing a rugged beef-cake bodybuilder standing nude in a photograph hanging in the Louvre might have had the same negative impression as a Picasso hanging in the salons of the 19th century. But, Mapplethorpe art challenged the idea that only the female nude could be fine art.

The male gaze was now the male “gays.” By depicting the male anatomy in promiscuous clothing or in sexually poised positions, Robert Mapplethorpe art was appealing to homosexual men. By creating an object for the homosexual man’s gaze, Mapplethorpe was allowed to change the gender of the nude in his photographs.

The sort of challenges seen in Robert Mapplethorpe art are the same issues seen in Contemporary art many times.


So what is it? Is it art? Does it hold true to everything art must look like and accomplish? It’s very clear to see that the craftsmanship and beauty of Robert Mapplethorpe art is nothing short of precise, talented, and moving. And it’s very apparent that he was using art to bring awareness to the people. So what is it? Is it art?


  • Guggenheim. guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/robert-mapplethorpe
  • Phaidon. phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2016/march/24/warhol-on-mapplethorpe
  • Manchester, Elizabeth. “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum.” Tate, tate.org.uk/art/artworks/guerrilla-girls-do-women-have-to-be-naked-to-get-into-the-met-museum-p78793
  • “Masculine / Masculine. The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day.” Musee d’Orsay, musee-orsay.fr/en/events/exhibitions/archives/exhibitions-archives/article/masculin-masculin-37292.html?cHash=04969dd038

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Jun 24, 2018 Artists

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Topher is the proud creator and editor of Culture Hog.


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