Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Q&A Arthur Danto: Porn, Light, & Mapplethorpe

 Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Q&A Arthur Danto: Porn, Light, & Mapplethorpe

 . . . one was in the presence of a set of images that drove one away and drew one to them in some kind of oscillation of will. One wanted to escape and one wanted a further contemplation.
Arthur Danto, Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe

HB: The crucial moment for you as an art critic, was it not, was the display of Any Warhol’s Brillo Soapbox. If that was art, why? If other, seemingly identical objects, real Brillo Soapboxes, were not art, why weren’t they? Art opened up as a philosophical question for you.

AD: That’s true. The exhibit was in ‘64, at the Stable Gallery, and I was stunned by it. I really did feel for the first time that there was something philosophically interesting in art. I had never known how to think about art philosophically before.

I was interested in what it meant that there were those kinds of objects, objects like Warhol’s Soapbox. I’m still interested, I write all the time about it. But I had no intention of being an art critic in ‘64. My interests remained straight philosophical. I never wrote again about art until I began to write The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. I thought I was writing a five volume system of analytical philosophy, and that was to be volume four.

But I had changed in a lot of ways. The first three volumes were Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge, Analytical Philosophy of Action, and then, Analytical Philosophy of History. But I didn’t want to call this new book the Analytical Philosophy of Art. It wasn’t analytical philosophy of art. It was written in a very different way from any of my other books. I think it had a postmodern feeling. But even then I had no idea I was going to be an art critic. I still thought about myself as a 19th century philosopher engaged in writing a very large system of philosophy.

HB: One of the things we think about in terms of contemporary art, the blurring of genre, is by this point a cliche.

AD: It is a cliche by now, that’s right.

HB: But nevertheless, applicable.

AD: Absolutely applicable.

HB: I think it applies to your work as well. I mean, you’re the analytic philosopher who admires Nietzsche and quotes Heidegger, an analytic philosopher who absolutely cannot resist Hegel.

AD: Hegel knew that he was dealing with the structure of thought, the logic of the structure of thought, and that’s very different from the structure of the physical world.

HB: Your view of Robert Mapplethorpe in “Playing with the Edge” hinges on Hegel.

AD: On Hegel’s notion of the aufheben.

HB: Maybe, with roots in analytical philosophy, you can see Hegel afresh.

AD: My interest in Hegel comes through his philosophy of history, as well, but primarily through his “Philosophy of Art”, which was a stupendous book. It’s a ball of fire.

HB: You allude to it all the time.

AD: It’s the book I always turn to when I’m stuck. And it was basically never taken up by anybody.

The history of nineteenth-century aesthetics is very barren. It’s because Kant was the dominating figure, and is still is in analytical philosophy, and it’s because analytical philosophers have never been comfortable with the problem of history. They never have the sense that history becomes part of the identity of cultural objects or beings, cultural beings like ourselves.

Hegel does have that sense. I don’t think anybody before Hegel did, and after Hegel something happened to thought — it got swamped by the return to Kant, by politics, by Marx, who really had a very mechanical view of history.

HB: So we have a book about Mapplethorpe that is also in a sense a revival of Hegel.

AD: I thought that this funny idea Hegel has of aufheben was one way of thinking about pornography. Hegel has the wonderful idea in aufheben of something that is preserved, negated, and transcended all at once. I thought that fit Mapplethorpe to a tee, at least those great photographs people talked about without communicating to each other, as if they were seeing different objects.

Mapplethorpe’s photographs preserved what he was looking at. They negated it in some way because they were so beautiful you could just see the formal structure. The experts I challenge in the book could have been sincere — “Penis? what penis? I just see a figure composition.” So you have the people in the Congress who only see the penis, and the experts who only see the form. They’re both there and they’re both transcended in some way, and that’s what makes it art. You need all three dimensions of the aufheben in order to account for the structure of the controversy.

You’re not going to get to the people in the Congress who were against his work by giving them lessons in art appreciation, telling them to think only in terms of composition.

HB: Because you’re telling them to deny common sense, which makes them want to fund the arts even less.

AD: The art people, the formalists, that is how they’ve learned to talk about art. But I was thinking about Baroque paintings — I have a great love for paintings like Roman Charity — and Baroque painting were meant to transform the viewer in some way. And that fit Mapplethorpe naturally.

I got immersed in Baroque art. It’s not something that many people think about. I lived in Rome for a while, and was reading the work of Rudolf Wittkower, who’s my great hero, and a great art historian, and that put me in a position to think about work like Mapplethorpe’s in a very different way.

There was a show bracketing Mapplethorpe with Weston — but I don’t think Weston ever rose to Mapplethorpe’s level. Weston sees highly erotic forms in peppers but he never transcends into the domain of deep human meanings you get in Baroque paintings or in Rembrandt and Caraveggio and you get in Mapplethorpe.

HB: “Playing with the Edge” plays with many edges, those between art and life, free expression and artistic quality, participation and voyeurism.

AD: I think a lot’s happened since the book came out, and that discouraged me a little bit. I was reading over the galleys at the time of the Whitney Biennial, and suddenly thought, this is all old hat now. I was struck, at the Biennial, by the tremendous amount of what they call gender sexuality. Maybe fifteen artists were in one way or another involved in cross-dressing or allusions to S & M. And I became aware of all the energies and urgencies of queer politics, I hadn’t known about, hadn’t dealt with.

HB: The edge you are most concerned with is the edge between pornography and art. Some writers about pornography say that the reason it was segregated off from the main body of literature — in France, for example, it was quarantined in the section of the Biblioteque National known as the enfer — is that it had immediate purchase on the reader, a visceral, direct hold that violates what was taken to be the contemplative distance of art.

AD: You’d take it up and masturbate. It was supposed to arouse you that way. But it wasn’t art, and that is the edge — how can we keep both?

That’s where the notion of transcendence comes in. It takes it up into a realm of meanings close to those you get with great religious paintings.

HB: How do you justify comparing Mapplethorpe’s work to religious art?

AD: I would think first of all of how he does it, for example, in the triptych “Jim and Tom, Sausalito,” the way the shadows and the setting work, and the way in which the two figures are engaged. You feel one figure conferring something on the other, as if in answer to a tremendous wish. I thought about the theme of Roman charity so popular in 17th century paintings: a man is in a Roman prison, and his daughter comes in and feeds him her with his breast.

It could be prurient; it could be obscene, this bearded guy suckling a young and luscious woman, and yet it’s very clear that more than that is going on in these works. It is Roman charity; it is an act of love. The paintings are set in the prison cell of a suffering guy, bound and shackled. She comes in and it’s a visitation. These paintings make much of the notion that Andre Serrano tries to make so much of — the sacramental character of bodily fluids.

He had a genius, Mapplethorpe did, for light, and not just the artificial light of the studio. In her biography of Mapplethorpe, Patricia Morrisroe describes Patti Smith getting him a commission to do her first record jacket, and he has this idea of what it’s going to be like. There’s a patch of light on Sam Wagstaff’s terrace, and he wants to photograph her in that patch of light. So they meet, he and Patti Smith, and they go drinking. Suddenly he realizes, my god, we’ve got to hurry; the light will go. They rush to Wagstaff’s and he puts her there, and does a tremendous photograph, I think for “Horses.”.

He must have collected, in his mind, pieces of light around lower Manhattan, and envisioned photographs in those terms. It would have been like a Guide Bleu to light patches of lower Manhattan, to define the geography of possible photographs.

HB: You write that the beauty of his photographs nearly disqualified him from serious consideration in an art world that had marginalized beauty, while the fact that his lifestyle and photographic content were marginal made him central all over again in an art world that was fascinated with marginality.

AD: Absolutely. That’s one of the ironies.

HB: In the essay “Aesthetics and Art Criticism,” you write, that “We aestheticize only when the world is, so to speak, on hold. Where it is my view that if aesthetic considerations are commingled with cognition, and cognition itself harnessed to practice, contemplation is not the defining aesthetic posture at all.”

That opens up all sorts of possibilities.

AD: Because you’re expecting people to be in involved in some way more than the contemplative posture allowed for.

I just gave a talk about Clement Greenberg, and the way in which you were supposed to look at a painting. You cover your eyes, and then you say, are you ready? Then you uncover your eyes, and the eye is flooded. The thing was to see before thought could intervene, so you’d have a purely visual experience, without the contamination of theory, ideas, or anything of the kind. Hoving did the same when he went to buy a Velasquez. He’d say, “Hit me!” and they’d turn on the lights and “Aw!” That was it, he knew it was a great painting. People thought that it was about putting everything out of play except the eye.

But when, in the sixties, you begin to get things like the happening, the performance — what I call disturbatory art — you are asking from art that it do something more than establish distance from a viewer engaged in a purely visual relationship to it. And I think that’s true with Mapplethorpe. With Mapplethorpe, the edge lies somewhere between the contemplative and the engaged. You’re involved both ways at least; you can’t settle on one. Everything is negated and preserved at the same time, that crazy Hegelian idea.

We don’t have very many things that we an use the notion of aufheben with, except something like this. To my knowledge no great artist had ever used sexuality as the provocative force. It’s maybe more central to Fragonard than to any other painter. And there’s the Courbet, “The Origin Of The Universe.”

HB: In “Manhood,” Michel Leiris describes going through the art at the Louvre as if it were his private pornography collection when he was growing up. He saw through the formal qualities, right to the erotic, right to the masturbatory. Mapplethorpe said, here, it’s not hidden; it’s absolutely central. No need to leer.

The discourse has moved on, as you put it, partly because of Mapplethorpe. The discourse on S & M has spread. There is a graduate level seminar at Cornell on sadomasochism. There’s Madonna and MTV.

AD: We were just in Europe, in Cologne. Down these streets lined with fairly opulent looking shops, there were several which sold S & M costumes — mannequins in the window, male and female, handcuffed together wearing black leather and so forth. I looked in and it was like people were shopping for ski apparel.

Even funnier, at the hotel in Amsterdam they hand you a little booklet about what’s happening, the exhibitions, the shows. There was a page of ads for escorts: “S&M mistress, and S&M fitted room.” You could pay with a VISA card. You can’t go much further in the banalization of the marginal. Put it on your credit card. Advertise it in “Hello, Amsterdam.”

HB: You describe yourself as never having interest in this form of sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Nevertheless it holds you; you find it arresting in some way.

AD: Who knows what it means when you’re arrested by images of that sort? I’d never seen art like that. There are things you see that do hit you very hard. I remember seeing Flemish primitives, scenes of martyrdom, and those images really hit you and you can’t get them out of your mind. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s something you aspire to in your own life or would ever want to be part of.

It wasn’t even a fantasy. Fantasies don’t work like that. I talked to Lynn Davis, who was close to Mapplethorpe at the time when he was actively involved in sadomasochism, and she asked him if this was something he dreamt about doing all his life. He said, I didn’t even know it existed until last night. Fantasies are repetitive, you keep going back and back and back and back. But these guys evolved a form of life that was a kind of creativity if you had the guts to participate in it.

That was never a part of my outlook on life, or on sexuality, or on love, which, after all, Mapplethorpe didn’t have. He was looking for love at the end of his life. He was looking for a different kind of relationship. Of course, he never found it. He was looking for it in a very strange way.

HB: Do you feel that coming at art from philosophy has been a good angle of approach, that you’ve been able to open yourself in a way someone trained more traditionally might not?

AD: Yes, but let me put it this way: I really did begin by thinking I was going to be an artist, and studied philosophy as a collateral thing. And I do think that having had studio experience was very valuable, not something art historians necessarily have.

But I don’t think it would have helped me in dealing with the kind of art I began to find philosophically instructive, with the Pop Art I would never have wanted to make as an artist. I grew up as a romantic. Somebody who came up as an artist in the fifties was still in that world of Abstract Expressionism. That wouldn’t have helped me be sensitive to Pop Art. It would have made me hostile to it. I had given up on art before I was hit with Pop Art and began to see Pop Art as the improbable messenger of a very important thought.

So, yeah, I think philosophy does put you in a way of thinking that’s very valuable for approaching art at this particular moment.

HB: You’ve written, “I happen to take special pains with writing, I think not common in my sprofession.” How so?

AD: I think philosophical writing has gotten worse and worse. The standard paper is modeled on the scientific paper. Quite early on I decided to be a literary writer, which meant that I wanted my pieces to be a pleasure to read. And I tried to make imaginary examples really absorbing and not silly, like so many philosophical examples get to be. Beyond that there an energy which came into my writing in The Nation for which I have no explanation at all.

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