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Sights of Contention :
Mark Jarzombek
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Supporters of Mapplethorpe feel that the artist was the victim of the combined forces of homophobia and conservatism; this is certainly true, but that does not mean that the "defenses" of Mapplethorpe constitute a true championing of his art. The trial formalists clearly could not deal with the homosexual content, which it acknowledged only as "disturbing" or "troubled," or as a product of Mapplethorpe's interest in "Homo erotic art." But it was precisely—and perhaps sadly—this loss that saved the day, for exploiting the numerous fissures in its own theories, the formalist defense could cleverly avoid and disguise its own biases. Its very strength of looking at bodies from the neutered perspective of a scientific professionalism helped the jurors see that one could be dispassionate in the face of nudity. It could operate on its conservative authority in the museum field and on its tattered but still potent history. 

The prosecution's argument—despite the bigotry that might have fueled it—was aiming for an unedited philosophical resolution. It was highly suspicious of the museAppendx 2 page break 75 | 76um in a way that put liberal defenders of the museum to shame. The jury was obviously unable to philosophize on the photographs themselves, and though they made the right legal decision, it was one of default. But if the jury was reticent to philosophize directly in front of the photographs, this call for immediacy, even when done in defense of Mapplethorpe, turned out to be no saving grace. Danto, in his well-intentioned attempt to remind us of the power of the images, fell back into an early formalist revivalism replete with all its male biases, arrogance, and subjectivism. Is the vivid "experience" of an artwork the functional center of a transcendent, intersubjective "liberal" truth based on national values, or is it merely a dubious fiction in a narcissistic discourse? Is the search for immediacy an immunity against dangerous conservative abstractions, or a disease itself? Is it a protection against alienation in the bourgeois world, or is it a representation of that alienation? And finally, is the celebration of the human significance of art not circularly constructed in the performance of philosophy in support of art-capitalism? 

But is it art? The numerous circularities, reversals, paradoxes, and artificial demands by conservatives and liberals that we de-aestheticize art on the one hand,  or as Danto suggests, that we hyper-aestheticize art on the other—that we become a cynic in the cause of truth, or a naive in the cause of cynicism—leaves little room for deciding if there is a "truth" to Mapplethorpe's art. All we know is that museum professionals, art investors, and liberal theorists "know" that it is art. But as all these domains touch, in one way or the other, whether through the space of the museum, the professionalism of art analysis, or the experientialism of twentieth-century aesthetic theories, there is no outside position—except that of time itself, perhaps—that will answer the question. 

the end Mark Jarzombek

text | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | notes
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