Interpretation and Boundaries

A You Tube personality led me to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose name I had heard but whose work I had never seen before. To say that Mapplethorpe was groundbreaking as an artist is understatement. His medium was photography, and his most controversial subject matter (but not his only subject matter) were in the type of prints from his “X” album, which included some extreme forms of sexual expression, such as what is known as “fisting.” It is jarring; repulsive, even, for most people. But those photos are considered by many as genuine art. Dissenters (including policymakers) have denied his work as art, characterizing it (and him) as depraved, degenerate, and demonic.

The latter opinion is what my You Tube source held, and many of her followers’ comments revealed similarly-held disparaging judgments on the man and his work — his life. After finishing the beautifully-produced documentary from which they were confirming their views, I could not but find myself in a very different space on the man, and on his work. You could say, I have an alternate interpretation.

Every day we live, we interpret. Thinking that we share an objective space of reality with our fellow travelers, we rely on our own and others’ interpretive values and conclusions to make sense of what we are experiencing, and so attempt to define what is true, or what is truth. But though the world and events that we inhabit or share with others may seem objective, they are not really, because we are each, individually, interpreting the shared experience subjectively. Sometimes we will have consensus with others. Sometimes we won’t. In cases where there is disagreement about the “objective truth,” who decides? And on what basis?

We will always finally decide only what our own idea of truth is. Even in cases where we have agreed to adopt another’s interpretation in consensus, it is because we have used our personal, subjective agency to concede and affirm that meaning for our individual self. But is it a truth? Is it a true interpretation?

In the documentary on Mapplethorpe, two of his models who were the subject of a renowned photographic work discussed the response to the work. They observed how labored the many interpretations, how anachronistic expectations of race or racism were employed to declare truth about the work. They exposed such entangled struggles as purely futile. Knowing Mapplethorpe, and having lived the actual process of getting to the final, selected work, they completely reject the distortions of interpretation that assigned to Mapplethorpe undeserved, unfounded, interpretations. Those are not truth, nor true interpretation, unless we agree to say that such interpretation is true only for the individual meaning-seeker and not for Mapplethorpe and everyone else. Subjective truth, not objective truth.

And this is the caution. As long as we stay aware that our interpretive lives ultimately only reflect truth to the boundaries of our own experience, then we have integrity. The moment we push our interpretations onto others as truth, then we are endangering the idea of truth itself.

Mapplethorpe died of complications from HIV/AIDS at the age of 42.  Was he a demon? I don’t think so, but he is a haunting figure. I can’t pretend to imagine leading a life of such physical and emotional exploration as he led. Where he went and what he did, his appetites and drive to document and preserve those explorations was an interpretive opus, a body of work that was his own — only his own — interpretation of life. It was a life that undoubtedly looks tortured and complex beyond description, against norms. But it is an interpretation of life which nevertheless resonated with many around him at the time, and that still touches something — if we are willing and curious enough — of our own experience of the world in some ways, even if not to the same boundary-busting degrees. This is the fundament of an artistic legacy, it seems to me…a sacrificial totem gifted to humanity as one of many available interpretive oracles. It isn’t for everyone to consult, but for some it will be powerfully meaningful.

I do not consider his work, essentially, so different from other visual or literary forms that have for millennia brought tales and images of shock, sexuality, and darkness for us to interpret. It is the human imperative to ponder and share the things that disturb us, as much as things that give us peace. And though we may like to think, as one You Tube commenter screamed, that art should only be beautiful (however that is defined), what interpretive resistance would that offer? What salve of beauty is longed for when only the beautiful is presented? We need some boundaries to be crossed, and some to be respected. The difference is learned through a lifelong practice of daily interpretation.

Happy Birthday, also today, to my precious son.


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