ARTH Courses | ARTH 200 Assignments

Robert Mapplethorpe's Man in a Polyester Suit


In this course we have been dealing with the questions of boundaries and limits. In doing this, I have been aware of the question of my own boundaries: what are the limits of what I am comfortable in presenting in a class. In the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, I have found images that cross the line for me. One photograph in particular, Man in Polyester Suit, would be perfect in the context of our discussion of the representation of the male body. The photograph is of an Afro-American man dressed in a three-piece, polyester suit. The photographer crops the figure to show from mid-chest down to the knees. The photograph is very evidently shot in the context of the photographer's studio, and the technique with the subtle gradations of light and shadow and texture places the photograph in the tradition of fine art photography. The shock of the image is that the man's pants are unzipped, and his penis hangs out.

What do we make of an image that so prominently displays the penis? The size of the penis and the racial identity of the man confront us as well. I consider it a powerful and very important work, but because of these issues, a work that is not reproducible in the context of a course, especially over the Web.

What follows are excerpts from three discussions about Mapplethorpe and this particular work. Abigail Solomon-Godeau in these linked excerpts from her book entitled Male Trouble: a Crisis in Representation supplies us a context for understanding the representation of the penis in Western Art. It establishes the tradition which Mapplethorpe is assertively questioning in Man in a Polyester Suit.

Camille Paglia, "Robert Mapplethorpe: a Response to Rochelle Gurstein," in Sex, Art, and American Culture, p. 39: ....Manet's innovations in ...[Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe ] are precisely parallel to Mapplethorpe's. While rosy nudity was permissible in academic Salon paintings of Greek and Roman themes, the flat, sallow flesh tones of Manet's nude female picnicker disturbed first viewers by a harsh contemporary realism and immediacy. There is no attempt to soften or idealize. This sexual flesh is frankly available and unromanticized. The casual air with which Manet juxtaposes brazen open-air nudity with the raffish workaday costume of the two young intellectuals, lost in discourse, is exactly the tone of many of Mapplethorpe's photos, where libertines pose in relaxed moods amid bizarre discontinuities of their sexual underworld. The original shock of Manet's painting is surely reproduced, with the greater explicitness of our age, in Mapplethorpe's extraodinary photograph, Man in Polyester Suit, with its large black penis poking from an otherwise fully clothed torso. Finally, Manet goaded respectable sensibilities by the cool, appraising look on the face of his nude woman, who, like his self-possessed courtesan Olympia, meets our eyes without apology or embarassment. She is practical, efficient, a bawdy woman of the world who knows her market value. She has, I submit, the same unsentimental sexual efficiency as Mapplethorpe's jaunty, jaded sadomasochists.

Arthur Danto,Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe, p. 109: The case of Man in Polyester Suit is more complex, just because it is far less obviously a visual pun, and because it is a work of exceptional beauty, a kind of harmony of grays. There is a marvelous interplay between fabric and skin. The huge penis hangs, sullen and heavy, like the trunk of an elephant, out from the subject's unzipped fly and between the edges of his jacket, /p. 111: which is parted like a curtain. It is perhaps the exemplary Mapplethorpian photograph in part because the penis is not completely aestheticized but, if it does not sound absurdly redundant to say this, also eroticized. And it dramatizes the degree to which in art the penis has, for the most part, merely been an identifying attribute of the male gender as breasts are the attribute of the female gender. But Man in Polyester Suit puts the viewer on edge by aestheticizing the photograph while leaving the penis the difficult and dangerous thing it is. There would be something absurd in talking about this photograph merely in terms of the silvery grays, the white, the black, the lights, the shadows, the textures --or in terms of the figure's stance-- in the voice of one of the experts at the Cincinnati trial. It is as important to the intended response that the fabric be acknowledged as polyester, with all the social and economic connotations of that fact, as that the penis be unredeemed by the beauty its color contributes. So it has to be confronted for what it is, veined and pulpy, rather than [merely] a component in a felicitous design. Even the cropping, quite apart from the subject's reported diffidence in having his name disclose or face show, carries an extra meaning here. Cut off at the knees and at the neck, the figure is like a fragment of what had once been some fierce divinity. There is beauty, and there is transcendence, but the sexual truth is preserved / p. 112; and cannot be repressed. The photograph demonstrates what 'playing with the edge' means. Unless there should be some unimaginable transformation in sexual attitudes, it will always keep the viewer suspended between beauty and danger. It is supposed to be shocking. When morality changes so that it is no longer shocking, Mapplethorpe's. intentions will fall away into incomprehensibility.

Kobena Mercer, "Just Looking for Trouble: Robert Mapplethorpe and Fantasies of Race," in Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate, Lynne Segal and Mary McIntosh eds., pp. 95....I would like to offer a contribution to the debate on pornography that is based on my reading of Mapplethorpe's troublesome images of nude black men. Although the attack on Mapplethorpe focused mainly on his depictions of gay male sadomasochism and portraits of naked children, his black male nudes are equally, if not more, problematic --not only because they explicitly resemble, aspects of pornography, but because his highly erotic treatment of the black male body seems to be supported by a whole range of racist myths about black sexuality.

p. 96: To shock was always the key verb in the modernist vocabulary. Like other audiences and spectators confronted by the potent eroticism of Mapplethorpe's most shocking images, black audiences are not somehow exempt from the shock effect that Mapplethorpe's images so clearly intend to provoke. Indeed, it was this sense of outrage --not at the homoeroticism, but at the potential racism-- that motivated my initial critique of the work, from a black gay male perspective. I was shocked by what I saw : the profile of a black man whose head was cropped --or 'decapitated', so to speak -- holding his semi-tumescent penis through the Y-fronts of his underpants, which is the first image that confronts you in Mapplethorpe's 1982 publication Black Males.....

p. 97: The first thing to notice about Mapplethorpe's black males --so obvious that it goes without saying-- is that all the men are nude. Framed within the generic conventions of the fine-art nude, their bodies are aestheticized and eroticized as 'objects' to be looked at. As such, they offer an erotic source of pleasure in the act of looking. But whose pleasure is being served? Regarding the depiction women in dominant forms of visual representation, from painting to advertising or pornography, feminist cultural theory has shown that the female image functions predominantly as a mirror-image of what men want to see. As a figment of heterosexual wish fulfilment, the female nude serves primarily to guarantee the stability of a phallocentric fantasy in which the omnipotent male gaze sees but is never itself seen. The binary opposition of seeing / being seen which informs visual representations of the female nude reveals that looking is never an innocent or neutral activity, but is always powerfully loaded by the gendered character of the subject/ object dichotomy in which, to put it crudely, men look at women who are there to be looked at.

In Mapplethorpe's case, however, the fact that both artist and model are male sets up a tension of sameness which thereby transfers the frisson of 'difference' from gender to racial polarity. In terms of the conventional dichotomy / p. 98: between masculinity as the active control of the gaze, and feminity as its passive visual object, what we see in Mapplethorpe's case is the way in which the black/white duality of 'race' overdetermines the power relations implicit in the gendered dichotomy between subject and object of representation.

In this sense, what is represented in Mapplethorpe's photographs is a 'look', or a certain 'way of looking', in which the pictures reveal more about the absent and invisible white male photographer who actively controls the gaze that they do about the black men whose beautiful bodies we seen depicted in his photographs. In so far as the pictorial space excludes any reference to a social, historical, cultural, or political context that might tell us something about the lives of the black models who posed for the camera, Mapplethorpe facilitates the projection of certain racial and sexual fantasies about the 'difference' that black masculinity is assumed to embody. In this way, the photographs are very much about sexual investment in looking, because they disclose the tracing of desire on the part of the I/eye placed at the center of representation by the male gaze.

Through a combination of formal codes and conventions -- the posing and posture of the body in the studio enclosure; the use of strong chiaroscuro lighting; the cropping, framing and fragmentation of the whole body into parts-- the 'look' constructed not only structures the viewer's affective disposition towards the image but reveals something of the mise en scène of power, as well as desire, in the racial and sexual fantasies that inform Mapplethorpe's representation of black masculinity.....

We look through a sequence of individually named African-American men, but we see only sexuality as the sum-total meaning of their black identity. In pictures like Man in a Polyester Suit (1980), apart from the model's hands, it is the penis, and the penis alone, that identifies him as a black man.

/p. 99: Mapplethorpe's obsessive focus on this one little thing, the black man's genitals, and the way in which the glossy allure of the quality monochrome print becomes almost consubstantial with the shiny, sexy texture of black skin, led me to argue that a certain racial fetishism is an important element in the pleasures (and displeasures) which the photographs bring into play. Such racial fetishism not only eroticizes the most visible aspect of racial difference -- skin color-- but also lubricates the ideological reproduction of 'colonial fantasy', in which the white male subject is positioned at the center of representation by a desire for mastery, power, and control over the racialized and inferiorized black Other. Hence, alongside the codes of the fine-art nude, Mapplethorpe seems to make use of the regulative function of the commonplace racist stereotype --the black mans as athlete, mugger or savage-- in order to stabilize the invisible and all-seeing white subject at the center of the gaze, and thereby 'fix' the black subject in its place not simply as the Other, but as the object in the field of vision that holds a mirror to the fears and fantasies of the supposedly omnipotent white male subject.

....p. 100: [discussion of Man in a Polyester Suit] The use of framing and scale emphasizes the sheer size of the big black penis revealed through the unzipped trouse fly. As Fanon said, when diagnosing the terrifying figure of 'the Negro' in the fantasies of his white psychiatric patients, 'One is no longer aware of the Negro, but only of a penis: the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis.' By virtue of the purely formal device of scale, Mapplethorpe summons up one of the deepest mythological fears in the supremacist imagination: namely, the belief that all black men have monstrously large willies. In the phantasmic space of the white male imaginary, the big black phallus is perceived as a threat not only to hegemonic white masculinity but to Western civilization itself, since the 'bad object' represents a danger to white womanhood and therefore the threat of miscegnenation, eugenic pollution and racial degeneration....

The historical myth of penis size amounts to a 'primal fantasy' in Western culture in that it is shared and collective in nature --and, moreover, a myth that is so pervasive and firmly held as a folk belief that modern sexology repeatedly embarked on the empirical task of actually measuring pricks to demonstrate its untruth. Now that the consensual management of liberal race relations no longer provides available legitimation for this popular belief, it is as if Mapplethorpe's picture performs a disavowal of the wish-fulfillment inscribed in the myth: I know (it's not true that all black guys have big willies), but (nevertheless, in my photographs they do).

p. 101: Within the picture, the binary character of everyday racial discourse is underlined by the jokey irony of the contrast between the black man's exposed private parts and the public display of respectability signified by the three-piece business suit. The opppositions hidden and exposed, denuded and clothed, play upon the Manichaean dualism of inferior and superior, savage and civilized, body and mind, nature and culture, that informs the logic of dominant racial discourse. In this way, the construction of racial difference in the image suggests that sexuality, and nothing but sexuality, is the essential 'nature' of the black man, because the cheap and tacky quality of the polyester suit confirms his failure to gain access to 'culture'. The camouflage of bourgeois respectability fails to conceal the fact that the black man, as the whiteman's racial Other, originates, like his dick, from somewhere anterior to civilization.


See also the excerpts from Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation.