Skull, Robert Mapplethorpe
The Verbal Cul-De-Sac
I’ve never taken much interest in what anyone had to say about beauty. As a general rule, the more cogent and articulate the opinion, the more agonizing it was to hear.
I’m by no means antagonistic to beauty as a concept. But the merits of beauty tend to be offset by the amount of effort put into defending them. Treatises on beauty are very popular. They are like entryways into ideological seriousness. I, knower and lover of beauty, am no mere pundit, but an aesthetic critic—a defender of culture. But in truth, such treatises are very easy to do. Beauty sets up a simple polemic where anything its defender doesn’t like can be drafted into the enemy infantry, armed only with dull sticks. Jeff Koons is not beautiful. Brutalist architecture is not beautiful. Pornography is not beautiful. Body positivity, socialized healthcare, Rosanne without Rosanne, Beto O’Rourke’s haircut—not beautiful. If you take all those essays, blog posts, monographs, and books with titles like On Beauty or In Defense of Beauty and line them up in rows, you will have the verbal equivalent of a suburban cul-de-sac.
More than that, there is something deceptive at the heart of such treatises. You’ll find that they are more passionate and rigorously argued the more they bend toward the negative. In Defense of Beauty is an effective rallying cry for those who already care. The end result, however, is more Against Ugliness. Where they do assert the positive, I find rehashes of stuff for which Roger Scruton already advocated, as if he was the first and final authority. This is not bad in itself. Things in life, very many things in fact, are repulsive, and they invite being called out as such with all the force and clarity one can muster. But such polemics come with a cost: the cheapening of beauty itself and the ignoring of the challenge that comes with actually finding beauty.
Wine Coolers and Thorazine
The struggle over capital-B beauty is better seen as the struggle to maintain what is correct. Or what seems to be correct—that is to say, most orderly. This, plainly put, is pedantry. It is the platonic ideal of pedantry. It is a beauty-adjacent practice, one of several, in fact. Think of event planning: the technique of arrangement, of best practices, of the tried and true sensory experience. The tables are arranged just so, parties and cocktail evenings—always held with a concise purpose, a desired end and never for their own sake—are timed with extreme precision, military precision. War, come to think of it, is also a beauty-adjacent practice.
It is anybody’s guess when the beauty-adjacent practices shift with new modes of beauty. The defending pedants, the event planners, and the “strategic defense consultants” do not have the time or the instincts to seek them out. Pursuit of the beautiful risks rendezvous with error. They’ve probably been on
Tinder Hinge Coffee Meets Bagel Bumble dates a few times in the past, they aren’t too eager for another one with a total abstraction, one where the stakes are somehow higher evan as the probability of VD is decidedly lower. The prospect of pursuing a new mode of perfection or a new standard of elegance is too gnarled a path to navigate. And no amount of Thorazine can smooth the edge of actually arriving at a path’s end, never in the place they expect, never in the time that they wish. It’s too much; they’re not built for it. Old age is wasted on the elderly. Don’t tell them when a mode has changed. They’ll wake up one day and find they already know it.
Wine coolers do good business in the beauty-adjacent life. Wine coolers and Thorazine.
The Snob’s Progress
It was not until a year ago that I was called “a snob” to my face. I dodged accusations in the past only because my accusers had more semantic tact, as if I was some kind of idiot—“close-minded” was a popular one; “up his own ass” was less popular but had the same spirit. Being called at long last by the proper term was hardly the insult it seems. It was only a matter of time before the cat would be let out of the bag, and to sink its teeth into the complacent rodents in its midst. It was cathartic if anything.
I have always been a snob. How I became a snob is a matter of curiosity to me. It was not by nature, I’d say. Neither my parents nor my siblings nor any other extended relatives share my intense proclivities. The finer things stoke no enthusiasm in them as they do me; the vulgar things, no revulsion.
Perhaps nurture explains it. The place of my upbringing was remarkable mostly in its close proximity to New York City—though I spent comparatively little time there until my early adulthood. Being constantly among the suburban free-range hive could, nonetheless, exacerbate a curiosity for the finer things. What were the finer things? Things that existed beyond mere practicality. Everything is practical in the suburbs—or it is nothing. Through one bored avenue or another one might eventually find culture.
It could also be a bit of nature and nurture. If the malaise of the suburbs bored me away from milquetoast utilitarian living, then my temperament, inherited from my father whose humor tilted heavily toward irony, sent me in perverse pursuit of any convenient alternative. That makes one more edgelord than snob, which certainly led to several detours, at turns amusing, fleeting, and dangerous, that I somehow turned away from in the precise optimal time.
I think back on this journey and see myself a most difficult person to grow up with, to befriend, and to raise. I’ve also been paid decent money for my snobbery so no one can complain too much. Someone should do a study of latent snobbish tendencies, though.
Robert Mapplethorpe never processed his own film. He was never formally trained in the technique of taking photos. Photography was the happy accident he fell into from the collage work he’d done from manipulated images of gay porn magazines. He developed his medium through careful, if unsystematic, study of previous examples: Edwards Weston and Steichen, Carl Moon, Peter Berlin, Catholic martyrology. In short, he looked at pictures.
There’s something dated about Mapplethorpe. He has his glamor, but he’s very much of his time, the same way Tom Wolfe, Rita Hayworth, and Lord Byron are of their time. He brings back memories of debates long ago settled, of a triggered Jesse Helms waving a picture of a penis on the Senate floor, of a gay culture that was halfway out of the closet and seemingly on the verge of being pushed back in. He’s a history lesson, showing us how far we’ve come but not where we need to go.
I appreciated Robert Mapplethorpe for reasons I could not quite articulate for a long time. In part because to like him seemed to desecrate his historical place. It was when I discovered the cover of Swans’ The Burning World, which featured Mapplethorpe’s Calla Lilly, however, that the articulation came into place. Albeit carefully, but in a way Mapplethorpe would maybe appreciate.
Gore Vidal once damned photography as an “‘art form’ of the untalented.” So for one instance at least, he and Jesse Helms—“I don’t even acknowledge that it’s art,” Helms said. “I don’t even acknowledge the fella who did it is an artist. I think he was a jerk.”—were in complete agreement. But photography is more than just focusing a lens and pushing a button. Photojournalists, like sharpshooters, need keen alertness and good timing. Street photographers, like voyeurs and party hosts, need social bravery—or as some would say “a lack of boundaries.” Fine arts and portrait photographers, like directors and designers, need spatial awareness. Mapplethorpe had a genius for arrangement. He had a clear, uncompromising sense of where things should go, what should and should not be shown, how one should stand or look, and with how much light. Pornography has a similar fixation on arrangement. Mapplethorpe was aware of this, and acknowledged his debt to it, but I don’t think he did so without his tongue in his cheek. Porn is notoriously humorless, Mapplethorpe was mordant—look at Self-Portrait with Whip, Joe, NYC, his show invitations—he appropriated pornography for his own purpose.
Mapplethorpe is credited as the kind of artist who bridged the highbrow and the lowbrow—in raising sex and photography into high art. Mapplethorpe is unique, however, in that he was genuinely highbrow. Transgressive artists who erect similar bridges tend to lift high art effects like revolutionaries raiding Versailles. They take only what they need, not the parts, for instance, that most confer authority, and hence responsibility. Not so, Mapplethorpe. Simply looking at his crisp, sculpture-like lens work and greyscale rendering, his use of lighting (at turns exacting and sensitive), and his use of space (at turns bold and meticulous), it is clear that he was not appropriating fine art. It was his first principle, the mark of his authority. He was entitled to it.
Mapplethorpe’s final exhibition, the one that made public funding for the arts a great way for people to play sophisticated at loft parties, was called The Perfect Moment. There is no one perfect moment, but several, in his early cool Polaroids, his candids of vacationing aristocrats, his commissioned portraits, and his “pornography”—of plant and animal. Moments made possible because of his inimitable vision, his insatiable drive for personal glory, and because he never processed his own film.
My critics call me “Zoolander.” I don’t know this for certain, of course. If I have critics—and really I must—they are not one for airing their views in public—say, on Twitter—but underneath a veil—say, in group DMs or in that shrouded enclave of Slack.
But I wouldn’t be speaking for them without having some confidence in the likelihood of what they say. I like to get a few steps ahead of my critics. That means serving as my own critic—the harshest one at that. I even thought if starting a sock puppet Twitter account dedicated to the constructive trashing of my own work: @Blew_Steal, or whatever.
It’s not easy being a gorgeous person. That my gorgeousness is conveyed in my words does not distinguish my plight from the plight of my peers and forebears: Kate Upton, Emily Ratajkowski, Armie Hammer; Marilyn Chambers, Isabel Adjani, Paul Newman. It is always a great burden to reflect what is best in humanity. The vulgar have it so easy. They have freedom to not be beautiful, to expose their flaws free of censure. They never let down their whole civil fabric with slight disappointments, lapses in polish. A blemish is not the end of their world; it is the beginning of a story if anything.
It must be nice to have stories; we gorgeous have none. Nor do we have the time or space for thoughts or reflections on the surrounding world. An attention to style and ornament over the content and character is not for everyone, and little understood as a result. Until, of course, they find themselves in the rapture of that very ornament. Wishing, in fact, that they could adorn themselves in like manner, and embody the highest ideals. We gorgeous have ideals—we have each other.
We gorgeous, it might also not surprise, possess no opinions. We don’t even have opinions on the vulgar—our critics, our haters. We know that envy is strong in them, and they let it loose with an invective that can reach commanding heights. No gorgeous person can answer it to the vulgar’s satisfaction, let alone on the vulgar’s terms. What is satisfaction to the vulgar but the converting of misery to currency, and having it spread like an emotional universal basic income? This does not bother us gorgeous people anyway. We know that the aesthetic arc of the universe is long, and bends toward hotness. We bide our time, gazing long into our looking glasses.
I am complaining too much. Pardon me. There are worse things than being a gorgeous person. And on the whole it has its splendor, even if, at this moment, it cannot be admired. I, in spite of my better judgment, love words; and I, against all standards of taste, believe arranging them in such and such a way imbues them with an especial power. A power to make stupidity virtuous, beauty effortless, and, maybe in time, to make someone wish they could have done the same.