Sometimes a Cigar is just a Cigar
“Man in Polyester Suit” is a photograph by American artist and provocateur Robert Mapplethorpe. The photograph is a black and white sepia toned portrait of an African American man slightly angled before the camera and dressed in a gray polyester three-piece suit with the subject’s exposed phallus dangling from his unzipped trousers. The image and lighting for the photograph is compositionally minimalist with no props or background detail appearing alongside the subject apart from a small dark shadow that appears to the left of the frame, bringing attention to the frayed lining of the subject’s polyester suit. The image itself is notable as the head of the subject is cropped from the photograph and the exposed penis of the man appears slightly erect and highlighted by a small wisp of white from the subject’s dress shirt hanging out of the zipper. The result of this brings a greater attention to the phallus as it highlights the image like a small white crown.
The photograph “Man in Polyester Suit” acts as a form of social provocation as fine art as the black male phallus is at the very center of the work. Kobe Mercer's mercurial essay “Reading Racial Fetishism: The Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe” argues the photographer uses classic “sculptural and portraiture codes” to render the black male body into an object, resulting in a “racial sex fetish, a juju doll from the dark side of the white man's imaginary.” By cropping the subject’s head from the body, Mercer seems to argue, the artist participates in an act of cultural appropriation, noting that it “says something about certain ways in which white people 'look' at black people and how in this way of looking, black male sexuality is perceived as something different, excessive, Other.” The appropriation of the black male body in Mapplethorpe’s photographs becomes, Mercer seems to suggest, an extension of the Middle Passage through the lens of the camera, turning the subject into an object for the white gaze. Mercer, echoing Franz Fanon, later writes, “Then as now, in front of this picture 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.”
The master/slave model as applied to the art of photography is a complex one in which absolute power and control is conferred upon the photographer the moment the camera flexes its gaze on the subject and the shutter is snapped. In this moment an unequal power exchange takes place where the transmission of power becomes a form of violation and possession. “To photograph people is to violate them,” Susan Sontag remarked in On Photography, “it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” In Mapplethorpe’s hands this creates a dialectical possession, one that is particularly dangerous Mercer argues given “the text facilitates the imaginary projection of certain racial and sexual fantasies about the black male body.” In Mapplethorpe’s photograph the black male body becomes a way of seeing blackness in which the white artist redacts the parts of the black body that he deems worthy for his personal gaze and pleasure to satisfy the planation desires of the artist, who acts as both slave master and slave auctioneer in the final rendering of “Man in Polyester Suit.”
If a work of art is not limited to one meaning, it also reasons that not all meanings are equal in the eye of the beholder, which is to say we should be forgiven if one interpretation of Mapplethorpe’s work seems more powerful than another, how could it not, if the value of a work of art is in the eye of the beholder? Take homoeroticism, which has existed in photography since its very invention. One should look no further than the stylized images of French photographic pioneer Eugene Durieu who was notable for his striking and provocative black and white portraits of nude men in the 19th century. Arguably, “Man in Polyester Suit” takes a similar but more provocative step in this appraisal of the human form, shattering any pretext of silence in the post-Stonewall era by bringing gay male sexuality out of the closet and in line with the gay liberation movement of the time. The image acts as a kind of gay manifesto, both sexual and cultural, in which the male body is displayed and exhibited for the purpose of both pleasure and political right of passage. Mapplethorpe’s “capture” of the gay black male form in “Man in Polyester Suit” can be seen as an extension of the artist’s role as sexual outlaw and gay liberationist. The image itself is revelatory for both its formality and its blatant political insurrectionism: a man dressed in a formal three-piece gray suit becomes the signifier of authority and power in the vainest heterosexist ideal possible. However, Mapplethorpe refuses to conform to this heteronormative ideal of the time and instead exhibits the subject’s dangling phallus like a revolutionary fist extended upward from the gay revolutionary underground in rebellion. This is particularly poignant given the majority of the subject’s and the photographer himself all succumbed to AIDS in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
What strikes me almost immediately about “Man in Polyester Suit” is the exaggeration of the black male form. The large black penis hanging from the subject’s sheer polyester gray suit resembles a dangling elephant trunk both in its comedic exaggeration, and its sexual act of arousal. The image in many ways recalls Tom of Finland’s illustrated drawings of male bodies with exaggerated body parts (bulging phalluses, plump rear ends, etc.) rendered in both lecherous desire and comedic irony. The image of “Man in Polyester Suit” also strikes me as a form of gay male ritual or “hunt” in which gay men (perhaps all men) express their desires for their partners by reducing their partners to mere body parts for the purpose of sexual arousal. We see this in gay contemporary times with the Grindr mobile app where men’s body parts are disassembled and displayed for the viewer like cereal or tomato sauce on a grocery store shelf for selection. Mapplethorpe’s image manages to convey this same quality of immediacy and reduction where the source of the male desire finds its immediate value and purpose by, for lack of a better set of words, getting to the point, i.e., getting off.
“Man in Polyester Suit” is an image that acts as a series of contradictions for the viewer, one we never quite recover from as an audience. A gay white man photographing a gay black man when the subject’s phallus is the focal point of the image is inherently problematic (given the subjugation of black bodies by white men, before and after reconstruction) and walks a thin line between cultural appropriation and racist demagoguery as art. The representation is on the one hand refreshing and bold in its immediacy, but also problematic, as it appears to be trafficking in classic stereotypes of black men as mere sexual object for the white gaze. In one sense one might read the headless image of the subject as a form of artistic lynching carried out through the gaze of the camera as a noose, but is this simply a reactive reading to the artist’s intent through a historicized lens, a projection transposed upon the subject and the artist by the viewer in the year 2022? And, if so, what does it signify when we impose meaning upon what we see when looking at images of the past or present?
It’s crucial we consider a certain implicit bias that impacts our reading of any piece of art. These biases can act as fissures that disrupt our perception of an artist’s intent. No one is immune from some form of implicit bias in a reading of a piece of art. But how much of our reading of Mapplethorpe’s work is informed by the knowledge that the photographer is white and the subject is black? How much is informed by the sexuality of the photographer and the gay men he photographed in the backdrop of the post-Stonewall era, some of whom were lovers, others who were mere strangers never to be seen or heard from again? What do we ignore and what do we highlight when we view these images decades after they were first exhibited? And how much of this introduces a form of implicit bias in our own understanding of the artist’s intent?
The artist’s very DNA as a white gay man doesn’t limit his observant eye as a provocateur and documentarian, but it does frame it through the gaze of race, gender, and sexuality. One reading I would like to offer is that Mapplethorpe’s image “Man in Polyester Suit” acts as an indictment of the very white gaze critics accuse him of perpetuating. The artist recognizes the hot button issue race can deliver to our brain and exposes it front and center with brazen abandonment. The image is more than mere racist provocation, but in fact the very indictment of racism itself. By calling attention to the subject’s phallus the artist is challenging the viewer (particularly the white viewer) to see how we are all culturally complicit in redacting the black male form in relation to white supremacy and the intersection of desire. The artist is reminding us in scorch earth form that the subject is viewed as sexual property and stud by our society, object and other, and his very humanity is a mere afterthought to most, assuming it’s considered at all.
Intention and meaning are often how we measure a work of art, but how reliable are the intention and meaning as a resource for discovering the truth behind a work of art? Photographic scholar and theorist Alan Sekula once wrote, “The (only)…’objective’ truth that photographs offer is the assertion that somebody or something was somewhere and took a picture.” Assuming objectivity isn’t our goal in reading a work of art, then what are we left with in our theoretical understanding of “Man in Polyester Suit?” I’d like to suggest it might be wiser to think of great art as a kind of rhetorical question mark framed like a seduction between two distant lovers: the contradictory artist and the transfixed viewer. The seduction can be one filled with excitement and pleasure, but also laced with misunderstanding and cruelty. It is from this very well of misunderstanding that intention and meaning collide like identical twin brothers inside a Freudian womb, bonded from the same familial bloodline, but speaking contradictory rhetorical arguments, bound in perpetuity by the same mother, language.
Language is the tightrope any dialectical reading of “Man in Polyester Suit” must walk. The contradictory meanings in Mapplethorpe’s image come at the viewer as a series of dizzying questions: is Mapplethorpe’s work yet another entry in the canon of a white artist trafficking in the visual subjugation of a black subject? Or is more accurate to suggest the work is a battle cry from the gay revolutionary underground refusing to be silenced by the legacy of heterosexist’s supremacy? Or, in the end, is it more precise to say the work inverts and ultimately implodes our view of white supremacy by directly challenging the white viewer to see their own complicity in the white gaze, a gaze that denies the humanity of the black subject as being nothing more than a “big black dick?”
Voltaire once said that one should judge a man by his questions rather than his answers, which is perhaps the only way one should read Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Man in Polyester Suit.” Or, put another way, perhaps it is a fool’s errand for viewers and scholars to seek definitive answers from a work of art when the role of art isn’t to provide answers, but instead to provide insights and questions into the human soul, a soul stitched together with paradoxical meanings and intent, and bound together and preserved for eternity like nothing less than a perplexed question mark.
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Fehrenbac, Heide and Rodogno, David. Humanitarian Photography. Cambridge
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Mercer, Kobena, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies.
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Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Penguin, 1977.