Photographing Utopia

The current global climate is confusing, anxiety inducing, and even a little bit frightening. There are multiple radical political figures on the rise, and a continual denial of human rights and equality. But these factors are met with resistance, the voices of social activists and ecological defenders are becoming louder and louder. Our world is steeped in complexity, for every person who can imagine a more liberated future there is one who fights for the comfortable status quo. As stated by Emma Goldman, “Every daring attempt to make great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labelled Utopian” (Goldman). Utopian thinking is making an important comeback, both socially and artistically. The idea of utopia or paradise is something almost every human has longed for, individualistically and collectively. Humans desire fulfillment and an ideal sort of happiness, which we have searched for across art, literature, and religion. A photographer who we do not often associate to the ideologies of utopia is Robert Mapplethorpe, an artist more known for intense imagery and the beautification of queer sexuality. Robert Mapplethorpe uses the power of the camera to break through distinctions such as race, gender, and sexuality expressing the longing for equality and intimate comfort within a queer space. Mapplethorpe created the image "Embrace" in 1982, capturing a passionate moment between a mixed race homosexual couple, providing an alternative to what was a traditionally accepted relationship. Mapplethorpe's use of black and white film, shadow, and positioning to capture his subjects creates a passionate yet raw image. His models fill the direct center of the frames entirety pronouncing the passionate grip shared between the two men, hinting at the emotionally and physically secure bond that is shared. Mapplethorpe's dominating use of formalism in capturing his subjects provides for a beautiful image of a typical gesture, yet hints at the emotional depths that must be shared between a discriminated couple. The flexing muscles of the arms along with the closeness of the chests shows us the deep affection shared between the two, allowing us as viewers to imagine the comfortability and potentiality that this relationship has. Using a Utopian lens while analyzing this work gives us a glimpse into the ideal qualities of a personal relationship and its future, features which can extend to society as a whole. Examining Mapplethorpe's photography through a Utopian methodology critiques important aspects of everyday life exposing both the negative social stigmas while also pointing to the positive and hopeful desires. Both Utopian and queer studies focuses on the idea of what is not yet here, and how we can use this potentiality of what is missing to create a future (Munoz). The blending of race and sexuality that is provided by "Embrace", ignores the previous notions of what is acceptable in a relationship combating the “perfect relationship” ideal that heteronormativity provides. He visually poses the question of what could happen when we accept hybridity into our lives, evoking an intrinsic look in order to find the answer. Mapplethorpe's "Embrace", gives us an insight of the Utopian principles we can instill in our everyday relationships, allowing us to find bliss within the ordinary (Munoz) . The dreams of utopia prompts us to reject the status quo, and contemplate within ourselves as to what's important. As humans we always strive to obtain the ultimate good, and it is by first finding what is desired within ourselves that we can learn how to create this reality. Examining the work of Robert Mapplethorpe under a utopic lens shows us that intimacy, acceptance, and community bonding are essential tools in creating a personal utopia. These images gives us a glimpse into the qualities that are ultimately desired in our interpersonal relationships, while hinting at what's missing in contemporary culture. Utopian thinking creates a concrete possibility for another world, providing tangible tools that can lead us in the direction of a hopeful new future. Sources: Goldman, Emma. Utopia Quotes. Goodreads. Web. Munoz, Jose Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and Now of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, November 2009. E-book. Pg. 118.

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