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Opinion

Robin Ince on tour: Mapplethorpe’s Manhattan

In New York, Robin Ince travels back to a different era, when the Aids crisis loomed large and rage was expressed through art

Now the world tour has begun, I decided to add a quest. I aim to read a book based in, or by an author from, every city I visit in the next year – from Reykjavik to Dunedin.

On the way to New York, I choose Patti Smith and Just Kids, her memoir of becoming an artist with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I was a teen when I first discovered Mapplethorpe and it made me feel grown up. 

I went to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery with my friends Heather and Carolyn, two people a little older than me who helped culturally guide me into new worlds and possibilities, and may even be partly to blame for the shape of the person I have become.

On the walls were images of flowers looking mighty with noble petals, and muscular men with impressive penises captured like perfect specimens pinned on the dark backdrop of his studio. 

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We land at JFK Airport just as Smith is explaining her disagreements with Mapplethorpe about Andy Warhol. He idolised Warhol, while Smith summed it up as: “I hate the soup and felt little for the can.” 

She recalls Mapplethorpe explaining his artistic process, “I stand naked when I draw. God holds my hand and we sing together.” For reading Rimbaud at school, she was suspected of being a communist “and then they threatened me in the john”.

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Smith beautifully encapsulates two young people, living on tinned stew and day-old bread, not merely dreaming of where they were going to be one day, but knowing one day something would happen. They were certain and it turned out that they were right. 

New York still excites me. It is the first city I visited that really did look like it did in the movies. On that first visit, Manhattan was still making its transition from bankruptcy and collapse to gentrification, the last few porno theatres were still showing skin flicks on 42nd Street, but I never bought a ticket to Gate of Flesh at the Peep-o-Rama. Down on the subway, emaciated men begged with signs saying they had Aids. Tourists were warned that muggers no longer carried guns, but instead held people up with syringes they said contained infected blood. 

The Aids crisis was taking its terrible toll on so many young men and fuelling vicious homophobia. Some human beings are not happy unless they have got someone else to hate, interrogating others means you don’t have time to interrogate yourself. It seems to be one of the great divides in the drives of people, are you driven by an ambition that more people can be happier, or would you like to elevate yourself by fuelling more hate for those who are not as you. Mapplethorpe’s art was the frequent subject of vilification by the American right. A man with a bullwhip up his arse distracts people from seeing the poverty, greed and duplicity of a government. 

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Once at my hotel, I lie on my bed and listen to the machinery of the city.

Turning on the television, I am thrown straight into one of those medical adverts that lists lengthily and methodically every possible distressed bowel movement, angry rash or aneurysm this miracle cure may cause as it attempts to cure your ills by possibly killing you another way. A man smiles beatifically in the sunshine at the new life this pharmaceutical product has given him.

This one was a very cheery advert for something that will help people who are HIV positive. The beaming man at the end of this list of cankers and fevers looks as happy as any man advertising a new juice drink or honeyed cough medicine. It is a long way from the image of HIV and Aids that was brutally reported by the 1980s news media at the time that Mapplethorpe and so many others were dying.  

Somewhere in the inanity of this advert, there was the hope of social as well as medical progress.  

Robin Ince is an author and broadcaster

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