Written by Rebecca Martel
for Prof. Marie Thérèse Blanc
On the surface, Jack Kerouac, member of the 1950s Beat Generation and author of the sexually sexist novel On The Road (the uncensored version of which was published in 2008), and Robert Mapplethorpe, the influential photographer of the 1970s and 1980s, who contributed to late Modernist and early Postmodernist art, don’t seem to share much in common. However, they both managed to expand the minds of their respective generations through their formal approaches. While both mid- to late twentieth-century artists incorporated the theme of homosexuality into their art, upsetting the majority of readers and viewers who critiqued their work, they went about this subject, as well as other topics and motifs, in different ways: Kerouac through spontaneous prose, and Mapplethorpe, his polar opposite, through a kind of formalist perfectionism.
Robert Mapplethorpe rose to fame as the first photographer to document and portray homoerotic themes along with BDSM through stark yet luminous black-and-white images. However, what truly set him apart from other photographers was the un-spontaneous perfection of his images, which caught the eye of his audience. As Mapplethorpe put it himself, he was “looking for perfection in form, [he did] that with portraits, [he did] it with cocks, [and he did] it with flowers” (Burnett).
Indeed, Mapplethorpe presented the human body in its most classical state during his photographic sessions. Ajitto—an art installation consisting of four pictures of an African-American man sitting in a foetal position upon a covered stool—is an ideal example of the way in which he would position the model in a sculptural pose, tricking the viewer into seeing a faultless effigy. The public became baffled upon realizing it was in fact a living being. Photographs such as Tulips led Mapplethorpe’s admirers to argue that shooting static flora was what he did best, proving that he was definitely a “master of his medium” (Lankford 19). However, throughout his career, achieving perfection through the rendition of male bodies and genitalia was among his greatest feats.
Contrary to expectation, in an interview with Bomb Magazine, Mapplethorpe told interviewer Gary Indiana that his nude shots had “nothing to do with sex.” To him, it was “all work” and he “made … great [efforts] to take those pictures.” He would also try to “get [the model’s penis] in the same position [he] would if it were a solitary object” but this proved to be extremely challenging because he had to “deal with the [models’] personality.” Photographs such as Man in Polyester Suit, a gelatine silver print of a man in a suit whose penis is coming out of his pants’ open fly, and Lou, NYC, a powerfully framed close-up of a naked man sticking his pinky finger into his urethral opening, prove that Mapplethorpe overcame these obstacles and showed what he was first and foremost: a perfectionist for whom contrast and framing were obsessions that were certainly as great if not greater than content. He blew the public and the art world away by bringing even sexual organs to flawless form.
Just as Mapplethorpe did in his photographs, Jack Kerouac brought taboo subjects before his readership. Only a few pages into Kerouac’s uncensored version of On The Road, the static main character, Neal Cassady, is already described as someone who believes “sex [is] the one and only holy and important thing in life” (110), while later on in the work, Allen Ginsberg and two secondary characters admit to putting up with Cassady’s shenanigans because they “[love] his big cock” (146). Throughout the novel, stories of sexual recklessness and bisexual sex unfold naturally and often maniacally. However, when it comes to stylistic traits, Kerouac takes a sharp turn away from Mapplethorpe’s perfectionism, perplexing his generation through his typewritten rendition of spontaneity.
During a three-week period in 1951, a boozed-up, Benzedrine-filled Jack Kerouac typed up the first draft of his novel, On The Road. The original scroll showcased Kerouac’s newly-invented form of writing, called spontaneous prose, which proved to be shocking to most readers. Unlike Mapplethorpe, who transformed improvised moments into perfect ones, Kerouac created a technique that would serve rather than upstage the novel’s wild adventures. He mimicked unaffectedness, “[thinking] of an idea and [developing] it by writing without stopping or editing” (Sax). This form was also a way of representing the Beat Generation’s influences such as jazz or bebop, simultaneously rejecting old Victorian writing styles by replacing chiseled sentences with impromptu ones, while disregarding paragraphical structure. In fact, Kerouac was so committed to perfectly copying spontaneity that his friend, Lucian Carr, stole a teletype roll for him, providing him with a “seamless roll of paper” which made his writing look effortlessly off-the-cuff (Sax).
Similarly to Mapplethorpe, of course, Kerouac invested greatly in his art form; the end product is what differed. Although his writing seemed reckless, which startled many, including his editor, it would be false to say that he failed to put great effort into it. Kerouac’s “linguistic innovation” was so powerful it was able to “convey the ‘felt sense’ of the story” (Theado 5). Many of the devil-may-care scenes of On the Road, filled as they are with action-packed sentences, embody the heedlessness of extemporaneous moments. For instance, when Jack, the narrator, is picked up along with other hitchhikers by two brothers, he notices Slim, one of the wayfarers, trying to piss off the side of the moving truck, at which point, the brothers, by way of a joke, begin “zig-zagging the truck at 70 miles an hour.” As Jack recounts the scene,
[Slim] fell back a moment; we saw a whale’s spout in the air; he struggled back to a sitting position. They swung the truck. Wham, over he went on his side, pissing all over himself. In the roar we could hear him faintly cursing with the whine of a man far across the hills. “Damn…damn..” He never knew we were doing this deliberately, he just struggled with his lot, and just as grim as Job. When he was finished, as such, he was wringing wet, and now he had to edge and shimmy his way back, and with a most woebegone look, and everybody laughing. (133)
Kerouac’s prose, with its short sentences and clauses, brief unintegrated dialogue, and sudden use of onomatopeia, manages to convey the humorous and poignant scene as it unfolds, along with the breathlessness of the recounting.
In short, Kerouac hoped that his “legendary status would be tied to his stylistic breakthroughs in writing” (Theado 3), which is what became his main offering to the literary world (Theado 8). Spontaneous prose is also what enhanced his most controversial works and made his wildest scenes memorable.
Whereas Mapplethorpe invested in formal, sculptural perfection through his photography, then, Kerouac’s style focused on successfully translating experiences into a form of writing that best represented impetuous, often manic, improvised behaviour. Although their respective styles vary significantly, the two men, through their work, successfully knocked the socks off their own generations. While Mapplethorpe’s style and portraits embody perfectionism, displaying an obvious attention to detail through deceptive simplicity, Kerouac took the opposite approach by hiding his meticulousness under miles of fast-burning prose. In the end, each man created art that effectively changed ways of seeing or reading for his own era and paved the way for contemporary art and writing.
Burnett, Richard. “‘Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection’ at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.” Tourisme Montréal Blog, 2016, http://www.tourisme-montreal.org/blog/robert- mapplethorpe-at-the-montreal-museum-of-fine-arts/.
Lankford, E. Louis. “Artistic Freedom: An Art Word Paradox”. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 24, no. 3, Autumn 1990, pp. 15-28.
Indiana, Gary. “Art : Interview, Robert Mapplethorpe.” Bomb Magazine, no. 22, Winter 1988.
Kerouac, Jack. On The Road: The Original Scroll. Edited by Howard Cunnell, Penguin Books, 2008.
Sax, Richard. “Jack Kerouac.” Biographical Encyclopedia. Salem Press, 2008.
Theado, Matt. “Understanding Jack Kerouac.” U of South Carolina, 2000.
Mapplethorpe, Robert. Ajitto. 1981, gelatine silver print, Guggenheim Museum, New York.
———. Tulips. 1988, gelatine silver print, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
———. Man in Polyester Suit. 1980-1981, gelatine silver print, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
———. Lou, NYC. 1978, selenium toned gelatine silver print, Museum of Fine Arts, Montréal.
About the Author:
Rebecca Martel is a student attending Dawson College in the Literature program, currently finishing her second semester. She enrolled in this program after her high-school English teacher inspired her to write short stories outside of the classroom. In the future, she would like to either teach at a University level or write full-time as an author. However, her ultimate dream is to become a comic book writer. (Sadly, her drawing level is that of a two-year-old’s.) During her free time, Rebecca likes to sing off-key to her favourite songs and obsess over her boyfriend’s dog.