In a piece this week on Glasstire, Dave Hickey asks the question, “What if there is only one, one-way war being waged by fundamentalism in its dying frenzy against a newly refreshed, permissive, cosmopolitan paganism that couldn’t care less and never has?”
Hickey asks the question in the context of people’s appearance (an Iranian girl imprisoned and tortured in part for her chic Western garb; a Starbucks barista barred from dyeing her hair an “unnatural” color…) arguing that, the world over, people are expected to abjure certain clothes and accessories to maintain “the smoothness of the social order.”
He’s right, of course. But viewed in the context of the latest round of culture wars, his observations on the traditional oppressors of sartorial freedom (corporations; Islamic fundamentalists; the parents in Footloose) could also be applied to many so-called progressives. We have entered a time of rigid orthodoxy for some people on both the right and the left regarding what is acceptable to say, wear, and even think.
I’m referring to political correctness, and its main bugaboo, offensiveness. And lately it seems the charges of offensiveness are flying around faster than a frail 80-year-old burning at the stake in colonial Massachusetts.
Despite the fact that that—as many whites in America have come to realize this year—the general use of the term “African American” hasn’t changed the fact that black people are rightfully afraid of the police, many people seem to be more hung up on the aesthetics of correctness and offense than ever. When academics and journalists incorrectly assert that the First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech; or when students at Amherst College write that they want other students who have posted “ALL LIVES MATTER” posters to undergo “extensive training for racial and cultural competency,” political correctness of the left begins to uncomfortably evoke other well-meaning uprisings against oppression that converted into their own reigns of terror.
Thankfully, the art world is rife with offensive material. Just look at Rudolph Guiliani’s seething reaction to the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999; or the more recent removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly from a 2010 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, because a clip of ants crawling over a crucifix made Rush Limbaugh crazy. Even Pope Francis, when he was a cardinal, successfully called for an exhibition of Leon Ferrari’s works in Buenos Aires to be closed in 2004, citing them as a “blasphemous affront.”
But religion—well, Christianity—remains fair game for art, and has since at least Caravaggio’s time. Andy Warhol, a devout Catholic all his life, made work about the death penalty and talked about how he wanted to be a machine. Piss Christ, Ninth Hour, the Barbie crucifix… examples of the genre are plentiful. Same too for sex. We snicker at a mainstream media that can’t show a Modigliani nude without blurring the nips and pubes, and we revere Robert Mapplethorpe’s meditations on light, composition and symmetry (and huge cocks).
The offensiveness of a lot of art—it’s so-called depravity, its pornography, its degenerate shallowness—exists because we all need to be offended, and not for the righteous satisfaction of saying so. Being offended means being slapped with a wrongness that doesn’t fit our worldview. If we aren’t offended, we are never shaken out of our own little bubble and forced to acknowledge all the other little bubbles out there. If you’re a white person who finds Kara Walker’s comically unflinching silhouettes offensive (or just “a little too much”), then it’s useful to ask yourself why.
Of course, it’s not art’s job to save us from ourselves. Art may be good at being offensive, but it’s also ambiguous. Great art is unto itself, meaning that even when it has political undertones, it’s not straightforward propaganda. Art is not politics. (It’s also not science, or philosophy or religion or spirituality.) It’s not anything except an echo of nature, which is to say it’s chaotic. I take great comfort in that.
Perhaps that’s a reason many people aren’t interested in art, or at least good art—they want their ten commandments to help them go through their lives with a sense of externally-imposed order. They need art that explains itself. But good art doesn’t explain itself. It doesn’t spell things out. It has multiple agendas, and reflects our ambiguous world where things are not black and white.
Great art that offends also transcends the bugaboo of the day. Karen Finley’s chocolate-and-yam extravaganzas and Andy Kaufman’s wrestling performances were both rooted in the feminism of the 1970s, but both of them transcended that to become something more universally human. Finley’s deep-throated yawps of primal energy and rage, and Kaufman’s comically prejudiced theater of the absurd both still resonate with our collective human experience. (Although it’s hard to imagine how Kaufman’s videos belittling Southerners would be received in today’s uptight social climate. Would he receive death threats from secessionists armed to the teeth and drunk on conspiracy theories? Would miffed college students ban him from appearing on their campuses?)
Transforming the world means transforming yourself, continually, by leaving your context and crossing over into unknown territory. The term “trans” has become associated with gender identity, but its more general meaning applies to everybody: vacating your own territory of this-is-what-I-am, what-I-believe. Social conservatives (who distrust art) tend to be lousy at this. But so do many so-called progressives. Face it, we all do: our tribalism, a nifty evolutionary advantage for survival, has been holding us back for centuries now. Tribalism is acute in the art world: our insular, reactionary, small-c conservative bubble responds to the unknown with indifference or hostility, just like every other bubble.
There’s a speech that the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest gave at the end of his life which gets trotted out by Lost Cause apologists as evidence that Forrest, a slaveholder, a ruthless cavalry officer during the Civil War, and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was actually an early promoter of civil rights and racial equality. But as one middle-aged white man posted on a Southern history chat room, “Forrest was many things, but a two-dimensional caricature is not one of them. It ain’t simple, y’all.”
Fussing over people’s language and dress, policing Halloween costumes, and writing up checklists of acceptable behaviors, while providing a comforting sense of order, won’t change the world. The universe is chaotic and ambiguous. Look to the artists.