THE TIME has come to mourn the death of the indecent. Dirty movies, dirty talk, spurting blood and excrement used to make us shudder, but that was long ago.
Art, and not just art, has inured us to the vile. Sex was once thought shameful, but Freud took care of that. Then actors took their clothes off and the Beatles changed our hairdos. The artists of the '60s, who tried so hard to jolt us, believed that they were fighting for our liberation. But that is not what won. They accustomed us to outrage. We have come to know the gross. If van Gogh cut off his ear today, the avant-garde would smile. Things that once seemed awful, disgusting or offensive, are today presented as if they had charm.
We are told that this is progress, this vanquishing of prudery, that the closet must be opened, that the tabooing of taboos leads to liberation.
Well, I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it.
Four clippings, all quite gross, none the least surprising, made the point last week. They would have seemed "indecent" not very long ago, but that word now sounds quaint. The only shocking thing about these tales of our times is that they do not shock at all.
Item: Richard (Red) Armstrong, 37, a Lucasville, Ohio, convict "severed his left pinkie at the second knuckle and mailed it to the State Department." "If our demands aren't met Tuesday, we'll set a date to cut another finger and send it to Jimmy Carter," said Armstrong, who appreciates the tenor of the times.
Item: Piero Manzoni, an artist, tinned cans of his feces in 1961. His "Merde d'Artiste" is illustrated in this month's ArtForum."Natural products of the body become substitutes for mental activity," the article explains.
Item: Dutton, the reputable New York publishing house, has announced the publication of "End Product: The Last Taboo," a volume about excrement that the publishers describe as "the perfect book for the bathroom." Its co-authors, both "professors," have chosen to use pseudonyms, but Abby Rockefeller, daughter of David Rockefeller, wrote the introduction under her own name. "It is a valuable catalog of the subject, documenting the problems of our relations and attitudes to excrement . . . This is an important task right now," Rockefeller writes.
Item: Truman Capote and Bianca Jagger showed up the other night at a New York disco. Fashion writers noted that both wore mufflers; his was of red cashmere; hers of fur, Edwige, a guest more up to date, came in gaping wounds. Andy Warhol wore a necktie. Despite his well-known equanimity, Warhol said he was "impressed that Edwige, queen of the Paris punks, who had bandaged her eyes in black gauze, had slit the tops of her hands and refused to put on bandages."
The thinkers at ArtForum and the editors at Dutton have this, at least, in common with Red Armstrong and Edwige. None of them is joking. They made the news on purpose. Theirs is the easy shrewdness of those who understand fashion's cutting edge.
The indecent is now chic.
The songwriter Clay Jackson, who has a sense of humor, was speaking of the artist's duty to the public when he phrased it nicely: "It is never bad form to gross them out."
That esthetic guides the society of punks. Not a lot of laughs there. Their music, although earnest, is vastly less original than the ornaments and fashions they so effectively promote. What is odd about the punks is not what they oppose, but what they are for. A story told recently illuminates their motives. Eden Kennell, a recent visitor from London, was asked if he'd encountered there an authentic punk.
"I do know one," he said. "She is perhaps 18. I often take my coffee at a little shop in Chelsea where she keeps the till. She rushed in one morning an hour late for work. She looked a mess. Her unbrushed hair stuck out in tufts, someone had torn her clothing, she looked as if she'd been out on the street all night. She said, "I'm late. Sorry. I've been out all night. I'll be ready in a minute." When she, at last, emerged, she looked even worse. Her hair was wilder, her clothing had fresh tears. Yet she smiled with such sweetness. She thought she looked just right."
Most punks, one suspects, are less interested in evil, class struggle or rage, than in trying to look smashing. No wonder the blase arbiters of fashion smile at the dears. Look how carefully they dress, scowl and dye their hair. How can punks be shocking when they are so charmante?
The punks are getting even with the world of fashion, much to its delight, by playing the old game while breaking the old rules. "It is going to get bigger," predicts Andy Warhol, who knows about such things. "It is only the beginning."
This is no time for the squeamish. The TV and the movies show us broken bodies, it is now thought proper to say - at the table, and Larry Flynt is rich.
It is possible to argue, or at least imply, that all this is healthy. Liberated people know repression is a sin. The sublime and the disgusting are not in opposition; they're united in a wholeness, like yang and yin. The lovely needs the ugly, the hero needs the villan, St. George needs his dragon, you get the idea. "End Product's" dust jacket shows an enamel cornucopia, a toilet overflowing with fresh vegetables and fruits. The jacket makes this point: Excrement and nourishment are really the same thing.
As estheticians realize, the cult of the indecent is not wholly new. It has ample precedent in the history of show biz, the history of art. All musicians know that harmony and discord exist in symbiosis. Dirty joke comedians, and that means nearly all of them, Johnny Carson, Chaucer, Shakespeare, know that toilet jokes get laughs. Goya painted feces, Picasso painted gore, and in 1917, the late Marcel Duchamp tried to show a urinal, signed "R. Mutt" and titled "Fountain," in an avant-garde artists' jury-free exhibit. His "Fountain" was rejected; he had grossed his colleagues out.
But that was 60 years ago. The world of art has long since rejected such intolerance. Manzoni's tins today qualify as "bodyworks." Writing about body art in this month's ArtForum, critic Nicolas Calas first explains that "modern art reinterprets the Leonardian knowing-how-to-see in post-Euclidian terms," whatever that means. Then he cites examples that ought to make one cringe.
"Vito Acconci volunteered to masturbate (hidden from view) in the presence of visitors in s SoHo gallery. . . (Lucas) Samaras crossed his head with twine tightly enough to deform his face, in a demonstration reminiscent of a torturer's endeavor to transform the body of a woman by cross-lacing her so tightly that she becomes a bulging bundle of flesh . . . Chris Burden's cross is his own flesh. Some years ago he locked himself up in a locker two feet high, two feet wide, and three feet deep, for five days . . . In advanced capitalist countries, the intelligentsia has sufficient self-confidence for its purveyors of cultural goods to include Earthworks and bodyworks in their inventories. It is self-confidence that the bureaucracy lacks in the workers' states . . . We must not forget that Rudolph Schwartzkogler went further than any other masochist bodyworker, for he proceeded inch by inch to amputate his own penis, while a photographer recorded this art event."
Though these artists may be madmen, their bodies are their own. But what are we think of the critics and photographers who celebrate such "art"?
Though body art is not as big in Washington as it is in New York, this city, too, has artists who have grossed us out. Manon Cleary did it, very mildly, by painting giant rats. Allen Appel did it a few years ago by combining in collages photographs of the heavens with others that were cut from bondage magazines. They showed women gagged with wiffle balls and bound with cords and chains. "I can't remember now why I made them," says Appel. "I was courageous, or crazy. Maybe both. I looked at them again the other day. They are terrifying. They scared the hell out of me."
The vile pictures of Goya and George Grosz served a higher purpose. These artists attacked carnage, cruelty and war. The tin cans of Manzoni, Johnny Rotten's safety pins, the blood of Edwige and Chris Burden, do nothing to improve us. Fashion is the only god the gross-out artists serve.
Fighting them is futile. To recoil from their gestures is to goad them on. Boredom is the antidote. Let it do its work. Warhol may be right, punk may be ascendant; but fashion remains fickle. Excrement and open wounds, bodyworks and gross-outs, will not be in vogue forever. The pendulum will swing.
Already it is swinging in the world of art. The revolution-at-all-costs religion of the new, though not yet overthrown, is losing its adherents. The London punks who sneer at the once-satanic Rolling Stones will, like Mick, grow old. By slicing at his body, the artist Rudolph Schwartzkogler, who is no longer with us, bought himself a mention in the pages of ArtForum, but his is not the sort of act that encourages an encore. Red Armstrong is still in prison. Fads don't last forever, and one load of the "End Product" is probably enough.
If, as some contend, art's function is to move us, then the artist who cuts flesh, and jolts us with his wounds, has shown us marks as valid as pencil lines or brushstrokes. We may shudder with revulsion, but at least we feel. For those who crave intensity, intensity at any price, such feelings mimic pleasure, but the pleasure is a voyeur's.
Artists, since Manet, have used the shocking as a weapon, but the wars they chose to fight have been largely won. The academy is beaten, the boundaries are down. In art, the vile was once used to attack the vile, but today it is presented, without yearning, without humor, as something self-sufficient. In some peculiar way gross-outs are attractive, but their power does not make them any less demeaning. The fashions of the punks resemble older fashions - and body art resembles art - as death resembles life.