The young woman behind the counter at Waxie Maxie's took a long look at the customer. He was a middle-aged gent of the white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant persuasion, wearing a button-down collar and reading spectacles, carrying an audio cassette ("Warning: Explicit Language Contained") called "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," by the 2 Live Crew. Finally she shook her head gently and asked: "Do you like that?"
What could I say? "I, uh, just want to find out what all the commotion's about." She thought it over for a moment, then pronounced herself satisfied. "At least you're open-minded," she said, as she processed my credit card and sent me off into the rain -- to put my open-mindedness to the acid test.
Well. I can't believe I listened to the whole thing. They may have been wrangling over the 2 Live Crew and its "music" in a courtroom in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last week, but even this old civil libertarian, First Amendment near-absolutist and major-league cuss artist had no difficulty rendering judgment: If "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" isn't obscene, then the word no longer has any meaning. The recording is filth, pure and simple, utterly devoid of socially or artistically redeeming qualities.
"As Nasty as They Wanna Be" is to all intents and purposes one uninterrupted barrage of lewd and scatological language, a monotonous recitation of all the standard-issue four-letter words and numerous others of greater length; it is -- yes -- witless, strident, insulting to even the dullest intelligence and, above all else, contemptuous of women. It is beyond the powers of my imagination to conceive that it could bring pleasure to anyone, though apparently it does.
But should it be banned in Fort Lauderdale, or anywhere else? The first jury to face the question voted in the affirmative, convicting the owner of a record store in Florida of violating obscenity laws for selling a copy of "As Nasty as They Wanna Be." Many expected the jury in Fort Lauderdale to follow suit, inasmuch as there can be little doubt that the 2 Live Crew's oeuvre (a) appeals principally to prurient interests, (b) is clearly obscene according to prevailing community standards and (c) is devoid of redeeming merit -- these being the three broad standards by which the Supreme Court measures obscenity.
Yet this test does not take into account the circumstances under which three of the four members of the 2 Live Crew were arrested; that seems to be why the Fort Lauderdale jury confounded expectations -- properly so, in my view -- and acquitted the rap singers. They were performing in a Fort Lauderdale nightclub last June, an establishment open to the public but under limited conditions: No one under 21 years of age was permitted to attend. The audience, in other words, consisted not of the general public but of consenting adults who presumably had a pretty good idea of what treats were in store for them.
It was an audience that satisfied the definition of privacy as it has evolved in free-speech cases in the years since legal barriers against obscenity and pornography began to crumble. Though the new dispensation is far from writ in stone, it has tended to accept the argument that so long as the general public is not exposed involuntarily to material it finds offensive, and so long as participants are not subjected to physical harm, people are free to do whatever they want in private; a person's home is his castle, and that castle can as easily be an adults-only nightclub as a person's living room.
This seemed to me reason enough to let the 2 Live Crew off the hook, but it was not the principal line of defense pursued by the rap group's lawyers. Instead, in keeping with the temper of the times, they were determined to represent the work of the 2 Live Crew as "art" and to convince the jury that for this reason it passed the Supreme Court's obscenity test.
That the jury bought this line of reasoning in acquitting the 2 Live Crew is, depending on one's point of view, either a triumph for tolerance or an absurdity. Yet as lawyers around the country well know, there is a small but growing body of precedent for just such a decision; most recently, to the great surprise of New York provincials, a jury in Cincinnati voted against the prosecution in the case of the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, judging them to have artistic merit even though the jurors found them, in one member's words, "lewd, grotesque, disgusting."
That's the line the 2 Live Crew's lawyers parroted. One of them told the jury last week: "This is not guitar music. This is not violin music. This is not piano music. But this is serious art, even though it may be different." He also said, "These words, as crude as some people find them, can have artistic value when you have an understanding -- when you have them, in effect, decoded."
To which can only be said ... well, the only truly appropriate response is an eight-letter expletive more suitable to 2 Live Crew than to a family newspaper. If the 2 Live Crew numbers under discussion in the Fort Lauderdale case are "art," then this word too no longer has any meaning. But here's the catch: In the context of late-20th-century American culture, "art" may indeed be meaningless, a word so debased by a vehemently philistine culture that it can be twisted to represent whatever anyone wants it to.
Thus we have the record companies, which are scared to death of the public's reaction against obscene lyrics, rushing to construct an artistic rationale for the crud they're marketing; Capitol Records "vehemently opposes censorship of artistic expression," it tells retailers, while Charisma Records defends "an artist's right to make music freely and your right to own the music you want." Thus too we have Henry Louis Gates Jr., a member of the professoriat, who for $250 an hour testified on the 2 Live Crew's behalf; asked by one of the group's lawyers if its work is "serious art," he replied, "Absolutely," and proceeded -- professorial license knows no limits -- to draw parallels with Chaucer and Shakespeare and Joyce.
If you believe any of these people, then there are plenty of record companies out there that would like to have your business and even more lawyers who'd like to see you on the next jury they face. For the essence of this argument is that art, and literature too, can be anything that suits the convenience of those cashing in on it. Art isn't beauty or truth or the effort to achieve either; art is what the marketplace says it is, however meretricious or banal or offensive.
How did we come to this pretty pass? Some would argue that it's the price we pay for a democratic, as opposed to an elite, culture, and no doubt there's much to be said for that; like it or not, the natural instinct of any mass culture is toward the lowest common denominator, which certainly is where ours is headed. A good measure of blame must be laid as well at the feet of Andy Warhol, whose cynical trivialization of art found an eagerly receptive audience and a host of imitators; what may have begun as satire of art has become legitimized as art itself, "pop" or "op" or whatever.
In such a climate, who can blame the Fort Lauderdale jury for deciding that noisy young men who shout obscenities over the gasps and throbs of submissive women are "artists" rather than mere pornographers? Anything goes is the order of the day, so why not go all the way with the 2 Live Crew?