Things are ugly right now.
They are also exhausted, fatalistic, sterile, beleaguered and loud, but what you notice is the ugly.
For instance, you decide to catch a matinee of "Total Recall."
On the way to the theater in Dupont Circle you see: four half-shaved heads, a guy urinating in a stairwell and an utter-obscenity T-shirt printed in colors that make you think of a nerve gas factory blowing up. You hear a car a block away erupting with rap music, a sort of sustained grand mal seizure of sound that reminds you of 2 Live Crew and their numbers about ripping apart women's vaginas. You see a man with five days' growth of beard and a pair of fluorescent plastic reflecting sunglasses that make him look like a mutant 1950s starlet. You see a woman with orange hair. "Hey, look at me!" a guy yells at her. He keeps yelling it: "Look at me! Look at me!"
You are puzzled, you are depressed, but you are going to the movies.
In the theater, the K-B Janus, the guy behind you keeps kicking your seat. You look at him but he keeps kicking it. Through the screen you can see a light bulb burning. The movie flutters for a while and then the credits roll, minute after minute of names you've never heard of, but you have to look at them.
"Total Recall" is a sci-fi movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He would be ugly too if it weren't for his sense of humor, which makes him coyly grotesque instead. He plays a crazed and vengeful loner, which means he is the hero.
A woman says to Schwarzenegger: "No wonder you're having nightmares -- you're always watching the news."
Indeed. How timely. The news is very ugly these days.
Americans like it ugly, apparently. They probably don't like looking at the Romanian AIDS children or the dead, frothing lakes of East Germany or gay activists pelting Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan with condoms. But judging from the ratings, Americans like people of the Sam Donaldson sort asking ugly questions that really aren't questions at all because they really say nothing more than "Look at me." And Americans are making "Total Recall" one of the biggest movies of the summer.
Schwarzenegger turns off the news, and then in a few minutes the woman is kicking him in the crotch. Look at him knock her down. Actually, it hardly gets your attention. It's like vomiting, the shouting of obscenities and the gurgling of exotic wounds -- you get used to it if you go to the big movies.
Bad guys shoot at Schwarzenegger on an escalator. Our hero grabs a bystander and uses him as a shield. Then he jams a machine up his own nose until cartilage crunches. This is a high-tech joke about nose picking. The machine picks a high-tech implant out of his nose, thus enabling him to meet a three-breasted whore on Mars and see a guy's hands chopped off by an elevator, thus saving a mutant revolution led by a slime-covered baby who erupts halfway from a man's stomach.
Look at this. Has there ever been anything like it in the history of Western art?
Bosch and Gruenewald, eat your hearts out. Goya, forget it. The history you have to look back to would be something like public flogging or the medieval pastime of cat butting, in which a cat was nailed up and people tried to butt it to death with their foreheads before it tore their faces off. Or maybe you have to look back only as far as cable news last week, where you could watch dwarf tossing, people picking up a dwarf and throwing him across a room, a sporting event. Or to the sort of performance art that Sen. Jesse Helms has found to be a target of opportunity lately -- a guy urinating on stage or a woman with an act involving sticking yams in herself.
You leave the movie. You think: There must be finer things in the American arts just now.
The beautiful flower photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe come to mind. If you went to the Mapplethorpe show at the Washington Project for the Arts when Helms et al. were complaining about the government paying for obscenity, you saw beautiful flowers and beautiful nudes. Perhaps they were a little overwrought, but they were beautiful. There was room after empty room of them. Why were the rooms empty when there were people waiting outside with umbrellas -- the educated, thoughtful, art-loving people of America, the people who aspire to the finer things in life and will stand in the rain to see them?
As it turned out, these people wanted mostly to see the Mapplethorpe pictures of subjects such as himself with a whip handle stuck up his rectum. Of course. That was what all the scandal was about. They were such upstanding and progressive citizens, huddled there in the room with the whip-and-rectum stuff, they made you wonder if you were doing something wrong by looking at the flowers.
Anyway, you leave the theater. After the movie, Dupont Circle looks good by comparison, you can say that much.
Later the same afternoon, you turn away from the gross commercial opportunism of Hollywood and seek respite in modern literature, high-art stuff. The first thing you pick up is The Quarterly, Summer 1990. It is an anthology of short stories, poetry and drawings published by Random House and edited by Gordon Lish, whose stock is high among the literati.
The first line of the first story reads: "She was out of practice and he wanted practice, so they started kissing one another."
This sounds promising. The boy puts his tongue in the woman's mouth and it tastes of "warm sweet water," which is good too. Then it turns out the boy is kissing his mother. In the next story a daughter sexually impales herself on her father. Skipping around reveals a poem about a boy who wets his pants: "Stinking cotton at my crotch/ which neither time nor heat could wash." Another story is about a woman who keeps sneezing in the direction of her husband. "I felt it all over, dampening my hair and dripping down my forehead and wetting my eyebrows, all these prickles of gooey snot sticking to my cheek and chin." There is a drawing of oral sex in the back, along with a story in which the characters talk about Gordon Lish, the editor. Look at him.
Not everything right now is ugly, but the other choice is not beautiful, it is bland, and you don't look at it for very long.
Bland is the triumph of taste over style. Bland is the world according to home decorating magazines, Valium, shopping malls and managers of all the bureaucracies of this country -- the corporations, colleges and governments. It is all personality and no character, all consumer, no producer. It is a spiritual condition akin to having a psyche that is sanitized for your protection, maybe with one of those chemical canisters of the sort that turn the water in your toilet blue.
Bland is life lived in a fog, a cloud of unknowing that perhaps can be penetrated only by ugly:
By Andrew Dice Clay, who is the adult version of the kid in sixth grade who knew more dirty words than anyone; by Madonna, with her nun-flouting fetish costumes and an audience that will pay to see a female Donald Trump in a 1950s push-up bra; by the funny, sad and perceptive but ugly squalor of "The Simpsons" on television; by the maniacal speed-crazed screaming of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"; by the University of the District of Columbia, trying to spend more than $1 million for a sculpture called "The Dinner Party," in which each of 39 place settings is set with a representation of a vulva; by "Modern Primitives," a book that shows genitals split, mutilated, transfixed with pins and punctured by rings, all of this described and photographed as "anthropology"; by all the television dramas in which people simply shout at each other with indignant fury -- "If you think I'm letting one rotten egomaniac like you destroy this whole damn investigation, mister, you've got another think coming ..."
Look at them all.
There has always been ugliness in the arts, much of it in this century. Moderns have demanded the real thing, the truth, in a tone that suggested they really believed they could get it. They wanted "authenticity." Ugliness delivers authenticity, all right. Think about Hemingway's night thoughts in a story called "Now I Lay Me," or T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," or Paul Cadmus's paintings of 1930s social realist squalor, or Stanley Kubrick's movie "A Clockwork Orange" with its futurist rape and sadism, or Alberto Giacometti's molten-drip sculptures that look like incinerated ghosts.
The old ugliness was there to show the truth we had lost and could only hope for. Now, there is an exhausted, end-of-the-world feeling that suggests we've moved on to a place where truth and beauty are irrelevant.
Oooh, truth. Beauty.
Look at them. It makes you squirm a little to say them, doesn't it? Things are ugly right now.