In 1966, the Supreme Court was once again trying to define obscenity. Among other decisions, they revised an earlier definition to include the requirement that the material be "patently offensive." As usual, Justice William O. Douglas dissented, claiming that:
"There are as many different definitions of obscenity as there are human beings, and they are as unique to the individual as his dreams."
It so happened that I some leisure that spring, and therefore (malgré Justice Douglas) took it upon myself to formulate a universal definition of obscenity-thanks to some help from playwright Bertolt Brecht, artist Ed Kienholz, and fabulist Hans Christian Andersen. Since my collaborators are all dead, I feel obliged to report our collective findings.
It started with a UCLA presentation of Brecht's Baal, his first and probably worst play. You can if you wish download a scene-by-scene synopsis, but be prepared for a drearily sordid plot The hero, a drunken, selfish, ruthless poet, wanders through the country, drinking, fighting, copulating, and betraying everyone in sight. By the third scene, he has seduced and abandoned his devoted disciple's teenage girlfriend, who later drowns herself. Elsewhere, he seduces and impregnates another girl who also drowns herself. He then seduces the mistress of his best friend and then kills him. Somewhere in between, he commits fellatio (simulated onstage) with somebody else. Finally, hunted by the police and deserted by everybody, he dies alone in a forest hut.
By the intermission, during which half of the audience quietly departed, we were all so sated with perverse sexual acts that some of the diehards were wearily ticking off the remaining scenes in the program to estimate how much more they would be subjected to.
I staggered out of the theater into the fresh air with the realization that, although Baal had no literary or artistic value, it nonetheless had a certain redeeming obscenity that had made UCLA literati deem it worthy of production. I thus fell into the same trap as the Supreme Court and tried to define for myself what 'obscenity' really was.
Shortly thereafter, I visited the LA County Art Museum's exhibition of the work of Ed Kienholz, one of the pioneers of the 'installation' art form. The exhibit was controversial because it included "Roxy's", a full-room surreal impression of a 1940's brothel, and "Back Seat Dodge-'38", a truncated auto with a couple, sculpted out of chicken wire, copulating in the rear. These exhibits had been denounced as obscene by members of the LA city council.
At this point, I recommend that you look at some of Kienholz's installations at his main site, which includes photos of many of his works. You will note that almost everything looks shabby, ugly, and rather dirty, as if covered with slime or excrement. As one commentator put it:
"Kienholz's art was predominantly a socially critical art - that it confronted us with the darker aspects of contemporary American life. Its subjects were society's victims and the methods of their victimization... The beauty in Kienholz's art is in its very ugliness--the ugliness of truth "
So far so good. Social protest is a legitimate goal of art and Keinholz was following, however crudely and clumsily, in the footsteps of Hogarth and Daumier. And many of Kienholz's installations, such as "Roxy's", "Illegal Operation", and "State Hospital", do serve this justifiable purpose. I had no objection to this kind of protest and did not think such exhibits obscene.
But Kienholz couldn't see anything but ugliness. Even the most innocent subjects and activities were shown in their most repulsive form, as witness "John Doe" and "Birthday". For me, the epitome of Kienholz's work was a little item called "The Quickie". It was a very simple work, untypically clean-a roller skate on which was glued the head and hand of a pretty mannequin. Only the extended index finger of the hand was stuck into a nostril. As the museum guide explained to us, it was supposed to depict a fashionable hostess at a party, picking something out of her nose as she went from one room to another. I felt that this little improvisation was the most obscene thing in the whole exhibit, that it somehow defined the word "obscenity".
In fact, it seemed strangely familiar. A few days later, the penny dropped and I looked up the beginning of Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen
...a very wicked hobgoblin.... made a looking-glass which had the power of making everything good or beautiful that was reflected in it almost shrink to nothing, while everything that was worthless and bad looked bigger and worse than ever....
This, I contend, is the essence of obscenity. Applied to sexual subjects, it defines obscenity as we usually think of it. The Christian view of the sexual act, as a part of marriage, gives it a solemn beauty so noble that the many theologians regard it as a continuing part of the sacrament of matrimony. Sexual obscenity consists in ignoring all aspects of mutual love and caring in this act and emphasizing whatever is ugly, cruel, grotesque, or ludicrous.
Similarly, it may be appropriate to artistically depict violence as the horrible necessity it sometimes is. One might even cautiously explore the possibility of deriving satisfaction from killing, as in revenge. But when killing and mutilation are depicted as fun or (worse yet) funny, we have crossed the line into obscenity.
The obscene approach-emphasizing and glorifying evil and ugliness while mocking and distorting beauty and virtue-can be applied equally well to religion or to any other aspect of human life, as Kienholz so often demonstrated.
Being really obscene is a difficult business because ugliness is time sensitive. Its attraction lies in its very repulsiveness-in its "spiciness" or shock value. But with repeated exposure, the novelty wears off; what was once shocking is now commonplace. As Pope put it:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with its face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
So the obscenophile must keep moving on, looking for ever more twisted and repulsive ugliness to dote upon.
The obscenity of 1966 is now passé. Kienholz would be considered tame in art galleries and museums that now proudly display, as prize-winning art, crucifixes swimming in urine and Madonnas besmeared with cow dung and pornographic cut-outs. Baal has been made into a move but it's pathetically banal compared to the blood-and gore 'gross out' movies such as Saw or Hostel-or most of the "adult" section of your local video rental store. Primetime TV shows, such as the various CSI venues, Fear Factor, and Jackass, vie with each other in ferreting out the nastiest perversions of every aspect of our lives and the depths people will stoop to if allowed to expose themselves on TV. And these are mild stuff compared to the violence and sadistic sex in the video games your children play and are affected by. To balance all this, religion and virtue are routinely derided and mocked, as in The Forty-Year Old Virgin or How I Met Your Mother. For the more refined palate, obscenity takes the subtler form of mocking everything decent. One thinks immediately of Jerry Seinfeld, who seems, like Poo-Bah, to have been born sneering. Even fans of the Seinfeld Show admit that it depicts a world exclusively peopled by selfish jeering characters who despise and mock one another and everyone else. (Evidently, Seinfeld didn't know about Kienholz's "Quickie" or he would surely have used it in one of his episodes.) Even the New Yorker, once famous for a gentle and amiable irony exemplified by its monocle-wielding icon, has now largely adopted a disdainful sneer, seeking out the worm in every historic or artistic apple.
I began to write this down so as to clarify for myself and others the concept of general obscenity. But as I continued, I realized with ever-growing dismay how low we've sunk in a mere forty years.
A civilized society can exist only as long as its members-men and women, neighbors, co-workers, disputants-share some degree of sympathy, respect, and civility toward one another. Obscenity acts like a corrosive or cancer that destroys those bonds. But although the detection of cancer is vitally important in an early case, it doesn't really matter any more for a terminal patient. How far have we come? Is it already too late?