The Shock of the Used: From Obscenity and Radicalism to Commercialism

Dale Lately

Where once society's structures could be challenged for their oppressive values, today even things would be deemed obscene are no more than commodities in a marketplace of pop kitsch.

When I embarked recently in a spirit of playful pastiche on a contemporary reworking of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (entitled Yawn) I did so partly out of a realisation that the counter-culture movement from which it sprang really has no modern equivalent. Whether you find the dick-waving, fist-raising, Benzedrine-drugged battle cry conjured up by the poem worthwhile or not (and in truth half a century on it can all feel a little naive) you can’t help but admit that the Beat Generation knew how to shake things up – in Ginsberg’s case, resulting in the seminal obscenity trial of his publisher, which saw Howl vindicated as literary art.

Poetry in the courtroom? It all sounds so quaint and unimaginable now; the last high profile literary trial involved the porn memoir Inside Linda Lovelace in 1976, and since then obscenity laws have shifted their focus onto DVDs and the visual image, though the murkier corners of text-based web forums occasionally surface in lawsuits. But is society no longer shocked by poetry because we’ve matured from such prudishness, or because the idea of "shock" itself has been rendered largely meaningless?

Howl and other Beat works were part of the struggle for public morality in the post-war tumult of mid-century America – a struggle which saw McCarthyism, morality scandals over Henry Miller and Lenny Bruce, Last Exit to Brooklyn, a ban on D.H. Lawrence, not to mention the cataclysmic social tensions that surfaced in the shadow of Vietnam. It was a transition period from post-war cultural consensus to the flagrant lifestyle experiments of the late sixties – to the carnivalesque act of symbolic rebellion, to flower power, hippies, yippies, Abbie Hoffman, and so on.

Art and literature had earned their right to say what they liked; to provoke, to shatter good taste – as Ginsberg put it, to wave "genitals and manuscripts" in the face of polite society. As symbolic resistance would be incorporated into Situationist theory a decade after Howl’s publication, the urgency of the need to shock became clear. This wasn’t just about the responsibility of art; it was about art’s responsibility to behave irresponsibly.

How it’s all changed. Can you remember an obscenity trial from recent times? Or a book or film or poem which shook society to its core? Torture porn, Lars Von Trier, E.L. James: all have been absorbed into the rich tapestry of modern culture, making ripples, not waves, wherever they land. In fact the eighties and nineties were less scandalised by art than by what it saw as its absence: Jeff Koon’s appropriation of kitsch, Hirst’s existential update of the Duchamp readymade, the postmodern exuberance of Quentin Tarantino, which elevated knowing pastiche to the level of the sublime.

The problem with modern art was that it no longer was art, as the tabloids would have it. To some it seemed we’d reached the cultural counterpoint to Fukayama’s "end of history", an Ironic Curtain where all the ideas have been used up and humanity is condemned to an endless wash cycle of empty pop references, remixes, repeats. It wasn’t the shock of the new. It was the shock of the used.

True, there are always minor scandals. Fetish pornographer Ira Isaacs – creator of such valuable contributions as Hollywood Scat Amateurs No. 10 and Japanese Doggie 3 Way – has recently been found guilty of selling and distributing obscene material. Obscenity trials both in the US and UK are actually surprisingly frequent, but rarely make headlines. It’s true that films still provoke an outcry every few years, but the tools have patently changed. The same decades that saw books and films lose their centrality in cultural discourse witnessed first the rise of the violent video game and then the web, which threatened to tip the moral equivalent of an untreated sewer over the impressionable adolescent’s head. From online porn to the Grand Theft Auto franchise to the UK Manhunt ban, it’s clear that confining ourselves to traditional art or literature for the purposes of this debate is anachronistic.

Perhaps the medium that has altered most since the days of the counter culture is TV, long the anchor of family values and useful cultural barometer for society’s taboos. Opinions about what’s "acceptable" have changed so profoundly that it’s amazing to contemplate the difference even a couple of decades have made. Even as a teenager I remember regular anti-expletive bleeps on adult shows. Now The Thick of It, which is screened only half an hour into the watershed, bulks out its script with F-words like water added to cake mix – not to mention the joyfully ripe dialogue of Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire and other HBO swear-ins on the other side of the Atlantic (Deadwood even managed to curse in period costume). BBC executive Caroline Thomson, the corporation’s chief operating officer, recently claimed that one of the points of comedy was to cause offence and make her flinch. I’ve heard "shit" and "bitch" and "dick" in the daytime on Radio 4 – and that’s an arts channel largely aimed at my grandmother.

But perhaps all this is beside the point. It’s not that the "shocking" art or culture of today is venal and submissive, though such examples might suggest it. The real point is that shock itself is a tried-and-tested weapon, long absorbed into the cultural lexicon. Or to put it another way, almost everything seems a little bit shocking now. What had been disruptive formalist experiments in the mid twentieth century had, by the 1990s – that decade of "Prada meinhoff" irony and hammer and sickle T-shirts – been reduced to aesthetic tools for hip young music video directors.

The political ideals of former ages were to be ransacked for retro cool. Che Guevara was transformed from a complex and troubled political revolutionary to a T-shirt rock star. In literature, the ground-breakingly lucid stream-of-consciousness of Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson’s New Journalism had become the blueprint for Rolling Stone features and lifestyle columns. What else is the blogosphere but the expansion of a "gonzo" sensibility to the world’s writing community at large?

It’s not quite true that modern society confronts everything we throw at it with a "pre-shocked" mentality – we still have our fair share of offended parents and moral majorities – but I think it’s fair to say youth culture has assumed a certain arms-folded, gum chewing bemusement, desensitised by the internet, waiting for the next worst thing. And the youthful producers and scriptwriters of today are only too happy to oblige. Contemporary "reality" shows – Toddlers & Tiaras, Who’s Your Daddy, not to mention the astonishing To Catch a Paedophile – set their taste bar at whatever they can get away with. And though children’s’ entertainment is mostly tightly regulated, anything over that nebulous "tweenie" mark is subject to the sneering, jeering, body-obsessed hedonism of the youth market: from Britney to Miley Cyrus, a non-stop pop video stream of pouting, underclad schoolgirls that would put a Manga imprint to shame.

If part of Kerouac’s vision was to put graphic (gay) sex into the public gaze – hardly a new inspiration, since the impulse dates back to before Ovid – then our own age has made youthful nakedness so ubiquitous that you’d have to walk around with your eyes closed just to avoid it. Needless to say, the visionaries leading the way in this "liberated" culture are the marketers and the salespeople. The twenty first century kicked off with a slew of "knowing" children’s toys and clothing: the Bratz "Hooker" Babies; a line of Playboy branded stationary for school children; a range of Abercrombie & Fitch thongs for 10-year-olds with the words “wink, wink” on them, and girls’ T-shirts emblazoned with the proud slogan of “Future Wag”; even a pole-dancing "kit" (the Peek-a-Boo Stripper Pole) sold by Tesco to the lucrative pre-adolescent market until some fuddy-duddy parents bothered to protest.

Abercrombie & Fitch – after their resounding "achievement" in releasing push-up bras for girls as young as seven – continue to peddle in an advertising language of sexualised, partially undressed youth in their international billboard campaigns – but even they must defer to the breathtaking audacity of American Apparel, whose recent ads featuring semi-naked teenagers (or rather barely-legals who look like teenagers) were banned by the British advertising watchdog. An energy drink recently Christened itself with the brand name Pussy. We could go on and on.

Taken alone, none of these are examples of anything other than a certain vein of hedonistic marketing. Taken collectively, they reveal an incremental shift towards a society where to oppose the onslaught of sexual provocation and youthful nudity – however cold-bloodedly commercial it may be – is to be condemned as a prude. The bizarre Keeping Up With the Kardashians actually places bodily exhibition and soft porn glamour at the centre of its manufactured "reality" plots, as if the most a girl could wish for these days was to land a Playboy centrefold.

Needless to say, there’s been a certain amount of backlash against this kind of "shedonism" from both ageing Second Wave feminists and whatever passes for old-fashioned conservatism in these enlightened times.

"Raunch culture has been extraordinarily successful at rebranding all criticism as prudishness – allowing it to march to the heart of mainstream culture, almost unchallenged," as Kate Williams of the child-protection Let Girls Be Girls campaign wrote in The Guardian in 2010.

But criticism from the family-values set aside, what’s interesting about this kind of provocative shock marketing is not the ripples it makes, but how neatly it fits into the mainstream. When was the last time you complained about this stuff? Or even noticed it? After all, ours is the era of the good taste sex shop or raunchy lingerie store – from Ann Somers to the shiny Harmony erotica chain with its smart security guards and upbeat muzak, dispelling previous overtones of seediness with the kind of homely decor that a couple won’t be embarrassed to shop for dildos in on a Sunday afternoon. It’s an age of shows like the British medical show Embarrassing Bodies, where breast-ops and genital transplants carried out on volunteer members of the public are portrayed in full-frontal detail (the website even features a "penis gallery" for boys worried about their dimensions).

It’s an age where medical charities routinely employ tacky sexual imagery as a means to advertise their cause – leading to a somewhat unexpected recent donation promise from hardcore video website Pornhub to a breast cancer fund under the tagline Save the Boobies. And of course, in an essay that began with an example of graphic literature, we have to mention Fifty Shades of Grey: the fact that a book about S&M can outsell the first Harry Potter suggests that art’s struggle against taboos, in which Howl marked a seminal early victory, has been well and truly won.

Or has it? Peel away the "shocking" credentials and it all looks wearyingly commercial. The plot of E.L. James’ bestseller follows a virginal college graduate submitting herself to the erotic power games of a handsome billionaire whose lifestyle she idolises. The subject matter might seem to differentiate it from a Danielle Steele or a Jilly Cooper, but take away a bit of bondage pantomime and this is essentially Mills and Boon with handcuffs. In fact the book’s tone suggest that the sexiest thing about her lover is not his body but his designer furniture. "This is seriously rich," she gushes, noting his "imposing U-shaped sofa" and platinum fireplace. "Seriously over the top Bill Gates style wealthy". As Helen Lewis put it in the New Statesman, the heroine’s first visit to Christian Grey doesn’t so much throb with erotic intensity as recall someone reading aloud the Ikea catalogue.

In fact the book has even drawn praise for its staunchly consumerist credentials. The head of major online sex toy retailer Lovehoney triumphed the book as bringing him a 400 percent increase in fiction sales, as well as "blindfolds, restraints, and intimately revealing lingerie as turned-on couples recreate some of the book’s steamy chapters." Good to see that literature hasn’t lost its power to influence society, then. Elsewhere, Fifty has predictably been held up as a Bible for the post-feminist raunch culture that has spawned tabloid-style websites like Jezebel, a website dedicated to "Celebrity, sex, fashion for women – without airbrushing".

Put aside the progressive hype and the boundary-pushing chick-lit of our age looks less like the material of passion and more like passion for the material: Sex and the City with the nudity left in. Scandalous blogs that made it to books over the last decade include the astonishingly frank shopping diary Girl With a One Track Mind – a bizarre mix of graphic sex and retail therapy extended over a few hundred pages, in which the shopping doesn’t merely punctuate the fucking but actually, via some memorable changing-room masturbation, provides a backdrop to it.

Perhaps the truth is that once the permissive society has pushed the boundaries back so far that we can hear them creaking, artistic shock tactics start to look oddly calculated. Fifty Shades of Grey is an Inside Linda Lovelace that comes pre-scandalised, with its cover pictures of chains and S&M kitsch, its origins in the prurient world of ‘slash fic’ websites. The world of "high" conceptual art has made shock an implicit part of its manifesto for decades – see Tracey "tampon" Emin, Chris Ofili’s black Madonna, Nicholas Treadwell and Marcus Harvey – to the point where the utterly outrageous seems utterly banal. But given the sky-high prices in the art world, it seems fair to ask if this art really is "shocking", or simply another bling commodity: provocative wallpaper for the wealthy.

Banksy’s graffiti is as iconic as a copy of Adbusters, the culture jamming tradition from which it springs, and sells for more than the houses it’s painted on. Multi-millionaire Hirst descended into what was possibly the most egregious celebration of "wealth porn" in human history with For the Love of God, a human skull adorned in diamonds estimated at £15,000,000, which is certainly scandalous in at least one sense of the word.

We’ve come a long way since constructivists and futurists made art with a socialist purpose; in the wake of Saatchi today’s gallery looks more like an extension of the commodities trading floor. The more subversive, the more easily co-opted. The fact that Fight Club – a film which purported to satirise the beauty and celebrity industries – spent much of its running time ogling the beauty of its celebrity says a lot about any "subversive" role mainstream culture has to play. So in this kind of landscape, how is it ever possible to make the kind of waves that Howl did all the way back in 1957? Is "shock art" really "the safest kind of art that an artist can go into the business of making today," as Lynne Munson said in her own Exhibitionism show?

Or perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions. The original "howl" of Ginsberg’s poem was a protest against Organisation Man, the repressed conservatism of the nine-to-five masses. The counter culture made sense in a straight-laced society. In our own time – where decades of neoliberal deregulation mean that most workers face the insecurity of wage-culls, "efficiency" savings and outsourcing, not to mention sweeping cuts in the public sector – the need to rise up and rebel starts to lose its appeal.

It’s hard to bemoan the crushing conformity of your job when you might not have one next month. Following our "emancipation" into a world of short-term contracts and long-term internships, into the extended adolescence of graduate unemployment and low-paid wage-slavery, the fist waving Beats and the idealists of ’68 start to look a bit irrelevant. And in a world where web porn is beamed into adolescent bedrooms and it’s "prudish" to complain about topless girls still in their teens displayed in tabloids (alongside salaciously reported child porn scandals) there really doesn’t seem much room for art and literature to show us anything we haven’t seen before. If you really wanted to challenge the status quo you’d demand a decent job, a pension and the right to benefits. Now there’s a radical thought.

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