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7 Blowjobs

February 11th, 2009 No comments

Just read the play. Haven’t seen it, so I’ll caveat it.  There’s more to a play than reading, an issue that I’ve discussed before.

A timely read for me as I have written a couple of blog entries on morality and art—or maybe I’ve written one and have just been thinking about the issue so long that I think I’ve written more about it.  This play is a very sarcastic response to the whole NEA flap of a few years back.  One is keyed into this fact almost immediately, as the dedication to the play is to Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson: two pillars standing as ass-backward heroes on the plains of our modern moral landscape. Wellman makes this point very clear toward the end of the play where Dot says:

These photos are art, Dot
says, the other Dot that is,
art funded by a public
agency and performed by
artists in his own state.

The plot is simple: seven photographs are delivered to a Republican Senator’s office in Washington, DC.  The rest of the play is the reaction to the photos by the Senator, his staff, and a televangelist. It took me two reads to get the gist of this thing, but its meaning, I think, lies in the fact that the pictures are art pieces, very like the Robert Mapplethorpe photos that kicked off a shit storm in 1990 in Cincinnati, whose artistic nature is overlooked in favor of a sexually explicit interpretation by those who position themselves to all of society as having thoughts as clean as the newly driven snow.  Plainly, these people who are supposed to be pure of thought and mind and chaste of conscience and brimming with positivistic notions for all mankind are pitched into a frothy sexual stew by some art pictures.

As the Reverend Tom states:

“…even though, in these
photos the things are not
in actual contact with the
other things, and therefore
the 7 blowjobs are seven
unconsummated blowjobs
but they suggest the worst,
worse than the actual act
would have done did…”

The ultimate point here being that art corrupts by what it leads people to think (and to crave):

Dot:         It’s
only a picture. A picture can’t
torture and rape you…a picture….

Eileen: A picture can too torture and
rape your mind, Dot, I mean
can’t you imagine that, being
bend and wiggled and so
forth…like that…

 Wellman’s work is a different way of approaching what LaBute does in The Shape of Things, where the corruptive power of art is posited by the external manipulation of the physical body of a young man by a malicious female art student.  Nevertheless, the ironical point made by both pieces argues the well-documented position by conservative politicians and religious leaders that art has a corruptive influence on the minds and souls of those who observe it; as we are clearly incapable of making informed decisions on our own behalf.  Like children, we need guidance through the confusing night landscape of our lives.

Despite some of the absurdist elements of the play, which work well, Wellman goes a bit overboard such that the absurdity takes on an all too clearly cynical message—for instance, when the reveal is made that Senator So-and-So passed on the pictures to Senator Bob (after he died) that he himself was going to use to distract his constituents from the part he played in a parking scandal—the implication, of course, being that all politicians are conviction-less thieves who only wish to defraud the public by posturing one way and behaving another.  While true for some, and perhaps more true than I’d like to think, I cannot bring myself to paint with such a broad brush all representatives in the Congress.  Hypocrisy for sure exists and should be beaten down wherever it is found: especially amongst those representative pushing homophobic agendas only to disclose, albeit accidentally, their own predilections in that direction.  As I’ve said before, when a piece of art takes on too much of a political message, I think it borders more on journalism or essay and wanders too far astray from a pure experience.  It is fair to say that the whole of Wellman’s piece can be interpreted as a cynical slap at conservatives in Congress and can be too overt for my tastes:

that watches out for stuff
just like this, bad stuff,
meant to injure the mind
and screw up public morals.

But, that being what it is, it has some very entertaining moments:

Reverend Tom. You make the
people think religious thoughts
tending to the re-election of the
saved and eternal damnation
for the published poets…


Look at Bruce, Dot, look at
his eyes, how empty and ill
they are, like an animal who
has seen too much of human
life ever to be an animal again.


Senator: That is not a blowjob.  That is the Pope.

And several instances where the first thing seen in the photo is a small dog:

Eileen: No, Senator, that’s not the
blowjob.  That is a borzoi dog…


…this is it, this is the
fatal blowjob, the blowjob in question.

One of the inherent tensions in the piece is that between “the real thing” and a representation of what is real: hence the photographs and again the argument of what art is or means—as a representation of something or the thought of the artist.  Constantly, throughout the play, one character or another looks at pictures and interprets the content as being “the real thing.”  Added to this is the contrast between the acts portrayed in the photographs and judgments regarding what is “normal;” the senator and staff and religious representatives, again, positing themselves as the examples of what is normal.  Early in the play, Eileen, the senator’s administrative assistant comes close to seeing the “reality” of the photos, only to have it knocked away by Dot:

Do you think that is what
it actually looks like? Or,
how else do you explain
what it really is, if that’s
not right? I mean, well,
if what we are seeing is
photos—of stuff—say…

Dot: The real thing, I would say.

Or later:

Tom here is deacon of the Television
Church of the Tachistical Wonder
of Jesus Christ, Autodidact. Ain’t
it that, Tom? A real TV Church.

Or charges against Eileen that she isn’t a real conservative:

…Dot and me
know you’re faking it
when you write those speeches
…your heart’s not in it, Eileen.
Face it, you’re an imitation.

Further, even in moments when the possibility that the photographs are meant to spark the imagination of the viewer occurs to one of the characters, this possibility becomes lost in some equally confounding interpretation:

Bruce: …Can you not
please use your imagination?
This is a possible evidence.

So, imagination can only be conjured for a more imposing practical explanation for the photographs—that is, they aren’t just really about sex, they have to be hyperreally about a crime: evidence of something… but what?  The senator and his staff would point to evidence of a “smear” or an indiscretion or a crime or a moral failing.  But could it be that the evidence is of some other mode of existence?  Thus, late in the play we find Reverend Tom again, in full rant, saying:

“That blowjob, being a
child of Satan still in
his or her heart would
leer, and say: “Tom,
THANK YOU!” Thus the fate
of that blowjob would be
sealed, in the full horror
and knowledge of sin, and
photos of unnatural acts,
photos of unnatural acts
capable of rendering a
full-grown man, happy!

So not only is there another possibility for how one can live (and enjoy) life, but there is documented evidence of it.  What is perhaps of greater dismay to those involved is the effect it has on them: Bruce drools, Dot gets leveled, and Eileen gets wiggly.  All this because of the “real stuff” they are getting a look at.  Wellman, here, is at his best in showing how the reactions to art by some conservative personages are nothing more than a juvenile misinterpretation: the deviant projections of sexually stunted minds.  In fact, in many places the language and attitudes of the senator, staff, and reverend devolve into a sort of adolescent logic representing a dimwitted primitivism.

A constant mistrust runs though Wellman’s play as well.  He represents in these Republicans a deep mistrust of everything, a mistrust that I think points more broadly to a theme in government today period: that no one can really trust what is said or believe that something is sincere.  Dot expresses this well:

…I have seen all this
before, back in Oil City,
I knew such things happened
because it was a fact they
were not talked about, and
you can be sure that when an
activity is not being talked
about, it is going on.  It is
definitely going on when it
is not being talked about…

Or, as both Bob Junior and BobBob Junior state:

I know you don’t believe
me, Dad.  You never believe
me, Dad.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around why the play is written in verse. Obviously, for the person in the audience this would make little difference, unless the slight pauses between each turn are perceptible even in memorization and would cause enough pause at each line to be noted.  But even then, often as not the line breaks don’t fall on any word or word after or phrase that is noteworthy.

Wellman spends a lot of time putting malapropisms into the mouths of his characters too (no Freudian metaphor intended); no character is immune.  Here’s a sample: obsquatulated; (of the photo) it’s hypoallergenic; I was being euphuistic; Dot is circumscribed; sado-momo-statistical drive; a case of sado-botomy; foul pismire that is the human heart; horripilation; and one nice rant by Reverend Tom toward the end that I won’t type out, but which includes the nice phrase, “pan-psycho-super-maniacal-dodo-gomorrahmy…”; apocalyptoplectic attack;

Further, the characters often have lot of incomplete thoughts and an inability to adequately express themselves—a failure of words, again, almost adolescent-like in a failure to grasp a mature understanding and express oneself appropriately, fully—again, stunted.

Other features:

Naivety (again, almost immature):

wiggly (for sexual excitement);

“I think you are
a liberal underneath your
clothes and underwear, all
women are”;

God intended, when he placed
it, modestly, where it is, back
inside, nestled like a little
pink wildflower.  Inside,
nestled like a little, pink
wildflower on the woodsy…thing
there.  In the soft, woodsy part.

Sexism underlies much of the interactions: men are reduced to “making claims” about their sexual escapades and women are reduced to traditional roles:

Bruce: Women get wiggly when they look
at the real thing.  We men do
not, having been hardened by
the war experience and hardship.
…you don’t know how bad
a place the world is, having
been a girl at some, I bet
Ivy League place…

“I think you are
a liberal underneath your
clothes and underwear, all
women are”;

Furthermore, Eileen and Dot become interchangeable in terms of “secretarial” tasks: fetching drinks, or other menial tasks for the men; a fact which Eileen resents, even as her resentment is ignored.

Eileen: Dot is the secretary, I am the
Administrative Assistant, why
must I get Bruce the glass of
water, it really bothers me…
really, really, really, really

Or, as Reverend Tom praises Eileen:

…you can resist the cloven
hoof on the forehead of your…

There’s also some good old homophobia:

He was another pecker-watcher.
He was a confirmed pecker-watcher.

In fact, everyone the senator has issues with or of whom he disapproves is a “fag:” the play ending with a long listing of all the men who are fags according to him.

Wellman uses the repetition of phrases throughout his play to great effect: demonstrating the sort of circular logic (or illogic) that fuels much of the shallow thinking that feeds the arguments about the “immorality of art” in our “culture wars;” and a great many other things as well.

A smattering of anti-Catholic rhetoric:

Tom: It couldn’t be the Pope.  He’s
still a Christian gentleman—
even if he is fullblown antichrist.

Wellman waxes philosophical (comically so), as Reverend Tom struggles with the fact that the human soul can be connected to this human body, and even goes into a bit of Hamlet:

…this human soul…
is attached to a human body…
by a thing, by a thing like
that…and there’s the rub,
and that rub is where the
trouble starts…because
if you rub a thing like that,
a thing like this thing here,
up jumps the devil and the
devil is a creature of rubbing,
touching, stretching and all the
damned contortions the human
body is heir to.

I read this play for two reasons: 1) convergence put it up a few years back and I want to familiarize myself with the plays in their oeuvre; and 2) I am looking to other writers for guidance in experimentation with form.  Wellman’s play goes a bit beyond what I expected—not so much in the dramatic events that occur on the stage as in the features of the writing itself: the verse form, the repetition of phrases, concepts, words; the cyclical nature of the arguments; the bright colors used to paint the character types; the interspersion of malapropisms and almost intelligible babbling; and, in general, the free word play that he allows in all the characters in this play.  For the reasons immediately above, I like it very much.

Moralists have no place in an art gallery

January 30th, 2009 1 comment

Recently a debate came up and I was asked two different questions: are there ethical limits on the public expression of art; is there nothing that is unethical in art.

**(Note, the response below is my initial response.  I’ve since read of some things that have very much shaken my notion, which I explain at the end.)

I think the only proper sphere for determining what is unethical in art is the public sphere.  I believe, as well, it is the only place where art should be limited.  I think this is the exact role that the public sphere performs.  I am inclined to agree with Supreme Court rulings on obscenity, which state that the object in question must be obscene by community standards.  I think putting up a piece of art of the Virgin Mother that uses as a part of its medium elephant dung will find a different reception in New York City than in my home town (village, really) of Fredericktown, OH.  The community standards are very different.  I believe very much that a community has the right to make decisions regarding what is acceptable for it and what is not—part of this is my Libertarian streak.  In politics, I’m very much a libertarian and believe in personal responsibility and respect for an individual’s decisions.  An individual has a personal stake in his or her own affairs and his or her judgment should not be overthrown unless very serious circumstances demand such an overthrow.  I feel this same way about communities—after all, the people making the decisions are the ones living in the community.  Caveat: this, so long as the community decision does not alter or infringe, fundamentally, the rights of another group of people (i.e. Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, etc.).  Thus, again, the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in Fredericktown, OH, would not be acceptable.  I am unsure the ratio of gays or lesbians as a percentage of the population there (probably much the same as anywhere else), but most people I know are Joe-average, beer drinking, Sunday church-going rural Americans who overwhelmingly voted for John McCain and George W. and Bob Dole.  They are not likely proponents of homo-erotic photography—at least not publicly.

With regard to art itself, my response is that ethics/morality and art cannot and should not co-exist.  They should not be concerned with one another.  Art that concerns itself with morality is journalism—or worse, propaganda.  The 20th century has well proven how art can be used as a “moral” tool to bludgeon people.  In my opinion, at the deepest moment of creation there is a spirit that enters the artist—some have referred to it as being possessed, other as having voices speak through them (muses in essence)—but there is a connection made between the artist and something very deep and inexpressible by words—the unconscious, perhaps?  This “voice” for lack of a better word, should come through pure and untouched.  It is an afterthought by the artist to deal with what this voice has said and any activity in this regard is a shaping, a filtering, and a censorship—it is also the work of a writer.  (Which brings up the very funny quip made by Truman Capote about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”)  The problem of how to “craft” a work from the unfiltered stream that just poured through is a great problem and greater minds than mine have struggled with it. (For instance, Wallace Shawn mentions this in a recent American Theatre article—April 2008.)  To filter your voice as it comes through results in crappy art; crappy art is incapable of striking people—it’s a bland paste that’s met with indifference.  Paintings become those of Thomas Kinkade.

I think, really, this is an argument about ‘what is art’.  I remember reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I probably should read again—for here you have the character (Roark) that embodies true and uncompromising artistic integrity—integrity to a “personal vision”—but note, not to a societal vision, as that is corrupt.  I am reminded of Ellsworth Toohey, the art critic in The Fountainhead, who was a failed artist so his admitted goal was to glorify, through his criticism, mediocrity, so as to confuse the general public with regard to what great art really is. This to me is where the true question lies—whether something is art or not—not whether it is ethical or moral.  Another piece that came to mind is Neil LaBute’s play The Shape of Things, there is an excellent review that draws out what LaBute was saying—but it deals with the same problem: is there such a thing as immoral art?  LaBute’s piece is interesting because the art object in this case is another human being, which certainly raises ethical/moral questions—and certainly he uses the physical re-shaping of a person as a metaphor for the intellectual re-shaping that happens through art as well.  But what cannot be left out, here, is the role of the artist, which in LaBute’s play is intentional—that returns me to the whole art as journalism/propaganda.  One example that LaBute raises in his play, no doubt from personal experience, is an argument two characters have about a performance art piece they go and see. In the art piece a woman uses her finger as a paintbrush and her vagina as an ink well and finger paints a portrait of her father in her own menstrual blood.  Is this art?  Is this just disgusting?  Is it a form of mental depravity?  Is it foisting your own psychological problems on the public?  Truly it depends on who you are.  For some women—feminist, outraged, etc., this might be a compelling statement regarding a patriarchal society, as it might be for victims of sexual abuse, perhaps.  To a person like Jesse Helms, this would be absolute trash, depraved, and nothing more than filth.  Who’s right depends on who is looking.  And this is a debate of our own making.  But beyond the intellectual reaction, there is also the sensory reaction—does it strike you, affect you?  This matters too, but again, depending upon your sensitization or desensitization individuals will be affected differently.

Frederich Nietzsche, in the Genealogy of Morals goes at great lengths to show that the original definitions of the words for “good” and “evil” were associated strongly with the nobility and the powerful: the kings, queens, ruling class, etc.  All definitions of beauty and strength and health and wisdom, in short, all that was moral.  Then he describes how Christianity—a revolution sponsored by the Jews, he notes (and though not an anti-Semite purely, Nietzsche’s writings did find use by Nazis for this emphasis)—led to an inversion of the moral system: such that in the New Testament one reads that the meek shall inherit the earth, the poor and the diseased—these are the good.  The wealthy are the bad and cannot get through the eye of a needle.  Here in two strokes one can see how utterly opposite views on morality can be.  I am reminded of Joseph Campbell who quotes Heraclitus as saying, “To God all things are beautiful, good, and right; human beings, on the other hand, deem some things right and others wrong…”  God is beyond good and evil; God is beyond duality.  God is unity.  It is only to people that things are either right or wrong—and even that can vary in a person’s life time.  I know there are many people who yearn for absolutes, but to my mind there are none.  Each person is ruled by his own beliefs and these are imparted by parents, family, churches, community, etc.  To prove how far a foul these things can go, one need but only look at slavery, or the Ku Klux Klan, or Nazis, or any number of societies where certain forms of belief and behavior are perfectly acceptable but morally repugnant to many others—or in retrospect.  And no more timely point can be made than our struggle with some over-zealous Islamic groups today, which view the United States as the “great Satan.”  Are we?  I think not, but to their moral system we certainly are for a host of reasons.  Nietzsche said “God is dead.” A quote that has become a mantra for many atheists and exuberant left wing types, but as Alan Bloom notes in his book The Closing of the American Mind, Nietzsche was not happy about this.  He just observed it.  To Nietzsche the death of God meant the death of Good and Evil and with it the definitions that all people use to establish what in life is the highest, noblest, and best achievements to which a person can aspire—and those which are debased and foul and repulsive.  Instead, Nietzsche observed, we have replaced Good and Evil with Values.  And as Alan Bloom notes, Nietzsche was the first to use the term—and that in the 1860s.  To see how right his vision was, we need only look at code words in our cultural system: we have different values; his values are not mine; we don’t share the same values; family values.  What are values?  To think about it is almost absurd.  Saying it enough times makes the word disappear and become silly.  What are we saying when we say, “I value this” or “this thing I value”?  “I value honesty.”  One thing is certain; it has not the ring of “that action is evil.”  William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, said somewhere that evil is when something is out of harmony with itself.  Others might say that evil is something that destroys the fabric of a culture—is toxic to it—unwinds the web that the Fates weave.  Can art be evil?  Can it have a toxic effect on the mind, the psyche, or undermine the morals of a people?  It is odd that Plato answered yes, given what happened to his mentor.  At what point does “art that challenges our perception of society” become “art that is dangerous to society”?  And what’s more, who is endangered?  Whose moral system are we to use in evaluating art?  The President?  The Congress?  Religious leaders? (Which ones?) A mayor? A mob?

Speaking of Plato…not only did Plato want to throw out all the poets, but Plato’s vision was fascist and very offensive—don’t forget, he felt that there should be no family and that all children should be raised by the state—expressly so there would be no emotional attachments, the bedrock of family and, in my opinion, human life—which to him were no more that threats to the political success of his ideal.  Interestingly, he is also the first to propose women as leaders, remarkable in a society that was terribly misogynistic. There is one conservative radio commentator, Michael Savage, who always quotes The Republic, which I find fascinating, considering much of what The Republic stands for is antithetical to “conservative values” in America.

In terms of ethics and morality, I think America is at a place where these are or have been legislated.  Top to bottom.  America has overthrown the religious basis of its moral beliefs, despite media statistics demonstrating a high percentage of belief in God.  (And there are arguments regarding whether religion and morality align anyway.) We have become a country that legislates morality.  Robert Bly, in his book Iron John, asserts that America has become a society of adolescents.  For the most part, there is no more a strong religious or moral character.  There is no more a “ritual” of “rebirth” for young men into manhood.  There is no clear indication that the great percentage of males even have an idea of what it means to be a “man” in society.  I often hear men my age (38) talk about playing their X-Boxes or Playstations and it makes me think of myself at age 13.  I wonder how it is that 38 year-old men can do nothing more with hours out of their day than play video games.  These are the same people who have 2-dimensional world views and who, when I discuss political issues, have little concern, empathy, or understanding of others and focus almost exclusively on generalizations and broad statements, knowing specifics only about political issues that touch their take-home pay.  I don’t know to what extent this has always been true, but I feel that we as a society are much less literate, much less thoughtful, much less concerned with each other, and much more isolated.  Going back to the opening discussion, I think ethics and morality are community values.  And with community withering, so too is any sense of those accompanying values. 

So this is where Art becomes important.  It confronts.  It challenges.  It asks questions that many people don’t care to ask, or points to things that people would rather not look at.  So I agree with the comment of my ethics professor, Steve Feldman, that art is important to a civil society, and the above statement, I feel, is why.  Art asks questions  because the artist is himself/herself asking questions.  It is true art if it has power, and, as Joseph Campbell points out in Primitive Mythology, acts as a “sign stimulus” to release emotions and repressed psychic truths or experiences.  Kitsch cannot do this. Knowing truths and having meaningful experiences is central to identity: core identity, not just trivialities: “I’m Tom Hayes, I live in Cleveland, I have a house, a car, etc.”  I’m not suggesting Art is the only venue for the formation of core identity, but it is a part of it.  Dr. Feldman formed a question in terms of Kafka‘s In the Penal Colony, where “one character is the Explorer, a man who goes around the world seeking new meaning. We are all explorers now. The penal colony (a metaphor for culture) is run down and falling apart.” So, what is more important, “exploring” versus “identity?”  In playwriting one question that recurs is that of which is more important: character or plot.  One unique answer that I’ve found is that character is plot and plot is character.  They cannot exist independently of each other.  The choice a character makes reveals much about him, and it moves plot in a different direction.  The action of a plot causes a character to make a choice.  I think exploration and identity are equally bound.  For example, for me, the question of dung on the Virgin was more about the artist’s value of dung.  What you learn if you bother to dig below the surface (i.e. shit on the Virgin Mother), is that Chris Ofili used dung all the time as a media form in his art and came from a culture that valued it highly. Now, he also used cut outs of women’s sexual organs in the piece, but the irony should be plain: sex organs and virginity—the sex organs lead to birth—and yet here is this woman (re-branded by Holy Mother Church) as bearing a child without a good romp for her effort!  My interpretation of his use of dung is that it was not done with the intent to offend or infuriate, nor was it done as an act of sacrilege.  Further, perhaps it caused some people to think about the mortality and humanness of Mary; after all, wasn’t that the point of Christ being made man?  To demonstrate his knowledge and experience of this human, mortal body? (Which has some rather unsavory ‘administrative’ duties attendant on it.)

Having two small children it’s amazing to me how active, aware, and interested they are.  How everything is new and fresh and an object of curiosity.  I contrast this with the depressing awareness of how asleep many people I know seem to be.  How asleep many in our nation seem to be…world perhaps?  It is no accident that films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) are critiques of American society that portray the mass of the population as zombies.  My temporary depression at this observation deepens at the thought that my children may grow up to be equally as asleep, passive, and disinterested.  At the very least, I think, Art wakes people up: even if the effect is only temporary.  To Plato I say, ‘your Republic is filled with cowards.’  What good are philosopher kings who cannot confront or sound the depths of human exploration/creation?  The Republic is the first Utopia, filled with mindless children and a few supervising adults; one can ask, I think, if they are truly out of the cave or still staring at shadows.  Art, I feel, confronts shadows and makes them real or dispels them.  In this way it has a sort of transubstantiational quality. 

Perhaps the great question here is: do we (as a collective culture) have an identity anymore?  And maybe this is what frightens people.  Should we have a collective identity—that is, isn’t pluralism more exciting with greater opportunities, perspectives, etc.?  I think this is not only a central challenge we face.  Some might ask if we aren’t out of harmony with ourselves and so Yeats might consider us evil, and thus validate the accusations of fundamentalist Islamists.  Of course, a more whimsical Joseph Campbell might say that we’re in a transitional phase and are searching for a new mythology, which will confer upon us a new identity, one that will be acceptable to us all?

**Follow-up note

I was recently watching a Clockwork Orange and somehow got off on a tangent that included the aestheticization of violence.  This also included a conversation about Kill Bill and how Tarantino achieved what some consider to be the highest form of an aesthetic of violence—one which our Humble Narrator envisioned in his gulliver in said Clockwork.  In that same Wikipedia article there is the following:

Laurent Tailhade is reputed to have stated, after Auguste Vaillant bombed the Chamber of Deputies in 1893: "Qu’importent les victimes, si le geste est beau? [What do the victims matter, so long as the gesture is beautiful]."

This is where my notion of art and morality really stumbles… as if the LaButian notion of art with the intent of reshaping a person isn’t enough…the outright killing of people for an aesthetic is terrible.  I mean, I can see what is meant on a highly visceral level—of pure or raw experience; but the sociopathic objectification of people such that their lives are meaningful only in one vain act of art is, to my mind, evil.

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