by E. John Winner
Tits and ass
A short while ago, I made a rather incongruously crude remark in reply to a comment concerning the enjoyment of paintings of nude women: “Let’s face it, art often comes down to the desires of the consuming patrons. I particularly enjoy Titian’s tits and ass.” I thought of apologizing, but at least now I can explain that I was at the time steeped in the comic social commentary of Lenny Bruce, who was offended by the attitude of the mainstream culture of his day that the words ‘tits and ass’ were obscene, because women’s bodies themselves were considered “dirty.” As in this sample of a classic Bruce bit:
“But I cannot be superstitious with that, the double entendre. Because to me your titties are no joke. They’re pretty and not humorous to me. It’s not a hahaha. That elbow-nudging sly innuendo hahaha you-know-what-it-means, that Jack Paar with his cool, Alexander King the junkie Mark Twain – your Uncle Willie, who I would never let baby-sit for me. He’s the nice moralist – when you’re eleven years old he’s always grabbing your sister: “What a nice little tickle-ikle-ikle!” Yeah, I’m hip, you tickle-ikle-ikle.” (The Essential Lenny Bruce, Ballantine Books, 1967)
The problem with considering bodies we find attractive as somehow obscene, of finding the attraction itself transgressive – of some higher standard of morality? of some divine injunction to find our own desires as too earthy, too repulsive, perhaps even evil (and certainly in “bad taste”)? – is that this actually opens the door to all manner of corruption. The instance implicated in Bruce’s bit is some sort of pedophilia, disguised through nudge-nudge wink-wink double speak as playful paternalism. But there’s also potential – nay, inevitable – hypocrisy, not to mention obsessions and perversions, which are practiced in secret, and thus lack a moment of recognition that might actually prove healthy for the so obsessed, and perhaps reveal the supposed perversion as simply yet another expression of the human will to achieve satisfaction; a necessary component of what is called flourishing.
Titian’s “tits and ass” – his female nudes, that is – I find attractive, but I realized later that I was really thinking of Rubens. Now there is an artist with an eye for the ladies! His female nudes, as they sing in blues songs, “got meat on their bones.” They are well-rounded and buxom. Rubens paints all of his nudes with a creamy pink glow, often emphasized by his choice of women with red hair, and made three-dimensional through strong chiaroscuro. Many who are attracted to women’s bodies would probably find their appearance sexually arousing. Indeed, they are sometimes criticized for this feature. But I suspect that some submit to the common ideology of “art,” and babble hypocritically about the spirituality of these figures, hardly noticing the sexuality of the bodies, as if they were mere caricatures of the human form for purposes of edification. Not me. Staring too long at a Rubens nude gets me horny as hell! And why not? What is the point of enjoying the pleasure of art if one cannot enjoy all that pleases us about it? Without desire, what is there to enjoy? When there is no yearning, there is nothing worth yearning for. Without the comic to comment on it, the serious becomes meaningless suffering. If silence caused no anxiety, there would not be music. If everything could be reduced to prose, there would be no poetry. “I love you” is empty rhetoric if the couple involved want no physical contact.
I consider myself very lucky in that in my youth I had a woman friend who had a Rubenesque physique and general appearance. She even had light reddish blonde hair and creamy pink skin, and we enjoyed some very satisfying physical encounters that I still remember warmly. (Alas, she developed problems with recreational drugs that I couldn’t help her with. Fortunately, she survived them, and I later learned that she had gone on to accomplish much with her life, which gladdens me.) She defined female beauty for me at the time, and there wasn’t anything spiritual about it. The notion that one wasn’t supposed to lust after one’s mate, which I was taught while a Catholic, now seems to me the height of deluded self-righteousness. Without such lustful impulses, there is no beauty – no compelling reason to throw one’s self into the life of the senses as absorbing euphoria. Even religious art should get us high.
A song is just a song
I confess that one of my favorite music CDs is Sherri Youngward’s Six Inches Of Sky (BEC Recordings, 2002). Listening to it once more recently, I was again impressed with its musical plasticity and energy. It moves deftly from the hypnotic to the energetic, from fragile folksiness to energetic rock. Youngward’s compositional talents are wide-ranging, her lyrics frequently touching, and her voice beautifully earthy and vulnerable at the same time. If you haven’t heard of her, it may be that you haven’t had the happy accident I had, when I discovered this CD for a buck in a bargain bin. Or maybe you just don’t belong to the right church. Sherri Youngward is an Evangelical Christian, and her songs are all about her faith. So I had to stop and think about that a bit. Here I am, a secular Buddhist, an atheist, a former punk rocker, and perpetual ne’er-do-well (in Christian terms). How can I be so moved by Youngward’s music and yet not be at all persuaded to her faith?
I think part of it is that there’s no reason I should be. Back in the ’60s, a lot of people (including me) were convinced that music could be made not only integral to culture (how could it not be?), but determinative of cultural innovations. Music could be persuasive and lead “the revolution!” Of course, the revolution never happened, and today, “Classic Rock” stations are played in stores and offices across the country. Old drug anthems like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” protest songs like “Time Has Come Today” or CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” and promises of better tomorrows, even religion-free ones, as in Lennon’s “Imagine,” pour from speakers like so much aural confetti. People no longer care what the words mean, and that’s because we were all wrong in the ’60s. Music can never ground a revolution. Only political action grounds revolutions.
That music forms a strong part of one’s culture cannot be denied. Unfortunately we no longer live in a world filled with isolated communities where music reinforces what is spoken, and blends with what is done, so that the culture of the community is a seamless blanket in which people live. Nor do we even live under a large homogenous cultural blanket covering otherwise heterogenous practices with ancient religious beliefs and rituals, as can still be found across large swaths of India. Nowadays we live in a complex and diverse society, and our cultures are patchwork quilts that cover some people many miles away, rather than anybody near-by; or may only cover individuals and (some of) their closest friends.
One reason I can remain unpersuaded by Youngward’s music, despite being emotionally moved, is because of a previous experience with music involving a similar issue. In the mid-’70s, I became fascinated with Jamaican Reggae and collected just about any disc from Jamaica I could get my hands on. (This came to an end when I lost my record collection in the early first decade of the current century, due to adverse personal fortune.) I even spent a number of years in the late ’70s hanging around the local Jamaican community, which helped persuade some of that community that not all white people were against them or their political and social aspirations. Yet, I never could fully belong to the Reggae-centered sub-culture of the time, because much of it was invested in the religion of Rastafarianism.
Before discussing that, a quick lesson on the history of Reggae. In the era of recorded music, Jamaican music came into its own with a sound that swung the American R&B beat backwards, so to speak: Ska. Although some great musicians were involved in the music, it’s primary purpose was to keep people dancing. At about the same time, Jamaican culture saw the rise of the religious cult of Rastafari, and Rastafarians would smoke marijuana communally and engage in chants set to a drumming style known as “Nyabinghi,” which had African roots extending through Jamaica’s history as a former slave culture under British occupation. By the time Jamaican music caught up with the innovations in electronic instrumentation and recording coming out of America, a new generation of musicians came to the fore, that were blending Ska influences with Nyabinghi, and coming up with a danceable music finally recognizable as Reggae.
Well, what about the Rastafarians? They believe that (1) Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, is God. (Still is, despite being dead, somewhere in the spiritual realm where gods always dwell.) (2) Marcus Garvey, a major figure of the “Back-To Africa” movement of the ’20s and ’30s, was his prophet (although they believe in the Christian Bible as well). (3) On Judgment Day, they will be transported back to Africa, which will be transformed into paradise (gods can do that sort of thing, you know). Of course they once believed that they could be returned to Africa just as it is now, but that sort of evaporated after the Ethiopian Revolution of the early ‘80s, and once major Rasta-believing Reggae performers toured the fabled continent, and found it less than paradisaical.
The popularity of Rastafarianism has waxed-and-waned over the years, and one can see why, just from this brief account of its main beliefs. It originated in the rural hills and mountains of Jamaica, and then thrived in Trenchtown in Kingston, one of the worst slums in the world, by offering what the material culture it found itself in could not: pride in one’s ethnic inheritance and hope for the future. But while ethnicity can be a good thing, it can also bring us into conflict with political realities; ethnic pride alone will not fill empty bellies. And the problem with any hope for the future is that it is necessarily contingent on the future. Joe Hill of the vocal trio Culture had a vision in 1976 that Judgment Day was literally the next year, and sings about this passionately in the song “Two Sevens Clash” (a beautiful song), but 1977 came and went, and Judgment Day got postponed again.
But Reggae has survived the occasionally failed hopes and religious excesses of its Rastafarian performers, and has become a world-class musical genre, with several mutated strains that invite, rather than suppress, innovation among young musicians. I think that is because it truly is the music of a culture, as we now experience culture: heterogeneous, diverse, filled with nooks and crannies, with differing people capable of taking in new influences and thinking new thoughts. Reggae is now much more like music found in the blues and soul traditions here in the US, capable of addressing all manner of experience, not just the political idiosyncrasies of a certain religious sect.
But of course, anyone familiar with the history of Reggae knows that this was really always true. Reggae performers have always proved capable of singing about sex, politics, latest clothing styles or recent sporting events with equal ease. It was simply a music of Jamaican life, and only as it nudged onto the world stage in the mid-’70s did it acquire the myth that its soul was Rastafarian and its aim was revolution. And I suppose such myths energized the musicians of the time, and their audiences. How exciting it is to believe, not only that one is listening to a well-written, well-performed song, but that one is also at the same time participating in a revolution – or even having a spiritual experience!
But for music to have any such impact, it must be part of a complex social web that reinforces the sense that it represents that sort of power: not just the song, but the church in which it’s heard; not just the lyrics, but the march where the lyrics are chanted. But Jamaica is not as it was in the 1970’s. And once the social web empowering it is torn, the music is revealed as, well, just something else that humans do to make the time we live seem more meaningful. That doesn’t make it trivial; that’s exactly what makes it important.
Arts, literature, history, and the good life
Wrapping up (for now), let’s consider putting an end to the hope of a special sensitivity to the arts and literature, and consider rather if we should be thinking along broader social lines.
We have to take these issues outside the university. Otherwise we are chasing our tails around institutional politics that cannot be resolved institutionally (although they will be decided legislatively in due course). The university is not what needs preservation, but the cultural goods it was established to maintain and care for. This cannot be done by arguing for some wonderful collection of eternal truths and values that we all should share. We never have shared these values, universally, and we never will, now less so than in any time in our history.
I like to think that few people love Shakespeare much more than I do. And I understand the sense of meeting great minds through the artifacts of the past (this is exactly why I consider myself so fortunate, coming from the working poor but at last receiving an advanced education). But the fact remains that a writer or artist composes for a particular audience. It often takes considerable hermeneutic interpretive skills to draw out just what older texts mean. (That is one of the arts of research we learn in universities.) And there are many truths that are only truths for a given time and a given culture.
Shakespeare has Hamlet remark that foreigners think of the Danish aristocrats as drunkards because of their love of carousing. This remark was probably intended as a sly dig at the Elizabethan court – the Queen herself was known as rather fond of ale. Reading it this way, I’ve always found the remark amusing. But what is the eternal truth here? That the wealthy and powerful should practice moderation? Don’t drink heavily in front of foreigners? Do we really seek such banalities from Shakespeare? But the banalities are there, coated in wonderful Elizabethan English, that most people can no longer read or understand.
Is art an end-in-itself (and one has to get all German Romantic, Kant/Hegel/Schopenhauer in order to get there)? Or is it just what people do, because they are people – human beings? In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. DuBois wrote:
I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.
There is no resolution to the means-ends dilemma: every end can be argued to be a means. If DuBois wishes to “dwell above the veil,” the literature of which he writes is a means to that end. And why would he want to “dwell above the veil”? Answering that question reveals the end that dwelling above the veil is a means toward achieving. And so on.
Literature cannot be defended with the claim that somehow it stands as an end in itself that naturally enriches human experience; there’s too much literature that simply does not do this, and, on close examination, cannot. The Satyricon – the punk rock of Roman literature, so to say – is a story of two gay lovers competing over a beautiful boy. It mocks everything the Romans believed in, including their cultural dependence on the poetry they claimed (as conquest booty) from Greece. It’s frequently hilarious, and, one might say, viciously insightful. Is it art? is it “literature”? There can be no doubt that, within its idiom, it is exquisitely executed. Where is the eternal truth in it? Whenever I read it, I do not ask that question. It is what it is, with all its pornographic details, its attacks on ‘literature’ professors, and its reveling in the excess and self-indulgence in an empire already too old and too corrupt for its own good. So I suppose that’s what it “teaches” us. But that was Rome; and that was then.
The notion that great art will somehow make our lived experience mysteriously “sacred,” is simply false; we might feel that in response to it, but the art itself does not do this. Truly great art will simply leave everything as it is and let the audience sort it out. So, the notion that art and literature reveal “eternal truths” to us is readily dispelled. Defending inquiry into the arts of the past requires a different approach.
In America, having accomplished vast amounts of wealth and power, never previously dreamt of, we have very little ongoing public discussion of what might constitute “the good life,” something the Athenians were very good at and which is implicit in a great many religiously informed societies (albeit decided in advance by some “sacred text”). But in America it only gets indirectly raised, as hints, in commercials (as instant gratification of sensual desires, most of which are generated by the advertisers themselves), and in arts critical of commercial culture (usually suggesting that the solution is to be found in some sort of “spirituality,” which is never specified or, ironically, in some sort of “alternative” hedonism – drugs rather than alcohol, for instance). But what would really constitute a good life – enjoyable but not excessive, conditioned not by perceived desires but by some sense of achievement and fulfilled responsibility – remains marginalized and even deprecated, in both mainstream and alternative media. Why not bring it to the fore, into the very mainstream of our social, cultural, even political life? I suppose such a discussion would threaten the fabric of consumer-targeted investment capital, but while commercial culture and it’s “anti-establishment” mirrors provide kinds of life, an existential living, they remain somehow unsatisfactory. And it has been my experience, although widely denied, that Americans, despite wealth and power, remain the most unhappy people in history. Others suffer greater physical suffering, of course, but none experience angst, dissatisfaction, frustration, hopelessness, depression, disappointment, more deeply than we (excluding the highly successful sociopaths in business and politics, of course). Our power and our wealth should assure us of peace and leisure, achievement and enjoyment. Instead, all we get are worries, insecurities, raw fear – and stupid television.
One would assume the inheritors of Western Civilization could do better, and that should be the discussion at hand. How to raise a sustainable, open discussion on this issue remains unclear, however, and yet every effort is welcome. Wine, women (or men) and song: these may be mere distractions, and are certainly used for such in a culture currently dedicated to commercial profiteering through allaying the very anxieties that the culture itself generates (as wants redefined as needs). But perhaps the sensual pleasures may also be reconsidered as the foundation of a new culture directed toward the fulfillment of human potential. It’s worth talking about, anyway.
So the Greek idea of culture reveals itself to him, in opposition to the Roman, the idea of culture as a new and improved Physis [nature], without inner and outer, without pretense and convention, culture as a unanimity of living, thinking, appearing, and willing.Nietzsche, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, 1874