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On Art and Obscenity vis a vis Shame and Civilization: a Revisiting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-09-09 10:50:04
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A couple of years ago I and a nephew of mine and his wife, both arriving from Italy (Arcangelo and Alessandra Adriani), who happen to be theater directors and producers specializing in ancient Greek theater went to see a play at Barry University directed by Professor John Manzelli of the Fine Arts Department. The name of the play was “Big Love,” by Charles Mee, a modernized version of what is supposedly the oldest surviving Greek play by Aeschylus (produced around 470 B.C.) and titled “The Suppliants.”

In the modern version the action takes place in Italy rather than in Greece. The program warned viewers that some scenes in the play were not suitable for children. That was an appropriate warning for indeed there were scenes and language which were obscene and inappropriate for children. In viewing the play, the adults however immediately grasp that the intention of the dramatist is not to shock with the obscene and the shameless but to explore the distinction between what is truly noble and what is banal and irrelevant.

Indeed the very origin of the theater in the West has this ambiguity about the obscene and the shameless and the whole conundrum revolves around the poetical quality of the play. A play that merely caters to prurient interests is mere trash. On the other hand, one that makes the mature viewer reflect on the tragedy of the destruction of nobility of spirit, or the ludicrousness of the ugly vis a vis the beautiful, remains a work of art despite its obscenity which of course remains unsuitable for children.

That explains why some of the greatest art critics continue to proclaim that the jury is still out on modern art and that the definite verdict will only be in when we definitely know which road our civilization, presently at the crossroads, has chosen. If it ends up in destroying itself then the judgment on its artistic output will be harsh indeed. The nihilist will tend to point out that with extinction no judgment will be possible in any case. To which Berkley would add that to be is to be perceived and that beauty in the universe will remain despite man’s extinction since there will still be a Perceiver.

Giambattista Vico in his New Science teaches us that a sign of a decaying civilization is the degradation and impoverishment of language, language being a sine qua non of any sort of civilization and indeed an integral part of being human. But there are two other important characteristics which are also part of human nature: the ability to laugh and the ability to feel shame. Here too, when those two characteristics wane, so does civilization.

I’d like to reflect briefly on the latter within the context of our present cultural predicaments. The initial inquiry is this: is shame natural to man or is it something acquired with culture? The answer to that question is crucial since it determines whether or not it is shamelessness that is the acquired trait. To put it another way: could it be that the beauty that we humans are capable of as we live with each other derives from the fact that man is naturally a blushing creature; the only creature in fact capable of blushing? Could it be that the likes of Ariel Castro, Di Maggio, and Anthony Wiener are monsters exactly because they have disabused themselves of the ability to blush and to be ashamed? Of course Wiener does not come close to the criminality toward women of a Castro or a Di Maggio, his acts are merely virtual as even sex is now virtual and sold on line (it used to be called pornography) but what he has in common with the other two deviant sociopaths is that he too, together with the women who view the trash and communicate with him, have forgotten to blush and have embraced shamelessness. We are told that this is a new way of being in our brave new world and that the old need to conform and catch up to what is trendy and current. Aristotle made a powerfully pertinent comment on such a mind-set more than two thousand years ago which proclaims that what is newest and latest is always the best: “youth is wasted on the young.”

Plato too saw a connection between self-restraint and self-government or democracy, and therefore he saw a political danger in promoting the fullest self-expression or indulgence. That may explain his suspicions of artists in general. For Plato, to live together requires rules and a governing of the passions. Those who live without shame are unruly and cannot be ruled. That is to say, they have lost the ability to restrain themselves by the observation of the rules they collectively have given to themselves. One can easily extrapolate from The Republic that tyranny is the natural mode of government for the shameless and the self-indulgent; the government of those who have carried liberty beyond any sort of restraint, be it natural or conventional.

What the ancient Greeks were saying was that democracy, more than any other form of government requires self-restraint to be inculcated through moral education and imposed through laws. Those laws include the manner of public amusement. Indeed, it would be enough to think of Rome under such tyrannical emperors as Caligula or Nero. Those emperors allowed the people to freely indulge themselves with bread and circus, for indulgence did not threaten their rule which did not depend on citizens of good character. The formula is here inverted: the more debased the citizenry, the more they are distracted by pleasurable activities, the safer the tyrant’s rule is.
And here we come to the examination of what is or appears to be obscene and offensive in art. What are we to make of the obscenity employed by some of the greatest of our poets, the likes of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Swift, just to mention a few. They wrote a good deal of obscenity. How do we account for that? Aristotle in his Poetics hints at a plausible answer: comedy makes us laugh at what is ludicrous in ugliness, and its purpose is to teach, just as tragedy teaches by making us cry before what is destructive of nobility. For Aristotle they are equally serious and Shakespeare would agree, for he was both a comic and a tragic poet. Which is not to imply that both Aristotle and Shakespeare were unable to discern the naked emperor wearing no clothes  and performing unnatural acts to boot. Indeed, despite what he narcissistically likes to think of himself, an Anthony Weiner is not an artist, he is an exhibitionist, and the texting women who watch him and willingly communicate with him on line are no lovers of beauty either. Both viewer and exhibitionist are just plain shameless.

What artists such as Mapplethorpe have attempted in the brave new world of present day Western civilization is to render the obscene aesthetic by deliberately choosing subjects that shock the normal sense of decency. Those artists count on and exploit a dual reaction: to create tension in the viewer so that what is indecent and immoral becomes beautiful and therefore especially disturbing. The pretension is that the emperor is not naked, that obscenity is not there; that it resides only in the dirty minds of the viewers who are unable to appreciate beauty. What those artists are doing in effect is to deny the viewers their right to be shocked when they try hard to do exactly that. It’s having the cake and eating it too.

The “enlightened” modern art connoisseur and practitioner will of course retort: but this is art and art is free of any constraints! Indeed, it is but let us be honest with ourselves and admit that indeed great art may be used immorally for the furtherance of an ideology or for propaganda purposes (remember the film Triumph of the Will?), just as a saint may produce banal art, for as Emmanuel Kant has taught us in his Critique of Judgment there is no strict nexus between the moral and the aesthetic and there is no need for morality to slavishly submit to the claims of Art. The public ought to remain free to subsidize or not to subsidize those “enlightened” modern artist without being branded “cultural philistines” by those who think that anything goes in art and the more shocking the more artistic.

The ancient Greeks were also aware that those aspects of the soul that makes man truly human require political life. Man’s virtues and their counterparts, man’s vices, require that he be governed and to govern. But the poet knows with Rousseau and the romantics that there is a beauty beyond the polity, the beauty of the natural order. The world of convention is not the only world. Here obscenity may play a part. Obscenity can indeed be used to ridicule the conventional. In the hands of a poet obscenity can serve to elevate above the conventional order in which most of us are forced to live our mundane lives full of quite desperation; lives who never dare ask that dreadful existential question: what is the point of it all, which the Greeks rendered with one word: the Logos. Which is to say, in the hands of a poet, obscenity’s purpose becomes that of teaching what is truly beautiful, not what convention holds to be beautiful.

How to express a distinction between the justified and the unjustified use of obscenity in a rule of law is easier said than done. Certainly children are not capable of the distinction and need to be protected. One thing is sure though, there are dire consequences resulting from the inability to distinguish between the proper and the improper use of obscenity. When the distinction is forgotten, when we conclude that shame itself is unnatural, that we must get rid of our hang ups and give up the conventions devised by hypocrites, that there are no judgments to be made, that nothing that is appropriate in one place is inappropriate in another place (for just as a dog is not prevented from copulating in the market place, so it is unnatural to deprive men of the same pleasure were it only that of the voyeur in a theater or one with a computer) we will then also have forgotten the distinction between art and trash; that is to say, we will have made ourselves shameless.

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Leah Sellers2013-09-10 15:56:57
Brother Emanuel,
Yes Sir ! There is soooo much Truth and Ancient Wisdom in your Observations and Assertions, Sir.
Thank you.

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