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The Repeal of Reticence by Roger Kimball

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Now all is to be changed… . All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
—Edmund Burke

Oh, tell me, who first declared, who first proclaimed that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own real interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else… . Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child!
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Early in December, The New York Times carried an art review about the work of the performance artist Carolee Schneemann, one of whose efforts, “Interior Scroll,” consists of Ms. Schneemann slowly unraveling a text from her vagina while reading it aloud to her audience. Two days earlier, the Times had carried a news story about Jubal Brown, a Canadian student, whose performance art consisted in vomiting on works of art that he considered “oppressively trite and painfully banal.” As of this writing, a Mondrian in the Museum of Modern Art and a Dufy in the Art Gallery of Ontario are known to have been unwillingly collaborators in this exercise of reverse peristalsis. What can one say? The extraordinary thing about these unsavory episodes is that they are no longer extraordinary. They are simply bulletins about the way we live now. For every Carolee Schneemann, there are a hundred Karen Finleys, prancing about naked on a stage somewhere, smeared in chocolate and skirling about the the evils of patriarchy and the stinginess of the National Endowment for the Arts. For every Jubal Brown, there are a hundred Andres Serranos making photographs of crucifixes in urine or Robert Mapplethorpes registering horrific scenes of sexual torture and excretory perversion for the delectation of the art world’s “cutting edge.” This is old news now, business as usual, more of the same. But what does that tells us about ourselves?

It is clear, at any rate, that the moral collapse on view in the advanced precincts of the art world is not confined to the art world. On the contrary, it is a corollary of the moral collapse suffered by society at large. We live, after all, in a world where underwear advertisements on buses are indistinguishable from mild pedophilic pornography, where pornography of the harshest, most dehumanizing variety is (for the most part) a legitimate multi-billion-dollar industry, catering to and exacerbating all manner of degeneration through magazines, videos, photographs, and, lately, the Internet. Couples queue up to participate in television talk shows, eager to discuss with clinical exactness the details of their sex lives, proud to demonstrate that they have nothing to hide. Radio talk shows compete for explicitness. Ditto Hollywood. Just out, for example, is a celebrated movie portraying the pornographer Larry Flynt as a hero of the First Amendment. Billboards in airports depict cheery, bow-tied phalluses sheathed in condoms and bearing the legend “What the well-dressed penis is wearing.” Even grade-school children are instructed in techniques of “safe sex” lest they wander off the playground unacquainted with the use of a condom.

Of course, sex is not the only once-private matter now subjected to the glare of universal publicity. Every detail of a man’s or woman’s physiological existence is now ventilated with nary a blush or hesitation. Shyness, modesty, pudeur: we are beyond all that. If President Reagan suffers from colon polyps, it is only to be expected that the evening news will display pictures of his digestive tract with the offending bits color-coded for viewer identification.

Even grade-school children are instructed in techniques of “safe sex.”

We live, in short, at a time when nothing is too private or personal that it cannot be broadcast and dissected in public. “Intimacy” is now a public project, “private life” merely one of the things exposed in tabloids and prime-time television. How did we get in this situation? What happened that art and pathology are now so often indistinguishable? What happened that “shame,” “discretion,” and “reticence” are, for many, no longer regarded as virtues but as antique and eminently dispensable habits of mind? The quick answer is the 1960s. It was then that the wholesale attack on convention, the demand for sexual liberation, and the spirit of moral Prometheanism— everything that is summed up by the word “counterculture”—coalesced and achieved critical mass. Attitudes and behavior previously unthinkable outside the pages of utopian tracts or black-market pornography became first acceptable, then widespread.

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