“What is moral and what is immoral? Nobody will ever answer the question satisfactorily…[But] it goes without saying that those who strive to maintain the status quo are the most immoral of all.” – Henry Miller, “The Immorality of Morality”
New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage brings to mind the responsibility of the artist to tear at the fabric of societal taboos, norms, and conventions in the name of equality and progressive thinking. Instead of a morality debate between the holier-than-thou bastion vs. the going-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket camp, the narrow passage of the Marriage Equality Act granting same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples should be perceived as long overdue recognition and a symbol of the fundamental individual freedoms for which the American artist has fought and must continue to defend.
Marriage licenses and domestic health care benefits aside, the paper-thin acceptance of wedding vows between gay or lesbian couples signifies Joe Public’s growing tolerance, if not acceptance, of alternate lifestyle choices. Indeed, some might say it’s downright Deliverance-worthy, hillbilly pathetic that supportive legislative action has taken this long—and yes, it’s perplexing that the word, alternate, like liberal, somehow carries a negative connotation in certain narrow-minded sects. But much of the mainstream by its very definition balks at anything that raises the undertow and rattles the status quo. And the artist, the strange bird amid the tarred-and-feathered flock, has a duty to test—and then shred—the boundaries of conformist thought.
Writers are notorious outsiders. In an Us/Them equation, writers are the quotient of Them. On a bell curve, the writer represents the outlier, and as the pesky variant, (s)he must resist the temptation to settle for middle-of-the-road creations and alter reality as far as artful expression dictates. Just as compromise does not exist in a true artist’s vocabulary, a writer who stands for social equality should not sit idly and permit injustice without so much as a Tweet.
Some artists, backed by the National Endowment for the Arts, appear to bite the hands that feed them when they produce controversial works that cause a public backlash. For example, Cosimo Cavallaro, an Italian-Canadian artist, caused quite a ruckus in 2007 when he created “My Sweet Lord,” a life-size chocolate sculpture depicting a naked Jesus. A Manhattan art gallery canceled the Chocolate Jesus exhibit following an outcry by The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. During a CNN interview of Cavallaro, Catholic League president Bill Donohue called the sculpture “one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever,” while the archbishop of New York called the Easter-season exhibit “scandalous” and a “sickening display.” Cavallaro allegedly received death threats on top of this huge pile of steaming negative publicity.
On an indirectly related note, the irreverent singer-songwriter Tom Waits has a song called “Chocolate Jesus” off his stellar 1999 album, Mule Variations, that speaks of the satisfaction his soul receives from a savior wrapped in cellophane and poured “over ice cream for a nice parfait.”
Are these creative works sacrilegious? Are they produced for mere shock value to increase exposure? Are they meant to gag, repulse, and bemuse? Do they warrant resurrection?
The artist should be at the forefront of social change, helping us develop our sensibilities, while poking fun at our fussiness and puritanical ways.
Of course many such examples of works that resulted in public outrage exist, such as Salman Rushdie’s fatwa-inducing fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), inspired in part by the life of Muhammad, as well as the 1988 Martin Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.
In the sexually liberated 1970s, pornographic musicals such as Let My People Come: A Sexual Musical first played off-Broadway in New York City (Greenwich Village), Los Angeles, and Philadelphia before testing the culturally enlightened threshold of mainstream audiences and opening on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre in 1976. With full nudity on stage, the show featured songs with titles like “I’m Gay,” “Come in My Mouth,” “Give It to Me,” and “The Cunnilingus Champion of Company C.” It closed after 108 performances.
Marvin Gaye’s landmark 1973 album, Let’s Get It On, cited by one writer as “one of the most sexually charged albums ever recorded,” not only helped create the properly heated ambiance for one-night affairs, but may have helped spark a once forbidden dialog between partners—married, dating, and otherwise in or out of the sack.
Smooth jazz musician Michael Franks was another singer-songwriter who had linguistic fun with the now looser standards and decorum as reflected by the increasingly insatiable appetite for risque entertainment. On his 1975 album, The Art of Tea, Franks penned the hit song, “Popsicle Toes,” which brought fresh meaning to playfully wrought sexual innuendos, complete with anatomical and geographical references.
You got the nicest North America
This sailor ever saw.
I’d like to feel your warm Brazil
And touch your Panama
But Your Tierra del Fuegos
Are nearly always froze.
We gotta see saw
until we unthaw those
Popsicle toes. ~ Michael Franks, “Popsicle Toes”
In all cases, even through lighthearted, salacious lyrics, the artist in question followed his vision and succeeded in inviting or advancing debate of a sweaty-palm topic to suburban dinner tables, blue-collar bar stools, and white-collar water coolers. Had the artist not spiked the permissive needle and pushed the outside-the-comfort-zone envelope, would we be ready for open-minded discussion surrounding such delicate subject matter? Would we be so inclined to peacefully grapple over our differences about acceptable behavior, biblical interpretation, and institutional hypocrisy? What about the ongoing denial of inexcusably outdated laws and regulations as they relate to the constitutional separation of church and state?
So, what in the end should we take from the recent legislative victory of gays and lesbians? Were artists such as playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”) at all responsible for the change in public opinion? Was New York governor Andrew Cuomo influenced in the least by celebrities such as talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, politician Barney Frank, or news anchor Anderson Cooper? Was it the late Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California? Or was it something Cuomo had once read by Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, or Gertrude Stein that persuaded him to consider the plight of the oppressed?
It’s hard to say, definitively, but in all cases, the artist should be at the forefront of social change, helping us develop our sensibilities, while poking fun at our fussiness and puritanical ways. In all cases, the artist should not turn his or her other cheek to intolerance or brutality, but instead make sure that any punch—thrown and landed in defense of what is right—is not in vain. Morally reprehensible to some or not.