Risky Business

In a theater in Paris, near the close of the 19th century, Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi premiered with a grotesque, unattractive character taking the stage and shouting "Shit!"Well, not "shit" exactly. In English, it's been translated as "Pschitt!" In French, merdre rather than merde. Had the actor actually said, "Shit!" he, and Jarry, probably would have been arrested.However the word was precisely said, the meaning was clear, and, according to legend, the bourgeois audience rose in an uproar, shouting and shaking their fists in the air at the offense, raising a riot for a good 15 minutes before Ubu Roi could proceed.Ubu Roi became a scandalous success. The poet William Butler Yeats, who was in attendance, named Jarry for the ages as "the Savage God." It could be argued (though not too vehemently) that on that December night in 1896, the avant-garde defined the art world as it still is today -- the challenge to social veneers that suppress life, shocking society so that it may awaken to new conceptions of reality.Nearly 100 years later, the performance artist Karen Finley smeared chocolate over her naked body before an audience. Finley also was making her own form of social critique about women, their bodies and the male gaze. By most accounts, Finley was less shocking than funny -- she possesses an outlandish sense of theater that lives in the threshold between tragedy and comedy -- and, besides, since Ubu shouted "Shit!" a lot has happened in art. It takes a lot to shock an audience. Or so it might seem.Instead of fists and voices raised in the theater, though, Republican North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms' voice roared in the Senate, labeling Finley's work obscene. A National Endowment for the Arts grant to Finley was eventually rescinded by then-NEA chair John Frohnmayer, along with the grants of three other performance artists. (The group is now known as the notorious NEA Four.)The rest is a distasteful history: a 40 percent cut in federal arts funding, the loss of grants to individual artists, alternative-arts spaces hounded out of existence by the IRS, federally funded arts organizations subject to a "decency" clause -- a clause whose constitutionality has been argued all the way to the Supreme Court with Finley as one of the plaintiffs.The specifics are disheartening, but more alarming is the observation that as the 19th century concluded with artistic vigor and challenge in Europe, the end of the 20th finds American artists and arts organizations cautious about the creative choices they make.In St. Louis, artists and arts organizations work in a climate in which profanity, nudity, religious satire, homosexual content, issues of race and class -- in other words, anything that is part of topical discourse -- might be enough to awaken self-appointed jurors of community decency. The result can be suffering through an organized campaign of harassment, a loss of funding (public, private or both), the alienation of a core audience or the extinction of the organization. Most artistic directors say, unequivocally, that they produce work they believe in, but they also admit that current political and economic pressures cause them to proceed with a heightened awareness of who might be watching."Self-censorship" is a discomforting phrase, but it's implications are not far from anyone's consciousness.The risk of offending can pay a heavy price. Barnes & Noble is picketed for selling The End of Summer and Radiant Identities, two books of photography by Jock Sturges -- a suit alleging that his nude photos of children are pornography is pending. The remake of the film Lolita has failed to acquire an American distributor, again for fear of child-pornography laws -- laws written in the likeness of Sen. Helms' view of the world.Locally, a litany of recent history shows why arts organizations might be cautious about what they produce or bring to town.The painter Seitu James Smith recently pulled his exhibition Carbonado from the Vaughn Cultural Center after a member of the Urban League deemed one picture objectionable because of nudity.Just last year, The New Theatre production of the Tony Award-winning play Love! Valour! Compassion! failed to find a performance space because of -- depending on whom you talk to -- poor scheduling or the occasional nudity of its gay characters.When the International Writers Center, based at Washington University, sent out its promotional brochure of its first reading series five years ago, it included this interpretation of the "Ave Maria" by Filipino-American writer Jessica Hagedorn from her National Book Award-nominated novel Dogeaters: "Ave Maria, mother of revenge. The Lord was never with you. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed are the fruits of thy womb: guavas, mangos, santol, mangosteen, durian. Now and forever, world without end. Now and forever." This passage caused such an uproar -- with charges of blasphemy among a select group of pious citizens -- that IWC's grant funding was threatened with elimination.When the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presented John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, a male nude scene lasting little more than 15 seconds provoked the wrath of "organized opposition." "We had lots of phone calls, lots of letters," recalls the Rep's artistic director, Steve Woolf, "but it became like a child's game of telephone. People would call and say, I hear there are two guys naked, running around on each other's shoulders in the middle of the stage.' I thought, what play are they seeing? It wasn't happening."In this case, the Rep's corporate funders and its board of directors did not turn squeamish. They gave Woolf and the Rep their full support. Yet such incidents make an artistic director cautious. For Joan Lipkin, who for 10 years has been the sole presenter for That Uppity Theatre Company's AC/DC Series, which featured gay and lesbian performance artists, the threats have been more personal. During the 1990 run of He's Having Her Baby -- Lipkin and co-author Tom Clear's "humorous subversion" of the Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services case -- in which a teenage boy gets pregnant, Lipkin was repeatedly harassed on the phone with bomb threats.Shouting is one thing, but by all accounts no one ever threatened to bomb Alfred Jarry."We're really excited to bring Karen Finley," says COCA executive director Stephanie Riven with steady assurance. She is the image of the well-tailored arts director, seated with a typed sheet of prepared notes in her lap. Riven speaks with an engaging Southern drawl as she expresses how "this is a very passionate artist who is raising a lot of ideas around women's issues." Finley concludes this season's Women CenterStage Series, and Riven says the performance artist is a perfect fit. "She's a mother herself. We've had other mothers talk about their experience."But not quite like Finley, who arrives with the advisory of "adult language and nudity." Lipkin, who is presenting Finley's The American Chestnut along with COCA and the Forum for Contemporary Art (the RFT is a co-sponsor) describes the artist's method of performance in terms akin to a definition of the avant-garde: "She tries to break through our apathy with her ranting and her raving, doing things at a certain pitch. That's a really important function. Why is she using the language she's using? She's using language that is symptomatic of the violence of the culture, which is often the language of the perpetrator. She's trying to reawaken us in this shamanistic kind of ritual that marries narrative and images." One of Finley's three books is titled, appropriately, Shock Therapy.In a random survey of the RFT staff, although no one had actually seen Finley's work, most of those who had heard of her described unspecified things she may or may not have done with her body, body fluids and various foodstuffs in public. Obviously, Finley creates a curious form of anxiety."Wouldn't we be limiting ourselves if we only talked about a mainstream experience?" Riven asks rhetorically. COCA has long been known as a family-based facility, but it is moving boldly toward more adult programming. "We want to take more challenges. We want to be a place that makes St. Louis a more interesting place," Riven says confidently.But at the close of the interview, she displays some of her uncertainty. "Do you think we'll regret this?""It's more than anxiety about the body," Karen Finley says over the phone the day after her lawsuit against the government's decency clause was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. She's responding to the suggestion that the RFT staff's response to her name was a sign that the body itself still creates anxiety in the culture. "It's anxiety about women. I did not have equal rights in America. I'm still actually a slave to the system. I'm still property. It's obvious that, in terms of Jesse Helms, he took my work and sexually harassed me as a federal employee in Congress by misinterpreting my work and sexualizing my work."The reason why all this is done is because the female is just for sex. When my work is totally misinterpreted and put in the context of something that's sexualized in a perverted way as a whore, no-good slut -- that is the result of not having equal rights. That is exactly what my work is trying to deal with."As a female, when you speak out, you're immediately a slut. When a man takes off his shirt he's going to work; when a woman takes off her shirt she's immediately perverted. That's a misrepresentation I think all women go through. It can go all the way from Hillary Clinton, to Farrah Fawcett when she decided she wasn't going to be Charlie's angel, to mothers. What I experienced is just what women experience on a day-to-day situation. Say something bad, you're a slut, you're a whore. And then if you're not up to their sexual expectations you're done with in this society. That's basically what I'm up against and all women are up against."Plato was anxious about the arts, too. He wasn't sure he wanted them in his imagined republic. They stirred the passions, which was problematic for a society based on reason and rationality. Achilles' dragging the dead body of Hector about the battlefield doesn't do much for high-minded thinking. Plato advocated government censorship for the sake of ideals."For classical Greece," explains Sherry Lindquist, assistant professor of art history at St. Louis University, "the young male was the ideal citizen, so representations of age we don't find, representations of emotion we don't get until the Hellenistic period."Lindquist is the translator of the Ubu Roi that Hystopolis Productions, a Chicago-based puppet troupe, brings to the Edison Theatre's Ovations! Series this weekend. Lindquist is a medieval scholar, but she went to high school with some of Hystopolis' founders and eventually married one of the former puppeteers. She was in the process of translating 14th-century account books, "which I sincerely find fascinating," she says sincerely, when the company commissioned her to translate Ubu. She says a medievalist is the perfect person to discuss the relationship between the avant-garde and the status quo because "modern people define themselves against the Middle Ages. Whatever is not modern is medieval." (Case in point. When Seitu James Smith pulled his work from the Vaughn Cultural Center last week, he told the Post-Dispatch, "That's medieval crazy stuff" in regards to objections to his paintings.)By presenting Ubu Roi with puppets, Hystopolis is actually returning the play to its source -- a marionette show the 15-year-old Jarry presented to his classmates, lampooning their hapless instructor. Hystopolis' puppets are larger-than-life grotesques. Pere Ubu's head looks like a mound of shit. Ma Ubu is a serpent with thorns for breasts.Does Ubu Roi still have the capacity to shock? "That's something that the company thinks about," says Lindquist. "They want it to shock. It doesn't shock in the same way. I actually think the 19th-century sensibility is alive and well. There are people who have a 19th-century sensibility who would be shocked for the same reason that the people in the 19th century were shocked."Who still possesses a Victorian sensibility? "I see it in my students," says Lindquist. "I talk a lot about contemporary artists. I'm aware of the kinds of traditions Karen Finley is critiquing about women's bodies as objects in this grand historical tradition, to deconstruct a certain way of looking at women -- so I'm constantly showing nude bodies in my classes. I'm showing Courbet. I talk about Michelangelo and why the Vatican still won't take those loincloths off."It still lives on. My students will be shocked by certain works of art that I show them, which, ironically, the 19th century wouldn't have found shocking since the female nude was such a standard academic practice. This is the same period when they were draping piano legs because they were too sexual. Yet hanging above the piano would be The Birth of Venus.' As much as my students have been brought up in a more graphic media involvement, they can still be shocked by art."Perhaps what is shocking is that they're seeing depictions of the naked human form in a university classroom, not on the movie screen or in the Penthouse back at the dorm room. What Lindquist's "Victorian" students consider outside the world of academia is brought to the center.Lindquist pulls out a book and opens it to reproductions of medieval texts: "If you look in the margins of medieval books you can find rather shocking images. People having sex, people defecating, various hybrid monsters having sex, monks and nuns doing naughty things. These kind of images people don't think of as being medieval. There was a place in the Middle Ages for the kinds of things we find shocking, but it was never central. It was in the margins."Indeed, there in the margins are people in coitus, animals coupling, a man showing his bare ass. "I just saw a medieval manuscript in which there is this lion," Lindquist continues, "there is this female hybrid and underneath her is a lion. And they're connected by the lion's tongue curving in between her legs. That's medieval."And is that who we are? America's Puritan origins are often blamed as the cause for this country's uneasy relationship to the arts. But the vulgarities of expression are condoned, so long as they stay in their place. Sen. Helms couldn't care less about Finley until government money gave her a certain mainstream legitimacy. Finley isn't so risky if she plays at the St. Marcus, where Lipkin's AC/DC Series was housed. For that matter, gambling is fine on water in Missouri, but not on land.The status quo tolerates baseness, the avant-garde, provocation, so long as it's kept at the margins.But how thin those margins have become in the last 20 years."The great danger at the end of this century is self-censorship," says TNT's Agnes Wilcox, whose company will be presenting Love! Valour! Compassion! at Webster University's Stage III April 22-May 10.Evy Warshawski, who brings challenging works to the Ovations! Series at the Edison each year, including Ubu Roi this weekend, admits that she sees work at talent showcases that she loves but doesn't book, if she feels a piece might be too risky. She describes how the cultural landscape is different elsewhere: "Contemporary work that is created in Montreal is very cutting-edge. It cuts across theater, dance, music. It's beautiful. It's high production values. It's got a French sensibility. They seem so much freer."One piece she saw in Montreal was done almost entirely in the nude. She felt somewhat relieved that the space required by the company could not be accommodated at the Edison. "It was beautiful. It was so gorgeous. I'm glad I had that moment, but it wasn't a moment I wanted to take with me and re-create it here. It was so great to have seen it in Montreal, where I think the shock quotient is higher."What would she risk in bringing such a work? "I think there will be people who will say, This pushed the limits of my tolerance. I will not come back to the Edison.'" This actually happened this season after Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater performed a raw, caustic piece that criticized the activities of the International Monetary Fund. People walked out during the performance, and some aren't coming back."You wrote, Eddie, St. Louis audiences do not like sex and politics," Warshawsky says. "May I quote you in this article? You're absolutely right. They don't." They also don't like difficulty or complexity -- at least the majority -- as evidenced by the empty seats for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the number who deserted a performance by one of the most esteemed choreographers of modern dance after intermission.Likewise, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis receives criticism for complex work, as it did with last year's production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Says Steve Woolf, "We started getting mail about, Don't do any more British plays.'" So there you have it -- the problem isn't profanity or nudity -- it's the British!You're not going to see Karen Finley ever at the Rep, yet as Woolf selects a season, he considers what can be done, without too much risk, in the current cultural climate. If he chooses a play with strong language, nudity, provocative subject matter or a certain degree of intellectual difficulty, he prepares his board, his funders and his subscribers with a newsletter. Next season he presents Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which re-creates the Victorian aesthete's downfall as a result of charges of sodomy. "I imagine there are going to be some people challenged by some of the subject matter. On the other hand, it is never salacious."Could Woolf do How I Learned To Drive, a play about a woman who is sexually abused by her uncle? "I'm doing it in the Studio Theatre,"Woolf replies. He feels the Studio Theatre is appropriate because it's a more intimate space, although other regional theaters are producing the show on their mainstages.Shopping and Fucking? "We'd never be able to advertise it in the Post." Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's tale of real-estate salesmen written in a stream of profoundly graphic, beautifully profane dialogue? "Maybe. You would really have to say, There's a lot of strong language.'"I still ask the question, Could you do Equus?' Does the atmosphere exist where you can do Equus with the girl and boy riding naked on the back of the horse? Can that happen anymore? Is the atmosphere so chilled?"It's no wonder the plays Woolf questions come from the '70s and early '80s, a time of greater challenge and risk-taking in all the arts -- the years before Jesse Helms roared."Ever since Mr. Helms got involved it's been easy to attack. Anything is up for grabs. The atmosphere is definitely chilled. Who knows how conscious it is? Do you look at a script and go, I wonder. I wonder. They're taking their clothes off. Should I do it?' You might actually have a legitimate concern about a piece, but the atmosphere is so dangerous that your concern gets heightened."

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