Of poo and culture
Does poo have artistic merit? A viewer watching Dingleberries, a series of 15 comic sketches set in a bathroom, may well ask that question. The play, produced by Washington’s Cherry Red Theater Company, is a grab bag: One of the sketches is downright gross, another presents an hilarious parody of Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Raven,” at least three offer sharp social satire, and all drew gales of laughter from the audience. The play has no overarching message except, perhaps, a desire to speak about bodily functions with utter frankness.
One might honestly ask, however, what good a product like Dingleberries does for the culture. How can a person spending almost two hours thinking about gong to the bathroom not have his or her sensibilities a bit coarsened as a result? It’s a legitimate question and one that some AFF members might ask in the wake of last Thursday’s AFF Underground trip to see the play. A careful examination, however, shows that the history of artistic creation, a reasoned view of the free market’s effect on cultural production, and, indeed, the very quest for understanding the human experience central to art make Dingleberries and its ilk worthy of attention.
One of the great innovations of the modern artistic sensibility has been the mass realization that simply dealing with the base aspects of human existence doesn’t disqualify a work from greatness. James Joyce’s Ulysses, arguably the twentieth century’s greatest novel, begins with a naked man using the bathroom and ends with a woman’s stream-of-consciousness sex fantasies. Great twentieth century artists ranging from poet A.R. Ammons (author of the giggle-inducing “Shit List” and winner of every major literary prize) to Andy Warhol followed suit. Of course, frankly dealing with sex and, well, poo didn’t begin in the twentieth century: Chaucer and Shakespeare are famously bawdy–Chaucer likes potty humor too–and every century since the thirteenth has produced a handful of authors who critics laud and moral scolds attack.
But the historical record only reveals so much. While removing the sex from Ulysses would destroy the novel, smart directors often hack away at Shakespeare’s tiresome sexual wordplay. (Thomas and Harriet Bowdler, of course, famously went much too far in trying to clean up The Bard.)
On balance this still raises the question: Would a civilization be better off if all art focused on those things–truth, beauty, harmony–which speak to the highest human aspirations? Some argue it would. But the evidence is mounting that the messy world of unregulated, market-based culture produces the best art overall. In his book In Praise of Commercial Culture George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen observes that centrally planned cultural production has certain successes–the former Soviet Union, for example, produced a bevy of great romantic pianists and some well-made epic films–but the communist state’s arts mavens failed when it came to producing a vibrant culture overall. Letting the market produce culture unleashes the full range of human potential: it produces quite a bit of worthless junk but also gives us products like the Phillip Haas’ sexually frank Angels and Insects, HBO’s hyper-violent The Sopranos, and Andre Serrano’s photography that revolt some viewers but, nonetheless, ultimately do say important things about truth, beauty, and the human condition.
But even if society reaps a net benefit by allowing (and even encouraging) cultural creations that don’t deal with the highest and best aspects of the human experience, that doesn’t mean that such products are themselves worthwhile. Indeed, some supposed “art” is so degraded as to prove worthless except as a momentary mental distraction: one could view half of the network television schedule, watch 20 direct-to-video movies, visit several of New York’s trendier art galleries, and read a shelf full of “romance” novels without stumbling upon anything of artistic merit. But sometimes a work with content that few people laud in isolation can have undeniable artistic value nonetheless. Works like the Farley brothers’ film There’s Something About Mary, Eminen’s song “‘Til I Collapse,” and Pauline Reage S&M novel The Story of O show that art of significance can creep up in the most unlikely places. Unlike a borderline-obscene but ultimately uplifting product like, say, Angels and Insects, none of the three–a gross-out comedy, a self-absorbed rap track, and a novel about sexual submission–demonstrate values that sit at the center of a good or just society. But, through a combination of technical skill and insight into the human personality, all three manage to say something important about certain aspects of the human experience.
I’m probably not objective about the matter but I’d argue that Cherry Red’s production of Dingleberries ranks alongside these works. Hamlet? No. When it comes to uplifting society or calling people to higher aspirations, it’s probably not even on par with Cherry Red’s recent Spamlet. At it’s worst, Dingleberries makes viewers laugh very hard, at its best, it asks compelling questions about relationships, wealth, and the real estate market. So, yes, even a play about poo can have artistic merit.