PRINT October 1987


X marks the spot.

COMING BACK FROM New Jersey on a bus recently, I was sitting behind a small group of black high school students, one of whom said to another, “My great-grandmother was a slave.” The friend replied, “My grandfather was one too, I think,” after which conversation broke into teenage tidbits of dating miscellanea and consumer reports about the availability and cost of personal accessories. The exchange surprised me because it had been uttered precisely the way a Junior Leaguer might say. “My mother was presented during the Christmas season,” with a socially shakier friend responding a bit too eagerly, “Mine too. I think”—you think? The bus, poking along through New Jersey townships, had moments before passed an ideally prim DAR cemetery, which I had registered in actual, formulated words to myself—simplistically, no doubt—as a burial ground for dead white racists.

One sits in the back of classrooms if one wants to make merry or if one hasn’t done one’s homework. The kids in the middle of this bus definitely struck me as front-of-the-class types, eager beavers of the middle classes who had dutifully absorbed the fatuities put forth by revised-and-airbrushed textbooks to promote civic equanimity—for example, that slavery, though found to be “wrong,” was nevertheless something that had happened, the fashion of a certain time and place, and therefore something to accept as a thing of the past. It is indeed as proud a point of ancestry as some would find having a DAR-approved lineage, but it is neither something to accept nor something ever to be unsure about. The airbrushing of an obscenity such as slavery neutralizes a positive fuse—the connection to the stimulus of focused anger.

This is the age of the ubiquitous airbrush, of historical revisionism, aphasia, and the spontaneously acquired past. We get help from all quarters in airbrushing out what we don’t want to see—age, poverty, failure—and then the “Arts of Living” sections help us in whatever our genealogies didn’t ensure. With the techniques of public relations and advertising, obscenities of history can be reprocessed so that nothing sticks out like a sore. Difference is what we are told to overcome. The instant rewards of fitting in are an inducement to correct appearances and correct accounts, but they are proof only of the ability to buy and sell. The right to the two P’s of prestige and power has pulled way ahead of all other rights on the chart. But as we all know, no club wants its rules changed by new members. In the age of the airbrush, the impetus for change, which is the vital asset of memory’s vaults, is liquidated.

The current trend for airbrushing comes with a paradoxical twin, the cult for the ornaments of the obscene: the vocal trills of scatology, the gush of the four-letter word. A language of defilement has long been our dominant metaphor for violence and a sign of powerlessness. Such was the case with the first of the English teddies, skinheads, and punks. Today it would appear that the word referring to the little big bang is practically the only word left when possibilities for other generative actions have been made to seem so remote as to be forgotten, and destiny reduced, through special effects, to a logistical matter of square pegs and round holes. The language of defilement is the aggressive mask erected around an absolute violence that has been ricocheting across the silver screen of America like never before. The shock-tactic language of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket—a triple blend of machine-gun-fire-fast sexual, scatological, and racial obscenities—pummels us, as it does the movie’s marine trainees, into a numb-headed, breathless delirium.

Violence as the stand-in for sex is the novelty being improved on today. As airbrushing eviscerates response, the visceral response itself is seen as something increasingly hard to come by, a kind of peak of Everest toward which the full thrust of state-of-the-art technology must strive. When the policeman-hero of Robocop is shot at in the beginning of the movie, repeatedly and with a special sadism, the camera drools over his eviscerated body the way it once “caressed” Julie Christie—each Dolby gun-blast packing the reverb of a leviathan’s heart-thuds during orgasm.

People have been paying top dollar for a couple of seasons now to hear Eric Bogosian swear. Bogosian’s mask of language is composed of the same triple blend as the drill sergeant’s, only used against civilian targets. His “gallery” of derelicts, druggies, rednecks, street toughs, and crank callers has perfect pitch. But he gives his “type” no life beyond the assorted physical tics and tics of language that Bogosian has collected and then pumped up, preened, and packaged, to hurl back at them with all the insight of any crude weapon. Lenny Bruce, grand master of the four-letter-word, is inevitably invoked to justify this sort of talent to abuse. But if there is one truth that Bruce believed in and stood for, it is the truth of the weak—the truth of himself—and the right to use and, if necessary, abuse those in power. Lenny Bruce was a kind of wild-tongued golem made up of bad luck stories, neuroses, miseries, and guilt to be expressed, if only to lift some of these burdens off others. But in further smearing those already in the gutter, Bogosian, the one-time figure of a certain fringe, now exploits fringes for the amusement of center row.

The obscenity of airbrushing obscenities, the masks of obscenities covering obscenity—this is a mise-obscène.

Lisa Liebmann is a writer and critic who lives in New York. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.