Transgression, Fake and Genuine

When Henry Harland and Aubrey Beardsley brought forth their groundbreaking periodical The Yellow Book in 1894, its very first issue contained the semi-facetious essay “In Defence of Cosmetics” by Max Beerbohm.  A delightful excursion into the resurgence of cosmetic adornment in fin de siècle English women, the essay was a singularly appropriate (if purely playful) statement in praise of the aesthetic movement of the 1890s, and its urge to take art beyond the natural, the sincere, the humdrum, the ethically righteous, and the tediously realistic.  Along with its competitor The Savoy, Harland’s The Yellow Book was the flagship publication for a new impulse in the arts towards formal perfection, rather than morality-mongering and didacticism.  It was a massive Fuck you!to Victorian sensibilities.  In modern terms, it was transgressive.  Many booksellers and distributors refused to stock either magazine.

Neither The Yellow Book nor The Savoy lasted for more than a scattering of issues, since every society is controlled, in the last analysis, by bourgeois philistines and orthodox conformists.  These types simply can’t help thinking that the arts are duty-bound to satisfy bien-pensant pieties.  And the situation is no different today.  Thought control and mindless orthodoxy still rule the roost in the arts, except that now the conformism wears the sheep’s clothing of transgression and risk-taking.  It’s a very neat propaganda coup: use the language of daring rebellion to disguise the fact that one is an on-the-make careerist.  Tom Wolfe called this trick “the Boho dance,” and it is still widely practiced.

If an artist today is labeled “transgressive,” this is actually Orwellian Newspeak for saying that his work is perfectly acceptable to the critical establishment.  If he is said to “take risks,” this is a positive statement of approval.  If he “shocks complacency,” this is the prelude to his lionization.  In short, an artist who receives this sort of evaluation has his career assured.  The vast array of cultural forces embodied in academia, editorial offices, galleries, and trendy museums will trumpet—in unison—his praises.  Look at an utterly inept dauber like Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose garbage-art canvases sell for millions.  But hey—he was “transgressive” and “risk-taking,” and therefore his work is holy.  Add to this that he was black, bisexual, and died of a heroin overdose, and his critical canonization is complete.

This situation creates a dilemma for artists who are still loyal to the inherited norms of Western artistic achievement.  No one maintaining those norms will be valued, except perhaps by a few fellow workers and by a minuscule audience of appreciators.  Which is fine, to be sure—excellent art doesn’t require a large audience to be excellent.  But the hypocrisy of phony transgression must be exposed, and that can only be done by providing the genuine article.  It’s up to the traditional artists to be really transgressive.  Let the enemy know that we are perfectly willing to defile their cherished icons.

In the current context of pretentious lying and posturing deceit, the traditional artist can do two things.  He can work in accord with his inherited standards, but he can also produce artworks that are simultaneously transgressive in a genuine way, as opposed to the fraudulent and make-believe transgressiveness of establishment art.  Let him hit hard at accepted pieties and shibboleths, and let him do it with robust contempt for both them and their defenders.  Let him not just mock sacred cows; let him disembowel them.

Whenever I suggest this, middle-of-the-road types scream “The only result will be hatred and ostracism!”  Well, that will be the first result, of course.  But the long-term result will be the undermining of establishment orthodoxy by demonstrating that its pieties and strictures are not universally accepted.  And like every act of courage, it will embolden others who need to see that they are not the only ones to harbor doubts concerning the current sacred cows.  A lit match thrown into a pile of dry trash may do little at first.  But there’s a good chance something will catch, and produce a fine conflagration.

One thing to keep in mind, however—the initial negative response to truly transgressive work will not just come from the gatekeepers of the status quo.  Unfortunately it will also come—in spades—from the faux conservatives who are allegedly our allies.  These stodgy, uptight, bean-counting conservatives will cluck and tsk-tsk and nag and pester us with all sorts of admonitions about “going too far” or “alienating the general readership,” or whatever other phrase they may employ for justifying their own irrelevance.  It’s time to ignore such people totally.  These timorous aunties of play-it-safe faux conservatism, like the Republican Party, are perfectly content with their position as a disregarded but comfortable minority.  We need to stop listening to them.

The gutless fear of Public Opinion, and of the genuinely transgressive, is nearly universal.  Even The Yellow Book and The Savoy suffered from attacks of it, refusing to print Oscar Wilde and dropping Aubrey Beardsley.  I had a girlfriend who told me that when she was a child in 1955, she came home and told her parents that at school she had signed up to be pen-pals with a child in the Soviet Union.  Her mother had a hysterical panic attack and had to be sedated, so fearful was she of adverse Public Opinion. 

Public Opinion is always fundamentalist, in that it attaches itself to the fixities of unquestioned dogma with all the visceral ferocity of fanatical religion and chauvinistic patriotism.  Public Opinion gets resentful and angry when those dogmatic beliefs are mocked, and it hardly matters whether Public Opinion is liberal or conservative or socialist or egalitarian or fascist or feminist.  Like every orthodoxy, it violently rejects transgression as heresy, treason, deviation, hate speech, or thought crime.

It’s quite natural for the average dork to be terrified of what the Joneses might think, and to indulge in pre-emptive self-censorship.  The great demos is a thoughtless and bovine herd, mostly complacent yet prone to stampede when threatened. But poets are supposed to be better than that.  Our job is to say whatever we think and perceive, regardless of its reception by others.  As for that stupid scarecrow Public Opinion, remember that it has only straw for brains.  And I told you what a lit match can do to straw.


Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.