Art: Prisoner Exchange


As I watched last fall the legal travails of The 2 Live Crew and its lead singer, Mr. Luther Campbell, and considered the possibility of their incarceration, it occurred to me to propose on behalf of rap fans everywhere an exchange of prisoners. In return for the release of Luther and the Crew, those of us who are still free should offer to give up to the Broward County authorities that shining beacon of the official culture, poet Jenny Holzer.

It's a good deal for everyone, as a brief comparison of the work of these artistes will show. Luther Campbell's poetry, unlike that of Ms. Holzer, will bear only sparing quotation. Here, as nearly as I could make it out from his album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, is a sample of Mr. Campbell's latest verse:

You said it yourself,
You like it like I do:
Put your lips on my ****
And suck my ******* too.
I'm a freak in heat,
A dog without warning
My appetite is sex
'Cause me so horny.

****, **** you, **** me
Me **** you, **** me
**** you, **** you, **** me.

[Ostinato of female grunts:]
Uh, so horny,
Uh, so horny,
Uh, so horny,
Me love you long time.

Well, it loses some of its charm when it is (mostly) reduced to cold print and robbed of its syncopated drumbeat, but its originality and, um, forcefulness should be apparent even through the veil. Unfortunately, Mr. Campbell has fallen afoul of the authorities on account of the words which here appear as asterisks.

It's sad that they are arresting poets now, and I am prepared to believe that we are back in Amerika. Just as the iron curtain has come down and, there is an explosion of free expression in the former homeland of oppression, the USA has reaffirmed its longstanding fascist tendency and resumed the lead as World's Most Philistine Nation. Even my local cultural boutique, where the muzak is by Vivaldi (I never knew that he wrote so many flute obbligati), was loath to sell me a copy of As Nasty as They Wanna Be, although I explained that it was for journalistic purposes only. The thought police of the Moral Majority, it seems, are on the march again.

But if they have to persecute poets, I submit that they have picked the wrong one. Let us not reopen the whole boring business of free speech and the First Amendment. I will take no sides on the issue of whether censorship of the arts is a good or a bad thing. All art is the quotient of inspiration divided by the limitations of the medium—in this case language—though the limitations imposed by prudery seem particularly tiresome and unnecessary. Perhaps the impulse to socialize art is only one of those cyclically recurring natural phenomena, like the flooding of the Nile, which brings with it both good and bad. If we take it as a given, however, that every so often we feel that we have to throw a poet in jail, let me propose that our victim this time around should be not Luther Campbell but Jenny Holzer.

Ms. Holzer, for those who could not make it to the Venice Biennale this year and who missed her big show at the Guggenheim Museum last winter, is an artist who deals in mock-monumental stone slabs and parody advertising on which has been inscribed Words to Live By of her own formulation: Roy Lichtenstein meets the Old Farmer's Almanac.

She is especially fond of LED ribbon light displays that blink out banal, vicious, false, or meaningless messages: MUCH WAS DECIDED BEFORE YOU WERE BORN; STUPID PEOPLE SHOULDN'T BREED; YOU ARE TRAPPED ON EARTH SO YOU WILL EXPLODE; THE MOST PROFOUND THINGS ARE INEXPRESSIBLE. This would have seemed like quite a good idea, though perhaps not in the da Vinci league, but for the fact that someone seems to have persuaded Jenny that her own messages were among the "profound" things of the Earth. As Dr. Johnson said of the mystic, Jacob Boehme: "If Jacob saw the inexpressible, Jacob should not have tried to express it."

As a result of finding herself transformed from pop artist to pop poet and philosopher, she has been running her little slogans off like counterfeit money. Some are Holzerized versions of other people's bon mots—PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT; ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE; PRIVATE PROPERTY CREATED CRIME; THERE'S NOTHING EXCEPT WHAT YOU SENSE—while others advertise a fashionable liberal political agenda—CLASS STRUCTURE IS AS ARTIFICIAL AS PLASTIC; OFTEN YOU SHOULD ACT SEXLESS; INHERITANCE MUST BE ABOLISHED; IF YOU HAD BEHAVED NICELY THE COMMUNISTS WOULDN'T EXIST.


I don't know why, but there is something much more horrifying to me about this generic poetry-cum-philosophy that is bought, like the interior decorator's bookshelves, by the yard than there is about verbal images of Luther Campbell's ****, or even his *******. Certainly I would have been more inclined to support the National Endowment for the Arts if it had sent The 2 Live Crew rather than Jenny Holzer to represent America at the Venice Biennale. The Crew's native woodnotes wild are at least harmless to the artistic consciousness. Jenny Holzer, by contrast, paralyzes the brain like some slow-acting poison.

A spell in prison would do nothing but good for Jenny Holzer, whereas Luther Campbell, like the glorious U.S. Army, has already got to the point of being all he can be. Rap in general still doesn't quite understand this. KRS-One of Boogie Down, for instance, raps about ancient Greece that "Any philosopher at that time was a criminal / He'd be killed very simple / This indicates that Greece had no respect / For science or intellect."

Even allowing for exaggeration about the number of executed philosophers, this misses the point. Socrates was killed precisely because Greece did respect—and fear—science and intellect. It is because the United States doesn't that we let so many philosophers, poets, and artists go free. And they, in turn, because they are not taken seriously by their contemporaries outside the profession, continue to produce the kind of insipid trash in relation to which Jenny Holzer is what Michelangelo is to religious art.

Well, that is the price we pay for freedom and tolerance, which most of us would say is worth a high price. But if we are going to take up persecution again, let us at least get some benefit out of it. Because so many of our poets and artists have forgotten that words and images can have consequences in the real world, the words and images that they produce are as irrelevant, brain-numbing, and masturbatory as Jenny Holzer's. Apply a little political repression and, deplorable as it may be in itself, watch the withered flowers of art revive as they did in the relative artistic excitement of the Soviet Union under the previous dispensation.

If you think I exaggerate, speak to some of the newly liberated artists of the Eastern bloc. In a recent film about Soviet art, a number of clearly talented painters expressed their horror about what they had observed of the art world in the West. Some even expressed their feelings of nostalgia for, as one of them put it, "the good old days of harassment and persecution." Another said: "We used to talk about God, life, the universe. Now there is one subject and one subject only: money."

What these genuine artists were reacting against was the intolerable self-containedness of Western art. It is an industry organized around a small group of producers and consumers, a closed society whose contact with the outside world is largely limited to subsidies from universities, foundations, and the NEA. The rest of us tolerate this situation to keep them happy and to convince ourselves of our own virtue.

But we are no more virtuous than they are happy in holding on to the present arrangements. Jenny Holzer is the reductio ad absurdum of decorative art masquerading as the real thing. Throw her in jail, say I—pour encourager les autres. Look at Salman Rushdie. He used to write silly, ****-pulling fantasies like The Satanic Verses until the late Ayatollah put out a contract on him and taught him that words are not just playthings for the amusement of a few like-minded connoisseurs; they are the means by which ordinary minds, to say nothing of sacerdotal and political imperia and the world most safely identified as "real," are permanently affected. I have no doubt that his next novel will be considerably the better for the lesson.

James Bowman is the American correspondent, for The Spectator of London.