My first reaction to the video released recently of the four U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans was that it was too ham-fisted and bombastic a metaphor to add anything of real value to the ongoing critique and analysis of this country’s über-mortiferous foreign policy. Similarly, if I were to see a video of a 500-pound CEO wearing a top hat, spats, a monocle and a watch chain walking through an Indonesian sweatshop while lighting a cigar with a $1,000 bill, I doubt that my disgust and outrage would have anything more substantial than an apparitional cliché into which to anchor its cleats. Watching these soldiers, deeply tanned from hours of volleyball back at the base no doubt, cheerfully peeing all over the bodies of indigenes, I felt as if I were looking at a Sue Coe painting that had been brought to life and then handed over to the Capitol Steps to assiduously overact, the stereotype of the Ugly American being turned up to 11 for those in the back of the Mark Russell Bawditorium who might be hard of sneering.
Rather than being presented with an inspirational image that rivals the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph of the five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the U.S. flag at the top of Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima, the iGeneration is stuck with the image of four ebullient Marines outfitted with the most sophisticated weaponry available anywhere in the world, including body armor and what might be Versace sunglasses, pissing on three corpses of Taliban fighters who are all gaunt and barefoot and wearing clothes better suited for Frisbee or beach barbecue or Andrew Lloyd Webber.
What could turn out to be the most telling detail about the entire incident is how a number of online news agencies decided to censor the stills that had been extracted from the original video by blurring out the soldiers’ penises while allowing a direct and uncompromising view of the dead bodies. Such a deliberate and widespread editorial decision provides clear insight into what the media, and therefore the dominant culture that they endeavor to reflect, consider to be obscene and what they deem to be innocuous and uncorrupting of our moral fortitude. Of course, as the proud owner of a penis myself — one that has undergone thousands of hours of excruciatingly thorough visual and tactile inspection, frank and glorious usability and withstood more rigorous endurance testing than a NASA chimp — I couldn’t help but feel a little bit perplexed by the breakdown. To me it was like trying to preserve the innocence of a child who stumbles into his parents’ bedroom while they’re having intercourse and who continue to bump and grind against each other but decide, just before climax, to throw on hats and dark glasses and fake English accents. What is the fucking point? Likewise with the micturating Marines: Are not the cadaverous human beings pictured dead on the ground sufficiently off-putting to make the whizzing — the one and only detail depicted in the news item that is so mundanely commonplace and as familiar to all of us as breathing — the least offensive element, when isolated, of the crime? After all, we’re talking about a 39-second clip that never would’ve been produced — never could’ve been produced — had we not decided as a nation to conflate invasion, occupation and mass slaughter with liberation, or foreign sovereignty with anti-Americanism, or war and murder with democracy building and peace-making, and yet what we decide to classify as being too disturbing to look at is the blatant demonstration of a bodily function that everybody and his grandmother partakes in 204,440 times over the course of a normal lifetime.
It seemed absolutely ludicrous!
Then, instead of choosing to scapegoat the blotting out of the male groins in the video on what everybody always scapegoats full frontal exposure of our human anatomy on, namely our oh-so preciously Victorian mores, I decided to consider an alternative explanation that was much less condescending of our character and much more deferential toward our intellectual moxie. I began to wonder if I wasn’t, in fact, witnessing the censorship of an enlightening fact rather than the shutting down of mere prurience. What if we were being encouraged to be afraid not of what these peckers might reduce us to but rather to what heights they might elevate our comprehension of ourselves as sentient beings?
Deciding to seek the grounding counsel of personal experience to further stoke my growing suspicions, I suddenly recalled some writing that I’d done on the subject of penile erudition back in 1986 and I reached for a journal that I had to blow the dust off of before handling.
When I was 19 years old, I posed naked for a life drawing class at Rutgers University and had this to say to what I imagined would be eager and receptive future generations afterward:
How did this happen? How did my pecker end up at the tip of 30 slow-moving pencils? More to the point, what business does my pecker have in defining for a bunch of teenagers what art is? That’s like bringing Adolf Hitler into the room and asking him to teach the fox trot, or it’s like handing somebody a fistful of hundred dollar bills and asking him to appreciate the fine art of portraiture engraving. You’d think that a pecker in a classroom, set like a tiny basket of fruit before a sleepy mod of freshmen boys and girls, is a little bit like a gnu forced to rest its great horned head on a filthy drain behind bars and before a wall painted to look like the African Savanna. Rather than gaining some useful knowledge about the wonders of nature or the breathtaking majesty of the animal kingdom, one can only come away from gawking at such a spectacle a little bit dumber about the interconnectedness of man and beast.
Let me start at the beginning.
It’s been about six months since I dropped out of art school, which I did, not because I don’t see myself as an artist, but rather because I do. Turns out that practically none of my heroes went to college to learn anything about how to either concoct or hone their artistic abilities or to acquire some insight into what their purpose might be. In fact, many of the writers and musicians and painters that I most admire, as a matter of course, have gone out of their way to express indifference toward or real disdain for higher education. There’s Noam Chomsky’s declaration that “education is a system of imposed ignorance,” and Helen Keller’s statement that “college isn’t the place to go for ideas.” There’s Robert Frost, who said, “Education doesn’t change life much — it just lifts trouble to a higher plane of regard,” and James Baldwin, who said, “It is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.”
Oscar Wilde: “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” Mark Twain: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
There are famous college dropouts like Picasso, Woody Allen, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ingmar Bergman, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Leo Tolstoy. There are those who didn’t finish high school, sometimes not even elementary school, like Twain, Shakespeare, Woody Guthrie, Lenny Bruce, Groucho Marx, Malcolm X, Louis Armstrong, Jack Benny, George Carlin, Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Eugene Debs, Benjamin Franklin, Cary Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, George Washington, even Jesus Helluvaguy Christ. There are the Beatles who couldn’t read music and never received any formal training in songwriting and there is Mahatma Gandhi whose civil disobedience and spiritual genius were developed outside of his law classes at University College London.
In short, unlike it was with every classmate I’d ever spoken with regarding the subject, going to college and graduating with a degree was not one of those unspoken understandings that my brothers and sisters and I had with our parents. In fact, nobody in my family ever wanted to go to college before my older brother and me. The only unspoken understanding in our house was that nobody in the world was as funny or smart as we were and that college, like a well-paying job or a car that wasn’t held together in spots with duct tape and expletives, was only for people who were overcompensating for their lack of innate, self-sustaining intelligence. These were people who needed to mask their mediocrity by wrapping their frank absence of a personality in a piece of rolled and ribboned parchment paper that had been offered up as some sort of triumphant proof that they could memorize shit and repeat it back, their hollowness made somehow whole by the addition of an academic echo.
In fact, the only reason why I went to college was to get out of South Jersey, which, after 17 years, was beginning to make me wonder if perhaps the only reason why my family was able to see itself as being so superior to everybody else was because we’d actually emigrated from Pennsylvania and weren’t really from there. This appeared to give us an unfair advantage over people who seemed to have set the bar so low for themselves, not so much because they were stupid or lazy, but rather because — after ZZ Top, CB radio, fishin’, crabbin’, huntin’, prayin’, smokin’, pokin’, tokin’, cokin’, teen pregnancy and tournament-level alcoholism — they were absolutely apeshit about limbo. How low can you go? How low can you go … ?
So what am I doing here?
If, in the eyes of a teenager, a pecker will never be entirely free from attracting the cheapest sort of sexual significance, the exposed private parts bleating out goofy salutations like a dirty tin horn, what can be learned by the drawing of one? If it’s true that there is a definite incompatibility between a human being’s concept of a thing and the thing, itself, then an artist might best be described as the intrepid individual who tries to fill the void, the glorious and terrifying swimming space, between those two points by creating objects and concepts that either celebrate the boundless freedom of weightlessness suggested by the incompatibility or embrace the absurd spookiness of the unmoored anarchy suggested by the emptiness; the difference between the abstract expressionists and the Dadaists.
So the question remains: How, precisely, is my pecker integral to the shaping of an art student into an artist?
Should I assume, if I’m to trust completely all that is promised by the course description, that all peckers point, like compass needles, to the same creative nirvana wherein an artist can develop his expertise and ultimately find employment, power and influence? Or, I wonder, is it the purpose of my pecker to be an insignificant part of a life drawing class, the mere purpose of which is to teach a high school graduate whose SAT scores were too shitty to qualify him for an English program the cheap parlor trick, a mechanical skill really, of rendering a human body accurately, first naked and then clothed? What then? Does he then mat and frame his crap and become just another asshole who can make money selling shit to people? I wish there were fewer of those sonuvabitches around, not more. But, then, maybe it isn’t about the commodity that’s produced by the act of art making that defines the artistry of the artist, nor is it about satiating the intellectual or emotional hunger of the observer first and foremost. Maybe being able to draw like a motherfucker brings an artist closer to some kind of insight about the human condition that other skills, like cross-stitching and pillow embroidery, don’t, and then maybe the ability to render other people in the world with a pencil and paper helps him dispel, for himself, the bogus notion that he is alone in the universe.
Maybe it’s that personal.
Maybe all that nakedness machine-gunned into an artist’s brain, nude model after nude model, eventually teaches him to demystify the singular obscenity of the individual cock or the individual pussy, the balls, the tits and ass, and integrate them into the rest of the human anatomy, like pouring notes into an allegretto or alliteration into a poem. Maybe it teaches him to recognize the sameness that all people, naked beneath their clothes, share as a virtue, a grace: proof, somehow, that humanity is composed of 7 billion specialized cells that conspire to create an immensely complicated planetary organism that requires cooperation and equal respect from all its parts to remain cohesive and alive and purposeful.
Is it then the responsibility of the art student to draw my pecker and to become an artist whose job it is to unify all of humanity around the same holistic worldview, his ability to grab the public’s attention with his gifts merely the thing that he piggybacks his goal of rescuing the species from self-annihilation upon? Could my pecker really do all that? Have I been blessed by the great good fortune to be partnered with the wizened sage, the bearded orator and savior predicted to arrive one day by countless prophecies from practically every culture that has ever existed since the beginning of time for the purpose of setting the world ablaze with truth and beauty and spiritual glee?
(Pause to allow the sound, from offstage right, of Roman soldiers busying themselves with the gathering of the boards, the hammers and the nails.)