Profanity and art


I recently had several men from where I work over to my place, for chili, beer, and a movie. I warned them in advance about the profanity. Not mine, the movie's. The film we assembled to watch was Glengarry Glen Ross, based on the David Mamet play. I defy anyone to find a film with more profanity per line of dialogue.

One young man from work opted out because the prospect of so much vulgarity disturbed him. I respect his decision, especially in light of the tacit peer pressure resulting from everyone else attending.

It gave me pause, in fact. It's a problem the Christian artist faces-the world is filled with the profane, and so to write or paint or play act it out as if it does not is to set aside an artistic imperative, which is to craft beauty from ashes. On the other hand, many Christians feel compromised if they hear or read or see what is vulgar.

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The Christian non-artist frequently enjoins the Christian artist to thread the needle when it comes to vulgarity. The fact that Bill Cosby was funny without sounding like Richard Pryor is a common example. Except that Cosby did curse on occasion, to great comedic effect.

Fine, might come the rebuttal, but art doesn't need this kind of ugliness to be art. Shakespeare didn't have sex scenes, after all.

Except that he did, as does the Bible (see the Song of Solomon).

But at least there's no cursing in the Bible, the rejoinder might go.

Except that there is: David is finally filled with bloody fury because Goliath utters blasphemy against God far worse than any modern English dirty word.

Sometimes I think what it boils down to is that we've reified breasts and fairly uncreative naughty words until they are the devil himself. Still, I can appreciate a young man not wanting the words we all agree are dirty on his ears. One can't control other forms of profanity one hears-abusive words from a parent to a child, say, or lies from a preacher in the pulpit-but at least one can exercise some control over when one hears variants of the seven words George Carlin gleefully immortalized.

But I'm fond of this movie not because the profanity is realistic (because really, who talks this way to one another?), but because Mamet makes use of it. In other words, his goal is not simply realism; his point is that men have tremendous barriers between them. Most of us don't know how to talk to one another. Thus the most common verbs in the dialogue of this film's characters are conversational: Speak, talk, listen-verbs like that. Meanwhile, the cursing erupts from the lips of the characters because it is their primal rage-they have nothing else they know how to say, but so much they need to say.

The average viewer doesn't get this, of course, and so he is either titillated or offended. Flannery O'Connor, often beset by good church ladies for writing stories with freaks and perverts, noted that most good church people shouldn't read her work, and that this reality didn't imply anything poor about them or her writing. It just wasn't suited for them, given their spiritual maturity (or lack of it).

That makes sense to me, and so I respect this young man for not attending, just as I would have respected David Mamet had he been a man of great faith when he wrote his play.

But I suspect I am an outlier in that regard. So what is the proper role of the Christian artist? Protect the minds of his weaker or more stringent consumers, or simply craft art as he best knows how, trusting people to determine what is best for them to consume? Is it possible for a good Christian to write a profanity-laced play, or is it inherently a sin?


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