Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Bad taste is good for us

In Britain and Elsewhere, to Cringe, It Seems, Is to Enjoy -- by ALAN RIDING

LONDON, Dec. 19 - It is once again that time of the year when leading British actors camp around onstage dressed as bossy old women telling risqué jokes, while leggy actresses wear tights to portray sweet princes. Yes, for many Britons, Christmas means a peculiar celebration of bad taste known as the pantomime. To cringe, it seems, is to enjoy.

For the second year running, the headlines have gone to Sir Ian McKellen, who is playing Widow Twankey in "Aladdin" at the Old Vic Theater here. But 25 other pantos, as they are known, are filling houses across the land, with "Aladdin" and "Cinderella" the most popular, followed by "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Babes in the Wood" and "Mother Goose."

Yet wait. While pantos may come but once a year, bad taste in British art, theater and television can also be for all seasons. After all, how else would one describe a play depicting a blind British cabinet minister receiving oral sex from a man whom he believes to be a woman? Or "Little Britain," an award-winning television show which cheerfully spoofs gays, fat people, minorities and the disabled? Or an art installation nominated for a top prize comprising a slept-in bed accompanied by dirty underwear and used condoms?

In Europe, Britons are envied for their sense of humor, and it is true, irony is a successful British export. Yet more down-to-earth British comedy travels less well. Take so-called "bathroom humor." Certainly the French might be surprised to discover a new London production of Molière's comedy "Le Malade Imaginaire," or "The Hypochondriac," built largely around scatology.

So is bad taste only in the eye that sees it? Is it noticed simply when it shocks? Why is vulgarity unacceptable in private and tolerated in public entertainment? Can it be forgiven if it is funny or somehow exposes human quirks or prejudices?

Satire is perhaps the oldest form of bad taste, but this is hardly a British monopoly: Molière himself was a remarkable satirist. Still, from Hogarth and Swift to Peter Cook and John Cleese, satire is an age-old British custom, notably when it targets figures or institutions of power or self-importance. For instance, Private Eye, the British satirical fortnightly, routinely skewers the hypocrisy of British tabloids.

What distinguishes British humor is that it is often self-deprecating: the comedian turns the joke against himself, his or her fictional family or British society in general. And this provides additional margin for bad taste.

One British comedian who has fired more widely is Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of the character of a British rapper called Ali G, who parodied both popular culture and public figures who naïvely allowed themselves to be interviewed by him on camera. He then presented himself as Borat Sagdiyev, a sexist and racist television correspondent from Kazakhstan; Kazakh authorities recently closed down his Web site,, for "bad-mouthing" the country.

Clearly, the challenge for many humorists is to break prevailing taboos. Until the early 1990's, for example, the BBC kept swearwords off the air; today, they are so commonly used in comedies and drama that they have lost any shock value (though they can still be considered bad taste).

Do limits exist? From the late 1960's, it became common to mock the British royalty on television. Yet only this month, a semi-fictionalized television biopic about Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth's younger sister, who died in 2002. Portraying her as a sex-obsessed heavy drinker, it was considered by many, including some "unshockable" young people, as in bad taste.

And yet, as humor, bad taste is definitely a popular art. Step forward, William Shakespeare: his penchant for saucy puns, often in the comic scenes of his tragedies, may have raised royal eyebrows but would certainly have pleased the "groundlings." And since the 19th century, the summer shows at British seaside resorts have always boasted "naughtiness."

Bad taste without humor, on the other hand, can be a solemn affair. In art, it is definitely in the eye that sees it. And that eye changes with time. Only in recent years, for instance, has the Musée d'Orsay in Paris dared display Gustave Courbet's exquisitely painted but highly explicit oil, "L'Origine du Monde," with its full-frontal view of a woman's naked body. And museums still often choose to display Picasso's erotic and scatological drawings in a special gallery reached through a curtain.

Britain's Turner Prize for artists under 50 seems to have made a point of veering close to bad taste. And when it does, the crowds usually follow, never more so than with Tracey Emin's installation "My Bed," her infamous slept-in bed plus intimate trappings, which was on the 1999 shortlist. Three years later, voyeurist attention went to Fiona Banner's detailed description of a pornographic movie, written across a wall of Tate Britain.

Is this art? The same question might apply to another European crowd-pleaser: Gunther von Hagens's traveling show of flayed and preserved human corpses in lifelike poses. And for New Yorkers, there is "Bodies ... the Exhibition," now at the Fulton Market Building at South Street Seaport, which also displays flayed bodies acquired in China. Bad taste? Well, as with Mr. von Hagens's show, the question has arisen whether these folks became corpses thanks to the death penalty.

And what about Chris Ofili's paintings decorated with elephant dung, like his "Holy Virgin Mary," which caused an uproar when it was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999?

The media can, of course, usually be counted on to draw attention to art likely to raise questions of taste. So it was that Britain learned this week of a new display in a tucked-away space in Tate Modern of a 1975 video called "I Was Thinking of You," which purports to show the face of the Berlin-based American artist Dorothy Iannone while she masturbates. "Outrage Over Orgasm 'Art,' " the tabloid Sun proclaimed, ensuring its readers read on.

Even the European opera world is no longer safe. At least not since the Catalan director Calixto Bieito began adding sex (copulation and fellatio) and violence (rape, torture and mutilation) to his productions of works by Mozart, Verdi and Johann Strauss. The reaction of Bild, a German tabloid, to Mr. Bieito's Berlin production of "The Abduction From the Seraglio" last year was fairly typical: "Vomit Art With Taxpayers' Money!"

Bad taste? No doubt about it. Popular? All seven performances sold out.


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