In the basement of my grandma Pat’s Mercer Island home there is, among other things, a manual typewriter (I drop hints about my intention to inherit it every time I visit), a BB gun I know and love, at least one family of mice (I’m guessing) and four Stanford Quad yearbooks, from 1944 through 1948. You need not even make it past the covers, with their cringy cartoons of impish little redskins (we were the Indians until 1972, remember?), to get a feel for how entirely different our Stanford is.
The geography is immediately recognizable: the Row, Old Union (Union, in those days), Main Quad, Memorial Church, the Circle of Death (not yet a circle, and they had cars driving through there, if you can believe it). But things begin getting eerie in the class photos section. Page after page is filled with clean-cut, robust and promising young faces, all nearly indistinguishable from their neighbors. Apparently there was one available haircut for men, and they all have it. Overwhelming whiteness aside, it’s like staring into the Platonic form of Middle-Class Respectability. Ah, the kind of society you could truly rebel against.
Even with photographs and my grandma’s living (but limited) memory, it’s tough to imagine the rigid conformity of postwar America when its taboos have all dissolved. The closet doors are off their hinges, and we now speak frankly and publicly about things that would make the Class of ’48 blush just to mention. No one’s out to yuck anyone else’s yum; identify, present and live as you wish. So in our moment of unprecedented permissiveness, what’s left to transgress against? Can anything push the bounds of acceptability when everything is acceptable?
When what was once considered transgressive becomes mainstream, it stops being transgressive and sometimes slips out of view completely. The significance of the shower scene in “Psycho” is lost on most of us because we’ve seen far more graphic things on the screen. Even if it’s not to our taste, there’s nothing shocking about a Picasso, a Mondrian or a Pollock. Even drag has now proffered its subversive power in exchange for a cable audience. That’s not to say things could be any other way. When exposed to the light of day, transgressiveness naturally atrophies until eventually accepted.
Art is an arena for examining our values, but can you think of the last time a work of art really unsettled you? “High School Hitchhikers,” a classic exploitation thriller and a serious cinematic achievement by no measure, was the first movie that shocked me almost to the point that I couldn’t get through it. In the film, two schoolgirls stumble upon an abandoned house in the woods, the hideout of a gang of jewel thieves who take one of the girls captive and rape her. As the scene begins, the lighting dims, funky music fades in and suddenly what should be harrowing becomes a full-on porno. Sexual violence is sensualized without offering any warning, explanation or any trace of an apology.
It’s positively lurid, but that’s precisely why it has stuck with me. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I wondered who the hell would make something like that (a Frenchman, evidently). The power of that scene lies in its showing us something we don’t want to see, something we know we should disapprove of. What we find unacceptable we tend to make invisible. Transgressive art, opinions and behaviors then wrench us out of unseeing and compel us to confront our own taboos.
Ironically, the transgressive only remains such as long as it retains its unacceptability. If you can fully approve of it, its power evaporates. The other irony is that if you accept what’s transgressive to those you disagree with politically (say you’re a huge “Piss Christ” fan) but you refuse to be challenged in the same way, you’re not challenging your own values at all. It’s rare to find something that feels truly verboten, but when you do, offer it more than moralizing or snideness. Make your iconoclasm a two-way street, and whoever’s toes you might step on, step on them gleefully.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.