In 1918, Freud defined taboo as a complicated idea -- and a word that conveys a twofold meaning. "On the one hand," he writes, "Taboo means to us sacred, consecrated: but on the other, it means, uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean." Nearly a century later, it seems we're still grappling with taboo's duplicitous nature, and that's just what Chris Baker, 28, writer, former ad man, art enthusiast, and part of Google's exclusive Creative Lab trend-tracking team is banking on.
Goofily cute and geekishly charming, Baker, a college drop-out originally from South Florida who now calls the uber-hipster Ludlow Street in NYC home, first exploited the power of the taboo with his blog The Fucking Word of the Day, which went viral pretty quickly. (Studying for the GRE anyone?) His blog was eventually made into an app and book that caters to co-eds re-launched as, The Elements of F*cking Style, a take on the Strunk and White classic. His idea behind using obscenity to a build loquacious vocab and teach people how to avoid dangling modifiers: "It's easier to learn with sex, drugs, and fucking swearing."
His latest endeavor, NSFWorks of Art was built around Baker's admiration of the human form, but he didn't really know much about art history, and made the assumption that there were others like him, interested in learning art, if only for the erotic display of T&A in great works. He writes on his site:
The world of art is a large and sprawling one filled with earthly delights, but can be difficult to take in without years of over-priced liberal education. That's where we come in. Each work of art will be accompanied by a brief write up that gives an overview of its context, the artist, and anything else that may be interesting or related to all the tits, cocks, and snatches that have appeared in sculptures, paintings, etchings, and photographs since man first attempted to capture the world for posterity.
Over a beer at Marshall Stacks, Baker tells me, "We've been portraying nudes for centuries and there's always been controversy about certain paintings that got banned or hidden in an attic, long before the ever-popular nip slip." Therefore, as his site's mission explains, "This site is an on-going exploration of the world of fine art one Not Safe For Work image at a time."
For those of you living in a cave, the NSFW acronym is a cultural phenomenon that gained popularity early last decade as tabloid websites glorified celebs in compromising, often unclothed positions. "Literally Not Safe For Work conveys the meaning that if your boss walked by and saw imagery of a chic's snatch on your monitor, you could get fired, or at least a dirty look from a co-worker. You will be ostracized for looking at a vagina."
Still, media outlets like TMZ and Perez Hilton earn millions of subscribers and dollars off the taboo irony of the NSFW image -- the wardrobe malfunctions and oops! a panty-less starlet spread-eagle exiting her Maybach. But while media moguls might be making a mint, corporate America stands to lose productivity by sexually-distracted workers hoping to catch a salacious shot of what Baker calls the "physical display of a nude body in public."
Rather than trying to silence or push down the feelings of arousal humans gain from looking at images that stir desire, Baker's model uses the idea of the taboo as a learning tool to actually increase neurological productivity. "One man's taboo is another man's fetish," says Baker. "Taboo challenges people's expectations." And, studies that support creating new neurological pathways to make us smarter, like brain plasticity, show the "power," Baker continues, "in presenting people with something they haven't seen coming." Baker's book, The Elements of F*cking Style, released this past July, is in its third printing.
So, if you want to become a master of syntax or a flash art historian, rather than taking a course at Columbia or Yale, just log on to Baker's latest brainchild. "When I see a beautiful woman walking down the street," explains Baker, "I immediately think of evolution. Here's a pinnacle of the human form. That's what the Olympics were about; this isn't something new." And still, there's something dangerous about beauty of that magnitude, something, not safe. What is that? I ask Baker. He responds:
The primal sentiment of desire is that you want to possess something -- whether it's a work of art or a woman -- or man; it's just that our society is so homophobic that most American men don't know how to deal with their own bodies and get uncomfortable about [being sexual objects] so it's usually a woman. That unconscious, yet completely conscious desire is something we have to cope with and manage, otherwise we'd give into dark urges and go about raping and pillaging.
That's certainly not a viable option. So perhaps, there are certain images that should remain taboo. Or perhaps Sasha Grey is the Venus de Milo of the 21st century. "You never know," says Baker. "A hundred years from now people will be watching YouPorn and consider it fine art."