Dropping in on two separate London events recently -- well, three, actually -- I got to thinking about the cheapening of the evocative adjective "explicit." The very sight or sound of the word fires the synapses and gets the adrenalin thrumming. At its invocation, unbridled expectations rocket into the atmosphere.
The two occasions that, well, explicitly triggered this rumination were -- and continue to be for the next while -- American playwright Wallace Shawn's new work, Grasses of a Thousand Colours (the "u" in "Colours" is the British spelling), and American artist Paul McCarthy's room at the Tate Modern, where he's installed a piece he dubs Projection Room 1971-2006.
In Shawn's opus -- which is ballyhooed as "explicit" and has been received in some quarters as precisely that -- a scientist named Ben (embodied by the redoubtably pudgy dramatist Shawn himself) relates his sexual history with the three women in his life. Occasionally, each of them suggestively appears -- to supplement the confessions. Chatting amiably about subjects like masturbation and, not at all briefly, about his penis, Ben does indulge in what can certainly be called explicit language.
What he doesn't do -- nor do any of the females -- is get explicit visually. That's to say, this is not a show-and-tell play; it's a three-hour-plus tell-and-tell-and-tell-some-more play. Yes, there's much palaver about Ben's penis, but he never gets around to what might be termed truly explicit: he never unzips his fly and exhibits the vaunted member, flaccid or erect. The upshot, so to speak, is a play that's promoted as explicit but isn't quite as implicit -- by particular contemporary definitions -- as it might be. It could even be described as coy or described more explicitly by invoking that explicit term "cock-teasing."
Paul McCarthy's multimedia whatzis, on the other hand, is -- by the above-mentioned contemporary definitions -- visually explicit. To that end, there's a stand outside Room 9 -- on the third floor and in the wing given the catchall moniker Material Gestures (whatever that's supposed to mean) -- that warns those about to enter of the "explicit' material they will encounter.
Advised of the potential danger to delicate sensibilities, no one I saw -- old or young -- turned back in anticipatory disgust. Rather, those who forged ahead, myself included, walked into a darkened room where five video projectors and several carousels cumulatively containing 170 slides hurled images on the walls of the artist and various agreeable participants carrying on in the nude or the nearly nude. Often, they're full-frontally slathering their bodies with thick, gooey substances.
All this cavorting is done with abandon. Although the activity in motion or still is purportedly explicit, there's no explicit language. The only sound -- other than the whirr of slides changing -- are inchoate noises and piped in music, one ditty featuring another Paul: McCartney, intoning something very Beatles.
There is a third and almost diametrically opposed work of art (or is it?) currently on view in the West End theater district. It's the stage adaptation of the hit movie Calendar Girls that follows the exploits -- but not exactly the explicit exploits -- of several rural England women who decide to raise money for their Women's Institute charities by posing completely unclothed for a calendar. The characters and the playwright -- Tim Firth reconfiguring the screenplay he wrote with Juliette Towhidi -- make good on the, yes, implicit promise of nakedness but in the most conventionally tasteful way possible. Yes, gentle readers, those purveying Calendar Girls see to it that much is teased but nothing is revealed.
So what I want to know is this: Is the reticent Calendar Girls any less explicit than either of the other two ballyhooed "explicit" artifacts? Doesn't the word "explicit" suggest that something involving shock is in the offing? While maintaining that -- despite what people may say to the contrary nowadays about nothing left to shock anymore -- I think there is plenty with shock potential available for the aware citizen, Neither Grasses of a Thousand Colours or Slide Projections 1971-2006 are among them, however. These two exhibits are no more shocking than Calendar Girls and perhaps even more puerile for purporting to shock and falling so far short of the mark -- or, put another way, falling so far under the raised bar.
As a result, both these enterprises dilute the word "explicit," which is a wonderful word and one that deserves to be restored to its admirable meaning. Maybe where "explicit" gives its best value is in its connotations of direct discourse. Maybe "explicit" is best applied, for instance, to Barack Obama's Cairo speech and some of the responses to it. Where bold art comes into play, maybe the discussion should center around how much artists -- playwrights, novelists, painters, choreographers, composers, architects -- need to be explicit or implicit about what they intend to convey through their works.
Can I be any more explicit?