Did you know that the CIA helped to fund artist Jackson Pollack? True story. Google it. Yep, the CIA was worried about the increasing international popularity of the Social Realist movement in art—that is, the work done by artists to draw attention to real social conditions, especially the plight of the working class—and so funneled money to abstract artists like Jackson Pollack in an attempt to make non-representational splatters the new hip thing. Just watch the great Tim Robbins movie Cradle Will Rock, in which an exuberant Nelson Rockefeller dreams of promoting a new era in abstractionism while overseeing the destruction of a Diego Rivera fresco. A cinematic shorthand for what the ruling classes actually did.
I was reminded of this fact while viewing (for some goddamn reason) the trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey, coming to theaters near you sometime soon. As best as I can determine, it’s like Pygmalion, but with a bit of bondage. Multibillionaire Christian Grey apparently latches on to a drab bit of womanhood and introduces her into a life of self-realization and spanking, using his charm and his money to bring her to some kind of enlightenment. I guess. I’ve only seen the trailer. But I’ve also seen part of Pretty Woman, so I’m well qualified to draw conclusions.
Anyhow, the novel trilogy made BDSM part of our national conversation, rather against our will. Suddenly, Nebraska housewives were writing Dan Savage endless letters about how best to get started in the world of bondage and the like. I’m pretty sure that happened. And the pointless popularity of these novels and the upcoming movie rather point to the hidden hand of the CIA, once again. Because—
You see, American culture had slowly been shedding its hangups regarding sex. Not only is the aforementioned Dan Savage now a respectable public figure, but the centrality of pleasure is increasingly part of our sexual discourse. Too, alternative sexualities have a growing public face, while we can now also talk somewhat seriously about rape outside of those times it’s been perpetrated by some Kennedy nephew or Air Force academy. The Vagina Monologues is performed regularly on college campuses. Sex is increasingly losing its power of social control—all the shame that has been glued on over the millennia by opportunistic priests and politicians, that scarlet “A.” Around the corner lies the possibility of experiencing our bodies without the fear that our pleasure might be discovered and adjudicated as sinful by some charlatan with a dog collar.
And this is where the capitalists come in, because a population at peace is not a population that will invest in stuff in order to alleviate some kind of existential longing for completion and wholeness. Buy, buy, buy. And so now they have made sex something that requires more and better accoutrements than the bits you were born with and have been diddling all by yourself since you were a pre-teen. Now, post-Fifty Shades, it’s not truly ecstatic, revealing, intimate, explosive sex unless accompanied by some assortment of genuine leather tools of erotic torture. And that shit costs money. And when sex, which comes free (pun intended), costs a lot of money, then Wall Street has won.
The asshole wealthy have monetized private pleasure in the pursuit of profit—moreover, they glorified the power of wealth in the very story that does this. But it is worth remembering that “slave” is not just something that is role-played by dowdy young women in the thrall of the world’s elite—it is a real condition for millions around the planet, millions who derive not the least pleasure from their submission to the powers that are destroying their very lives. But when we eroticize submission and terror, we make ourselves incapable of feeling empathy, rather like the Church did with the poor—they are closer to God, after all, so we should envy them from our palaces rather than try to alleviate their sufferings.
The fresco that Nelson Rockefeller destroyed was titled Man at the Crossroads. We stand there still. Whither shall we go?