When "F*** You" is a nominee for both the Grammy's record and song of the year, and the National Portrait Gallery hosts a Christmas season exhibit of "gay art" that included an image of Jesus on the cross with ants crawling into his wounds, you know there's very little left that can shock the public.
The problem is not with the outrageous terms and visuals themselves--or even that they get wide exposure. Cee Lo's expletively-titled song remains an honoree with negligible reaction to its moniker. The "gay art" show continues. The problem only arose with the Gallery's "Hide/Seek" exhibit because taxpayers were footing the bill, which subjected it to greater scrutiny. And when objections surfaced, the one item of removed "art" was soon displayed a few blocks away in a private gallery, where it receives little comment, other than from advocates who want the video featuring the disrespectful scenes reinstated in the show.
If anybody expected a huge outcry about how disgusting or upsetting the "art" or Cee Lo Green's lyrics are, he was sure to be disappointed. Sure, we can lament the plummet of politeness, but the relaxation of language has rendered once-shocking words impotent. If the best a really angry person can do to express his consternation is the f-word, well, it's more of a chuckle than an affront. If someone wants to rattle the public by producing the most disgusting or institution-jabbing visual he can imagine, he can indulge his fantasy, and if some gallery owner thinks it will sell, it will be hung and viewed and maybe even called "art," but unless it does something to a Koran, it won't get much reaction. We've all seen whatever-it-is before in movies, or after watching a flick's trailer, decided we'd rather not see it--but either way, ho-hum.
Remember when The Stones' "Satisfaction" and the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" had their slurred lyrics interpreted as so nasty parents forbid teens from listening? Well, nobody else does, either.
It'll take some pretty creative inventing to come up with swear words that provoke overwhelming shock and revulsion, ever again. Do we need new obscenities to fill the lack? I'd say no, but given today's cultural climate, somebody is bound to try. Nobody's exempt from the influence of media; as my husband and I wrote in a book on childhood innocence years ago, avoiding popular culture is like trying to stop breathing. Parents would do best to discuss the issue, to distinguish between words that elevate and those that cheapen and downgrade. They'll do their kids a favor to set standards for speech in their own families that complement standards for behavior.
But ultimately, when confronted with harsh language, they'll all probably do what everyone else is doing anyway--shrug it off.