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Ugly Is the New Black

Break the oppressive shackles of the aesthetically pleasing! Free yourself from the dictatorial expectations of pretty! Abandon the merely amusing! Embrace the weird, the ungainly, the forward, the impolitic, the awkward, the incongruous! Buy—or better yet, make—some ugly art today!

Recently, I was listening to a news report laying out the details of a lawsuit brought by a social-action organization against Clear Channel Communication’s outdoor advertising arm. Clear Channel, which owns in excess of half a million outdoor displays, refused to honor a contract with Project Billboard to erect a display in New York City’s Times Square. The company claimed to find the intended image—a bomb decorated with the stars and bars, and the legend “Democracy Is Best Taught by Example, Not by War”—distasteful. According to a spokesman for Project Billboard, the group offered to replace the bomb with a dove, but this, too, was refused, and Clear Channel demanded that the accompanying text be changed as well. This is not the first time Clear Channel has been accused of censorship or an aggressively right-wing political philosophy: It’s been alleged that the company knocked the Dixie Chicks off its member radio stations’ playlists for their criticism of President Bush, and Howard Stern claimed that a similar political motivation was behind his recent ouster from Clear Channel-owned stations. Despite the fact that Clear Channel is a major donator to the Republican party, despite the fact that many of the chain’s radio stations were actively involved in rallying support for the war in Iraq, despite the fact that another top exec, Tom Hicks, is an old buddy of our current prez (Hicks is the current owner of the Texas Rangers, which he bought from George W.), Clear Channel’s president Paul Myer says that the company has no partisan agenda. He has also said publicly, in direct contradiction to the assertions of the lawsuit brought by Project Billboard, that he has no problem with the message of the display, only with the bomb imagery.

Um, bullshit. But let’s take Mr. Myer at his word, just for kicks. Let’s say that it’s true that he, on behalf of his suddenly sensitive mega-corporation, finds the depiction of a Boris Badanov-style bomb an egregious violation of community standards—and keep in mind that the community we’re talking here about is Times freaking Square, where you can eat in a restaurant owned by World Wrestling Entertainment and buy novelty T-shirts with such gentle messages as “Our City Can Kick Your City’s Ass.” Community standards? Sheesh. But let’s give the guy the benefit of the doubt by conceding that the “community” would just freak out if presented with the original image. Let’s say they’d tear their hair out, gnash their teeth and rend their garments. Or they’d be thrown into depressive reverie so deep they’d skip days of work and blockbuster movie debuts to ruminate on the billboard. Let’s say Times Square would be filled with a stalled and wailing mass of confused souls gazing up dumbfounded at a billboard that was like no billboard they had ever seen before. “Billboard, oh, billboard, why do you plague me so! I am conscience-stricken, oh, billboard! What do you want from me?” Dogs and cats, living together, etc.

Where’s the problem?

Look, it’s a billboard, not Piss Christ. Not a dung-covered Madonna. And, really, how much attention does a well-intentioned, socially conscious billboard draw anywhere? In the seizure-inducing digitized chaos of Times Square anything short of a sign that screeches in repetitive metallic bursts the names of individual passersby just isn’t gonna get a second look. But say it did. What is wrong with challenging community standards when community standards suck?

Now, Clear Channel—and every other profit-driven corporation—has a vested interest in pandering. I don’t for a moment expect them, any of them, to change anytime soon. But what’s really insidious is that so much of the information you’re fed daily is produced by an ever-dwindling pool of crass, and what’s worse, low-brow engines of acceptable offense. Clear Channel didn’t seem to give a rat’s ass when Howard Stern was just offending homosexuals, women and disenfranchised minority groups, when he was playing to stereotype and received prejudice. Nor did they seem to give a damn that the Dixie Chicks are dull as toast. Frankly, I wouldn’t care if Stern was shuffled off to a permanent MC gig at Scores and the Dixie Chicks were forced to get full-time jobs as check-out girls at a Winn-Dixie. Give David Cross or Patton Oswalt a drive-time show; get John Frusciante on the Grammys; let Mike Kelly or Matthew Barney design the billboards. Hell, show Gummo as the in-flight movie; scrap the Happy Meal for the Todd Solondz Happiness Meal. A little bit of discomfort would be good for a community grown fat, placid, unquestioning and so juvenile that it will accept lip-service corporate nannying. Do you really want Clear Channel deciding what’s best for you? What you can or cannot handle, emotionally, intellectually or artistically? If you do, then you get what you deserve, I guess: Toby Keith, and inoffensive and pretty yellow ribbon decals for your car.

I know that, in the short run, that’s what we’re gonna get at the national level. But corporations are mad to capture new markets, employing scads of hip little market researchers to feed them the 411 on whatever Gen XYZ’s gettin’ jiggy wit’, yo. So, exert your influence, young consumers. Demand ugly, challenging art and imagery. Turn up your septum-pierced nose at the insulting pap spewed out for your fleeting sugar-high pleasure. Consume only what confuses you. Consume and create work that startles and destroys you. Because, chances are, you’re currently half-stuffed with Coca-Cola, Ritalin and re-broadcasts of The Swan, and you—we—need to be taken down.

—John Rodat 

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