The previous decade has been celebrated as a time of artistic innovation, especially in music. A new subculture emerged called “grime”. It was chiefly the music of young black British men living in London. As the name suggests the music evoked a spare urban landscape fraught with danger and crime. The lyrics were similarly spare, often composed in an aggressive demotic style and to some listeners the rhymes appeared to be markedly vulgar. Grime artists sometimes boasted about their sexual prowess but this was obviously a show of bravado when mere survival on the streets was so precarious.
However this raw and stark style isn`t that new, in fact it is almost a century old. Back then there were poets and writers who documented their fraught and dangerous lives, often exposing scandal and social taboos in the process. Jean Genet is one example. His mother was a prostitute and he was born in a Paris hostel in 1910. He spent his first year of life in a state run orphanage and was then sent to a foster family in the country. He became a habitual thief during his teenage years and was confined to institutions for several years. After his final period of incarceration he was called up for military service. His service record was characteristically dishonourable as he deserted his post to travel.
He lived his life as an itinerant, petty thief and male prostitute but documented it in a series of novels which have been described by his biographer Stephen Barber as composed in
“a language that veers wildly from splendour to obscenity, from argot to elegy”.
His debut novel “Our Lady of The Flowers” was originally published in 1943 but only in a limited capacity owing to its frank subject matter and descriptions of transgressive sexuality.
His fortune changed after the War, perhaps owing to his notoriety as his once limited publications soon became collector`s items and generated more income for him. He was also championed by another French writer, Jean Cocteau.
Jean Genet`s oeuvre was misunderstood for many years, it was denounced as pornography or the work of a deviant criminal. Genet`s work is recognised now as an important voice in LGBT history. He was a trailblazer writing about a community that faced confinement and even death during the years of Nazi occupation. His novels actually subvert the power dynamic in a similar way that Grime speaks for a community oppressed by poverty and racism.
Transgressive art is demonised by powerful people but it offers a creative outlet for communities who feel that they are ignored, silenced or condemned by wider society.