NEW YORK — In a darkened room in a SoHo gallery, a tape player projects a video against a huge wall. The "characters" are adult actors - but the voices they use are not their own. They are lip-syncing to the words of children, aged 10 to 16, who have confessed some of their deepest secrets to the acclaimed British video artist Gillian Wearing.
The video is short but disturbing. Under Ms. Wearing's direction, an older man in a gray suit mouths the sexual confusions of a 16-year-old. A casually-dressed man acts as the conduit for the tale of a young alcoholic.
The video's overall effect is to provoke a disquieting sense of confessionalism and voyeurism - of the private being made public in an inappropriate way.
Wearing belongs to a school of young British artists who share similar impulses, but she's also part of a much larger trend rampaging across the cultural landscape. Tell-all tales of infidelities and perverse behaviors have long been daily fare in the "low" culture of tabloid television.
Increasingly, however, these subjects are invading "high" culture such as visual art and literary memoirs. Individuals are disclosing intensely personal details to a peeping public that seems to thrive on each sordid revelation - from writer Kathryn Harrison, whose recent memoir "The Kiss" described the incestuous relationship she began with her father while in her 20s, to artists like Wearing and her contemporary Tracey Emin, whose work includes a tent on which she has sewn the names of every man she has ever slept with.
But even as the shocking continues to rivet public attention, a quiet debate is emerging far from the media spotlight, among a small but growing number of individuals who are examining the forces driving this trend - as well as considering its cost both to individuals and to society.
"For all intents and purposes, we are dead set on dissolving what used to be called boundaries, boundaries between public and private life, between the acceptable and the taboo," says Charles Baxter, whose book "Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction" considers the breakdown of "the story of ourselves."
"The cost is dignity," he says. "There's a word you don't hear much anymore, and you have to ask yourself why. In its positive sense, dignity has to do with not complaining, with bearing up under the circumstances you've been given. But that doesn't make for good television."
Like others who are questioning the rise in confessionalism and voyeurism, Mr. Baxter insists that he's not arguing on behalf of covering up problems. In fact, breaking the historic silence that shielded abuses such as domestic violence, he says, was an important part of exposing the problem and trying to stop it.
But this century has also been driven by forces - from psychoanalysis to the social revolution of the 1960s - that have eroded values of restraint and discretion. And the more individuals make their private lives public, the more the public seems eager to devour every detail - with a media all too ready to oblige.
Pervasiveness of telling all
It was only 10 years ago that the press asked Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart if he had ever had an affair; today President Clinton's anatomy is discussed on news shows, thanks to a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones. Other celebrities - such as basketball great Wilt Chamberlain - have happily revealed their sexual exploits in print. Even the fleeting self-examination, by press and public, following the death of Diana (herself both a victim and a manipulator of confessional urges) seemed to have vanished by the time sportscaster Marv Albert and his tastes in lingerie made the evening news.
And it's not just the lives of the rich and famous that provide fodder for the imagination. Thanks to tabloid TV, an endless parade of individuals is lining up to discuss, in graphic detail, the kinds of things families used to whisper about.
One of the things that disturbs critics about this kind of confessionalism is that so many people are spewing intimate details of their lives before an audience of thousands, if not millions. They say that unlike private meetings with ministers, friends, or therapists, where problems are usually shared to work them out, public disclosure is often just a recounting of details that lends the teller an aura of celebrity for simply being a victim.
"Almost everybody can claim victim status today, and they're busily doing it. It's what keeping up with the Joneses was in the 1950s," says James Bowman, American editor of the London Times Literary Supplement. "In this culture, people lay claim to moral authority, to a state of moral grace, by saying, 'I have suffered.' That's what drives confessionalism. But it's not the suffering that really matters, it's the overcoming," he says. "Traditionally, what a culture claims on behalf of its heroes is that they've overcome something. What we're seeing now is that people expect that status simply from having suffered."
Decline of privacy
The push to tell all, and the pull to devour all, have another consequence - the loss of privacy. It's a concern with historical roots: In an 1890 Harvard Law Review article, concern about press invasion of privacy prompted Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis to write that gossip "belittles and perverts. It belittles by inverting the importance of things, thus dwarfing the thoughts and aspirations of a people."
"A lot of people are confused about what true intimacy is," says Jana Malamud Smith, author of "Private Matters." Ms. Smith argues that today's outpouring of private details is in many ways a result of the social isolation experienced by many people in modern urban life.
"I think one of the things lost with the loss of small-town life was the process of communal value and communal witness," she says. "People were held accountable, often publicly, and [if you were wronged], you could have some sense that the ill that was done you had been redressed.
"Today, I think a lot of people tell their stories on television because they probably feel they will never get a witness in any other context," she says. "It's a search for witness that often runs amok because it ends up being so exploited. Because no matter how sympathetic Oprah or any of those people are, television's agenda is to make money. The confessional becomes a commodity, a product to be sold."
Despite the warnings they are raising, writers and critics like Smith don't expect any huge shifts away from confessionalism and voyeurism any time soon. The cultural forces driving them, they say, are unlikely to change quickly, and require individual rethinking of the issues involved.
"I would ask, when you've watched a confessional TV show, do you really feel any wiser? Do you really feel any better?" says Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "There's a tendency to think that if we know enough, then we will understand. Of course, the answer is, you don't need to know all the details. You need a vision to understand."
First Media, Now Artists Feed a Growing Public Appetite for Sordid Secrets