Talks

Vulgarity: It’s Like Making Jokes About Shit

We asked Trisha Low, Loren Glass, Marilyn Minter, and Max Steele the difference between bad taste and no taste.

Vulgarity: It’s Like Making Jokes About Shit

“There is but one word to use in regard to them——vulgar, vulgar, vulgar. Their ignorance——their stingy, defiant grudging attitude towards everything European——their perpetual reference of all things to some American standard or precedent which exists only in their own unscrupulous wind-bags——and then our unhappy poverty of voice, of speech and of physiognomy——these things glare at you hideously.”

That's Henry James, talking about tourists. The 19th-century literary realist had about as much love for Americans in London then as New Yorkers have for tourists now. Although, when we're the ones complaining, we tend to use different words, like: basic, basic, basic. Too loud, badly sandaled, and visibly budget-conscious, tourists are embarrassingly open about their desires. They're the ones who say what they think in art galleries.

Speaking of art, how do we separate the vulgar from the basic? What's the difference between Miley Cyrus and Courtney Stodden? Between de Sade and the BDSM category on Pornhub? Vulgarity is hideous, okay, but the hideous can be a relief from the good. Then again, vulgarity for its own sake can become just as goddamn boring as what it flouts. We gathered a poet, a performer, a painter, and a prof and asked them to preach what they practice.

The participants:

Trisha Low is committed to wearing a shock collar because she has so many feelings. She is the author of THE COMPLEAT PURGE. Remote controls are available at Gauss PDF, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, TROLL THREAD and others. She lives in NYC.

Marilyn Minter juxtaposes photorealistic paintings with painterly photographs and videos, honing in on the moment where clarity becomes abstraction and beauty meets the grotesque. Minter has recently turned her focus on the physical object between the camera and her subject, whether it is moisture, a pane of glass, or graffiti. Minter currently shows her work at Salon 94, NYC and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Max Steele is a performer and writer living in Brooklyn. He has presented work at Dixon Place, the New Museum, Deitch Projects, BAM, Joe's Pub, Envoy Enterprises, PPOW Gallery, the Afterglow Festival and the Queens Museum of Art. He writes the psychedelic porno poetry zine Scorcher.

Loren Glass is a professor of English at the University of Iowa. He writes on 20th and 21st-century American lit and culture.  His most recent book is Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde.

Mira Gonzalez is a writer from Los Angeles. She is the author of I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough To Make Us Beautiful Together.

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How do you identify the vulgar? Is vulgarity located in an affect, an action, or an aesthetic?

Max: I think any and all of those could be vulgar, but for me it seems to depend on the values of any given context. What’s commonplace in one situation might be vulgar in another. It usually seems like lower-class, more “base” thought tends to be more easily understood as vulgar.

Loren: I agree it can be all three. As Max notes, the term has more to do with class than sex, and traditionally has simply meant “common” or low-class. The identification of it depends on the education level and class affiliation of the perceiver.

Trisha: So, while I’m looking at these questions, I’m toggling through Adore Delano’s new DTF video and Natalia Kills’s music video for her single "Problem", both of which could be considered vulgar in aesthetic. But because of their individual relationships to mainstream pop culture, they have really just become, like, fashionable? So in that sense I think Max is right about context——and Loren’s comments about class are related——the idea that what is vulgar is somehow counterfeit, an imposter——something you can see is trying too hard to cleave the structure it is existing in, and so paradoxically becomes highly visible. Vulgarity, funnily enough, has a history of coming out of a desire to please, which is entirely opposite to the way we envision the term in a contemporary context, like "those guitars are so rude" or something. But of course contemporarily, this is still the way it works——systems that have been built around a weird reverse impulse to reassimilate or recuperate vulgarity into something that is titillating but still palatable——like Adore’s hazily glamorous hoodrat, or Natalia’s brazen hooker. There’s something about vulgarity that is, unlike shock or the grotesque, always slightly impotent——and that’s what’s so attractive about it.

There’s something about vulgarity that is, unlike shock or the grotesque, always slightly impotent.

Mira: I would say vulgarity could be identified in all three of those things. The things that I perceive as vulgar tend to be less related to aesthetics though, and more related to actions that are in direct conflict with my own sense of morality. For example, I wouldn’t categorize a lot of pornography as vulgar,’ and I definitely wouldn’t categorize any art (that isn’t outwardly offensive or harmful) as vulgar,’ but I would potentially view someone selling their art to a corporation like Malboro or McDonalds as ‘vulgar.'

How is the vulgar amoral? In which instances can vulgarity be celebrated? When is it decried?

Marilyn: Dolly Parton, John Waters and Divine (Pink Flamingos), Pamela Anderson and Miley Cyrus all celebrate vulgarity with a knowing wink. Courtney Stodden, Anna Nicole Smith are decried because they seem like victims.

Max: Vulgarity can be celebrated for its honesty. It’s like making jokes about shit——it’s disgusting but it’s something that we all have in common. Vulgarity can be helpful in identifying and articulating a common denominator. Vulgarity can be decried for the same reason, when it forces us to encounter an unfortunate truth, like if someone makes a comment about a cheating spouse at a dinner party.

Mira: Vulgarity can be celebrated for its honesty. It’s like making jokes about shit——it’s disgusting but it’s something that we all have in common. Vulgarity can be helpful in identifying and articulating a common denominator. Vulgarity can be decried for the same reason, when it forces us to encounter an unfortunate truth, like if someone makes a comment about a cheating spouse at a dinner party. 

Loren: Rabelais is frequently seen as a celebrator of vulgarity, particularly in carnivalesque atmospheres where it overturns hierarchies and produces a temporary “world turned upside down.” Vulgarity in this sense can be moral insofar as it attacks the hypocrisies of more traditional morality. A contemporary heir might be William Burroughs.  

Trisha: Vulgarity has to be all about convention, right? You can’t be vulgar without a code-violation. When vulgarity is celebrated is when it’s already been neutralized. My favorite context for vulgarity is within really particular/virtually partitioned systems that have been built around activities or interests that other “laypeople” already find to be incredibly vulgar. For example, in an online community focused on ponyplay in gonzo anime or something, someone who was really into kittens posting pictures of like girls with cat ears would be totally vulgar. It would be as if I was putting together a film series with a particular group of people and I suggested like this, “Hmm, what about including some shorts on heterocentric and sexist diva-gossip doxploitation?” and the reply would be “Ugh, gauche, you’re working for which queer audiences, you, Rufus Wainwright, and your jaded friends?” So in a way vulgarity is a good barometer for specific subcultural/countercultural communities and the very practical ethics they’ve built around their ideology.

Dolly Parton, John Waters and Divine (Pink Flamingos), Pamela Anderson and Miley Cyrus all celebrate vulgarity with a knowing wink. Courtney Stodden, Anna Nicole Smith are decried because they seem like victims.

Mira: I wouldn’t connect vulgarity to ‘having bad taste’ or ‘being basic’ at all. Actually, I don’t think I would ever even use the term ‘bad taste’ in reference to what a person find aesthetically pleasing. Saying that someone has ‘bad taste’ assumes that there is something objectively good or bad in art, which I don’t agree with. Moreover, saying someone has ‘bad taste’ is essentially saying that they don’t like the same things you like, which also insinuates that your taste is objectively ‘correct’. There is no objective scale for categorizing aesthetic preferences as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Everyone likes certain things and dislikes other things, and I don’t believe that one person’s aesthetic preferences could possibly have more merit than another person’s, because it is based completely on subjective experience. The only time I would define anything as objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is if I feel something is contributing to the harm of another person, in which case I would view it as vulgar. Other than that, the only things that are perceived as vulgar are things that go against social constructs, which are also usually subjective and based on your own life circumstances. For example, saying ‘I love Taylor Swift’ (which is true) feels vulgar to me because I grew up in a family that doesn’t celebrate being ‘basic’ and liking Taylor Swift is incredibly ‘basic’, but that doesn’t mean that being basic is vulgar, it just means that I have a certain feeling based on my own life experience.

Do you see any connections from being vulgar (having bad taste) to “being basic” (having no taste at all, or only the most conforming tastes)? When is something vulgar and when is it basic?

Marilyn: Taste is like art, when I hear people say "that's is not art," it's not true, of course it's art, it's just question of whether its good or bad art.

Max: This question reminds me of that Comme des Garçons's “Bad Taste” collection from 2008. I think, as Kawakubo does, that there is inherently value in bad taste. Even vulgarity has a purpose. The thing of “being basic” of having “no taste” is potentially scary——obviously it’s a kind of taste, obviously it’s a decision, but it pretends to not be, which is dangerous. At least with vulgarity it has the conviction to articulate it’s values. With being basic, of refusing to own up to your own taste, it’s a kind of mortal laziness. I’ll take vulgar over boring any day.  

Loren: Saying someone has no taste is pretty similar to saying they have bad taste, insofar as everyone has aesthetic preferences, even if they can’t articulate or don’t express them. And taste, as far as I’m concerned, usually maps onto class identity and affiliation. Indeed, I’m not sure that “basic” is a term that can be usefully applied to taste.

Trisha: Even being a basic bitch is having taste. Having no taste is more like having a hopeless lack of commitment to anything, as Max points out. But of course, this has also, in some cases, become a specific aesthetic (see, 90s teen nihilism a la Gregg Araki, or “normcore”), which then is also having a taste. Do you see where I’m going with this? Good or bad taste is entirely a personal preference, or a matter of allegiance in whichever gang war you’re currently involved in. #circleoflife

At least with vulgarity it has the conviction to articulate it’s values. With being basic, of refusing to own up to your own taste, it’s a kind of mortal laziness. I’ll take vulgar over boring any day.  

What’s the most vulgar act you've committed? Why?

Marilyn: I've been accused of some, but in my mind, I've never committed a vulgar act.

Max: Shown up with my own date and left with someone else’s.

Loren: I frequently swear in class, which I’m sure strikes some of my students as vulgar. It’s a great teaching tool. 

Tricia: I’m a really intense people-pleaser, so I guess being vulgar is like my primary operating mode.

Mira: www.twitter.com/miragonz

Max has already invoked the Vreelandism that it's better to be vulgar than to be boring. But does vulgarity, a certain garish uncaring, ever itself get to bore you?

Marilyn: I used to be addicted to the Housewives franchise on Bravo. It's a delicious escape from my own life, and it's so easy to feel superior. They always cast one character who is crazy, delusional and vulgar——a villain, and I'm constantly waiting for this character to get his or her "comeuppance," their delusions shattered or righteously being told off by another character, which usually happens at the end of the series. After a while I realized that they always cast a new character that is just as insane and villainous until someone tells that one off and around they go again. Once I figured that out it became passé because it became predictable.

But, there's always going to be another something that keeps offering me a similar thrill, my interest in the vulgar is not over because I lost interest in one show.

I suppose the best example here is porn, particularly literary porn, which almost always gets boring after a while.  I find Sade interminably boring.  

Max: Sure, certainly. See the previous question about being basic. I think the vulgar, like anything, can become boring once it becomes habitual, or reflexive. Sincerity is exciting. Curiosity is exciting. Simply trying to show “uncaring” is not exciting. Ambivalence is a hard sell. Laziness is boring. It’s a fine line, but it’s like that distinction between (sometimes overwrought) erotica and bad porno——someone has to be getting off.

Mira: Whatever I was going to say, Max just said it better. 

Loren: I suppose the best example here is porn, particularly literary porn, which almost always gets boring after a while.  I find Sade interminably boring.

Trisha: I actually think boring-ness is the unavoidable fate of all vulgarity, or its essential characteristic, this impotence, or its exponentially increasing sense of dullness. That’s what’s so compelling for me, that it’s this irritating friction, or slight offness that isn’t enough to be offensive, or shocking, or to produce a truly visceral reaction. Just a burn that eventually wears off——but a burn that brings your invested conventionality to the surface in a real way, like a rash. What one considers to be vulgar seems to always be embarrassingly telling, unattractive and annoying. It points out conservatism when you might least expect it. And for me, that’s where vulgarity’s affective potency really lies.

Image: Marilyn Minter, Orange Crush, 2009

This panel was conducted by Ana Cecilia Alvarez.