The End of the End of History?   /   Fall 2017   /    Signifiers


Robert Boyers

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

Remember when vulgarity used to be a bad thing?

Do we any longer use the term vulgar? There was a time, not so long ago, when it was as often employed as coarse or common. We take it that something is said to be vulgar when it is low, indecent, gross, trite, or ostentatious. The several possible meanings of vulgar are not perfectly synonymous, but it is obvious that informing each of them is a sense that certain things are disreputable, that they exist—so it can seem—principally to be disdained. Though the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips may well be right to say that “we don’t really know what is vulgar about vulgarity,” we are always confident that the word refers to qualities we are pleased to dislike and condescend to.

One of the many odd things we note about vulgar is that it has largely disappeared from ordinary speech. Many objects, acts, or utterances that would once have seemed vulgar now seem no longer notable enough to inspire condemnation. Violations of propriety, of so-called good taste, are now often regarded as legitimate expressions of protest against conventional decorum. Indecency itself—in fashion, in art, in daily speech—is today, more often than not, a mark of legitimate extravagance, daring, or wit. To be outré, to reveal or expose too much, to appear to be trying too hard to produce convulsive effects, is no longer to be vulgar but to be engaging in a species of performance, and those who earnestly scorn what they see are clearly out of touch with the spirit of the culture. The secure judgment required to complete the formerly standard transaction is no longer much in evidence. We remember what vulgar used to signify, but we are loath to invoke or rely upon the ostensible good taste that alone underwrites the adverse judgment. Vulgarity has by now become quaint, anachronistic. To respond with such a word to Donald Trump is in effect to miss what is genuinely grotesque in the man and in the language he uses, to condescend to something that deserves more than disdain. Those for whom Trump is merely an opportunity to declare their superior status—as thinkers or sophisticated moral beings—have little hope of coming to terms with the reality he embodies.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).