Cheap Thrills: What Happened to Bad Taste?
By Maren Thom –
This is a longer version of my contribution to the Battle of Ideas satellite debate ‘Cheap Thrills: What Happened to Bad Taste?’ at the Barbican on the 28 October 2016 which asked: ‘Are good’ and ‘bad’ taste out-dated concepts?’
This debate was part of the Barbican’s season on vulgarity and bad taste.
In order to answer the question ‘What Happened to Bad Taste?’ I want to start by arguing that, today, we live in what I call the post-vulgar. What I mean by this is that vulgarity and bad taste are now shocking and vulgar in appearance only and are, at heart, pretty mainstream and uncontroversial.
The idea of post-vulgarity is a deliberate reference to Slavoj Žižek’s concept of the post-political, which is how he describes the state of contemporary politics. Today, in what seems like an overtly politicised society where high nationalism clashes with bourgeois liberalism, the idea of a post-political world may sound odd. However, according to Žižek, the post-political condition describes a world where politics are emptied of any real meaning – zombie politics. There are no more big clashes of ideas; there are no real radical alternatives. This zombie politics is in itself a symptom, an acting out of frustrations of those trapped in a deadlock of ideological possibilities.
The deadlock of ideology presents itself as the abandonment of traditional leftism based on universal principles of emancipation. Emancipation here is understood as the freedom to seek individual and societal actualisation, what Hegel would describe as the unity of individual will and the absolute will. However, in the post-political, the idea of emancipation as the goal of social change has been replaced in favour of top down, governmentally managed policies that aim to bring about incremental advances for discrete social groups.
In the post-political definition of politics, the economic antagonisms of capitalism are still there: the struggle of class politics is not. Instead, capitalism has expanded to accommodate ideas taken from the left – tolerance, diversity, social justice – and made them safe, that is without the potential to achieve emancipation in any meaningful sense, by insisting that these things can be achieved only through a processes of self-management, and the institutionalised management of the self. The mechanisms of these processes are firstly, a new moral imperative of a constant recognition of people’s individuality and, secondly, in the cultural sphere, the representation of an ever expanding range of individual identities of gender, race, and belief.
What does it mean then, for vulgarity, if there is no clearly defined mass of people being common together, but instead only a collection of all types of individuals? The ambit of what is acceptable has to expand, at least in principle, to include things that are, at face value, odd or crude or shocking. If the social impulse is limited to ‘recognising’ the other, all kinds of odd behavior must be accepted at face value but only in as far as it serves the interests of those who decide what is acceptable to keep the post-political status quo.
If we go along with Žižek’s description of a post-political consensus containing unresolved class struggles, the function of taste in society has not changed to any large degree. In this light, the definition of vulgarity is still just that: it is vulgar, from the Latin vulgus, in the sense of common, the taste of the unsophisticated mass, the crassness of the common people.
Vulgarity is used as marker of inferior social status, ignorance, and bad taste. It is still about consuming the right kind of things and using this as a demarcation to say. “I’m the right kind of person. You are the wrong kind of person”, “I know what’s good, what’s acceptable – you don’t.” This applies to the things people buy, the things they consume and the ideas to which they align themselves.
Here, the concept of the elite is useful. As Karl Marx describes in Die Deutsche Ideologie the ideas that rule society tend to be the ideas of the ruling class. The elite are not necessarily the materially privileged, but rather own the means of production, including the production of ideas. In this sense, they are the societal gatekeepers of what constitute good manners and good taste. They dictate what is acceptable to say and what is not, logic-chopping as necessary in order to accommodate the inevitable contradictions of the status quo.
The insistence by these gate keepers on political correctness is always with the aim of the simple upkeep of ‘good manners’; manners that will, they assert, eventually lead to positive changes in lived behaviour. Vulgarity, by this measure, can only be un-pc. As Judith Clark and Adam Phillips (the makers of the Barbican’s Vulgar exhibition) point out, “ … the word vulgar acts as a behavioural autocorrect, an authority that protects me from being … offensive, gaudy, raunchy, inappropriate.”
In reverse then, this is how vulgarity works; not as an intellectual argument against the elite but as a litmus test to find out who they are. When something is found vulgar, we need to look for who leads the outrage against it. If these can be identified, we have found the mouthpieces of the elite.
Coming back to the question ‘What happened to bad taste, I would say the interesting piece of the question is the ‘bad’: What happened to BAD taste?
This is what has changed. The content of the things that are good and the things that are bad have been reorganised along post-political lines. That which seems politically progressive is in fact more often than not an expression of the mainstream, of the neoliberal consensus. Everything that fails the moral imperative of recognition of, and representation of, individual identities as a political act quickly finds itself on the wrong side of what is politically correct, regardless of the actual political content. It is declared vulgar and unacceptable.
One of the things that is now acceptable is the appearance of vulgarity; one of the things that is not acceptable is genuine vulgarity. The expression of spontaneous, authentic and unfiltered vulgarity is part of the social imperative of the post-modern to express one’s true self, one’s individuality and ultimately one’s identity. The language of vulgarity is now part of the prism of identity, which is in turn the cultural expression of the consensus of late capitalism.
Some recent examples from the world of culture really shine a light on this:
- On October 19, Madonna told the crowd at Madison Square Garden.: “If you vote for Hillary Clinton, I will give you a blow job.”
The appearance of vulgarity is there in the reference to blow jobs. The content of that exchange is extraordinarily safe, mainstream, boring, towing the line – vote for Hilary Clinton.
- The band Pussy Riot. Their name is a calculated allusion to vulgarity. They plainly want to shock people with their outspoken bravery. Their recent song released last week is “Straight Outta Vagina”, which the Guardian calls ‘an unashamed feminist riposte to Donald Trump’. But who is the real vulgar one in this exchange? Who is really shocking? Of course it’s Donald Trump and his cretinous, unvarnished male swagger. That’s the vulgar impulse. The response to Trump from Pussy Riot is again, very down to earth, safe, unextraordinary, ‘you must respect women’. So they are not the vulgar ones. It would have been more surprising, and more shocking and provocative, and perhaps more radical, if Pussy Riot had agreed with Trump.
- The last example is Morrissey who said last Tuesday: “Brexit is magnificent”. Now this is genuine vulgarity. 52% people, the vulgar mass, the majority, have staked a claim, and Morrissey aligns himself with the uncouth masses. This is, of course, beyond the pale to the outraged ‘correct thinkers’ among us.
Here we can see that is not Taste that has changed but what is BAD. If you want to find out what is bad, you have to be on the ball about what is the consensus and what is not the consensus, and be able to distinguish the appearance of vulgarity and the content of vulgarity, that what perpetuates the status quo and that which challenges it.
Today, one of the markers of good taste, one of the ways that you demonstrate that you are not in fact vulgar, is to show a willingness to embrace crudeness and Bad Taste. But only the appearance of it. This is the post-vulgar, vulgarity in appearance, mainstream in essence.
Afterthought: After the US election in November, which ended with a surprise win for the boorish Trump, the concept of vulgarity seems even more important. The question must be, how can the president elect, the most powerful man in the world, also appear to be one of the most vulgar, most common men in the world? As quickly as he was elected, the tension between these seemingly opposite poles was exposed.
Last week Trump’s future vice-president, Mike Pence, went with his family to see the hit musical Hamilton on Broadway. He was booed by the audience. At the end of the play the black lead actor, Brandon Victor Dixon, addressed Pence directly, saying, “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Trump’s response was quick. Via Twitter he proclaimed that ‘The Theatre must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologise!”
Trump’s attempt to attack, by proxy of Pence, those who insulted him with accusations of vulgarity, clashed directly with the values typical of the upper middle class Broadway crowd. Trump, with his orange face, gaudy gold elevators, uncultured demeanour and crass attitudes is the apogee of vulgarity.
However, the mutual distain between the two sides in this vulgarity mudslinging contest demonstrates only that neither of these parties has any access to the real interests of ordinary Americans. Trump’s attempt to score points by demanding snooty liberals apologise for their long standing, haughty attitudes only came across as a weak, whiny and censorious.
On the other hand, the Hamilton musical itself can be seen as a good example of the cultural elite’s impusle to ‘educate’ the masses – preferably through artistic means – and instil in them the correct attitudes toward citizenship. These attitudes should, according to this logic, contain and demonstrate the moral imperatives of the post-political, the recognition of inclusivity and diversity. This attitude can only feel justified and emboldened after Trump’s head on response to it.
 e.g. Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism
(London: Verso Books, 2013a) p.1006.