Commentary Magazine


Fashions in Vulgarity

Nothing, in a Sense, seems easier to chronicle—perhaps in pictures alone—than a history of bad taste. The past is strewn with horrible examples, with McKinley-period offerings in architecture, with German beer-mug trophies in ornamentation. Every age yields fictional accounts of moneyed vulgarians—Trimalchio in ancient Rome, M. Jourdain in 17th-century France, the Veneerings in 19th-century England. Was “bad taste” ever more rife than among England’s indigestible wedding cakes in stone? Yet was “vulgarity” ever more ridiculous than with Lord Chesterfield, who deemed it vulgar to laugh aloud?

But, though nothing seems more easily compiled than a chronicle of bad taste, nothing after a while calls out more for revision. Let fifty years go by, and it is not what the chronicler excoriated that seems vulgar, but what he extolled. In the early 1920′s a critic of décor, championing functional furniture, might have whacked away at the curlicued accessories of his grandparents. Today all too many people wish their keepsakes had been kept, and shudder at the metal frames and tubular stems that passed for chairs and tables. Clearly, since taste began, one generation’s fashion becomes the next generation’s fright.

Hence, to just the degree that it proclaims What’s Done and proscribes What Will Never Do, every catalogue of vulgarity is a comedy of over-assurance. The Augustans, while thinking it effeminate for men to use umbrellas, found it manly for them to carry muffs. The Victorians, while avoiding mention of illness and sex, doted on rancid practical jokes. Yet, even in the face of such warnings, we might try to discover vulgarity’s least common denominator. From the past, we perhaps get a clue through its verbal alliances—“vulgar display,” for example, or “vulgar presumption.” Vulgar display brings to mind large overdressed Victorian families living in large overdecorated Victorian houses and seated—for hours—at large overloaded dinner tables. It also suggests the damage Mrs. Grundy did in the role of Emily Post. Respectable matrons dared not smoke cigarettes but could put away slice after slice of cake; or, forced to keep their bodies fully covered, they weighed them down with jewels.

“Vulgar presumption” has fallen into disuse, not because people have ceased to presume—quite the contrary—but because the phrase became a caste reproof. But of course the class bias went very deep, often literally to the roots of the word itself, to vulgus or the common people. Something was vulgar, in other words, that smacked of a lower class than one’s own. This bias is not uninstructive, but today the connotations of vulgarity have not only overflowed class banks, they have been rechanneled in a quite different direction. Today we might even contend that it is only the common people—along with decidedly uncommon ones—who aren’t vulgar. They may be coarse or crude, but the things they do that are most beyond the pale—belch or spit, eat with their knives or sleep in their underwear—don’t fit our current sense of vulgar at all. It is crude to eat with your knife; what is vulgar is to drink tea with your little finger extended. It is disgusting to pick your teeth; what is vulgar is to use a gold toothpick. It is illiterate to say “ain’t I”; what is vulgar is to say “aren’t I.” The common people aren’t vulgar if only because they don’t know enough, or care enough, to be.

It is among what once was termed their betters that vulgarity chiefly flourishes. We encounter it, I think, when a certain awareness has entered in, a certain conception—or misconception—of social or cultural or aesthetic Tightness and wrong, together with a craving to seem right. Vulgarity thus involves self-interest or self-aggrandizement, an effort to falsify or floodlight one’s standing or prestige, one’s claims to birth or knowledge or refinement or taste. People are equally vulgar when, from a like motive, they refuse to do something. Leonard Lyons told of a Broadway figure who displayed a new gold cigarette case. “I’m sick of gold,” he remarked. “What I’d really have liked was a platinum cigarette case; but my friends would have thought it was silver.”

In its more innocuous forms, vulgarity is doubtless mere vanity—people’s wanting to look their best, or better than their best. Cromwell may have exhorted the portraitist to paint him warts and all; most of us want the warts removed, and dimples added. In human, as opposed to artistic, terms vulgarity involves more than offending aesthetically, more than the pretentious or spurious in style or tone or form. Vulgar people often display perfect “form”—dress well, talk well, entertain smartly; in fact, the very point may be that as they grow outwardly more presentable, they get inwardly more insensitive. Or today they can be so poised and self-assured in their vulgarity as actually to flaunt it; a famous theater personage sent out, as a Christmas card, a picture of himself posing for a beer ad.

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For vulgarity doesn’t stand still. There are fashions in it; it shifts ground, it shows progress, it sometimes moves up in the world. Its current manifestations suggest how strikingly today’s world differs from that of a century and more ago: machinery and mass production, literacy and mass communication, democracy and relatively classless living, have proved banes and blessings both.

If we encounter less outright vulgarity today, there is in turn a kind of ubiquitous vulgarization. The old material display—the overmuch, the over-large, the over-stuffed, the over-shiny—has in great part been streamlined into submission; our material tastes have not only profited from the excesses of the past, they have been shaped by the exigencies of the present. What with a general lack of space today, and lack of servants; what with doctors and diets, the rise of sport and the decline of prudery, people now eat, dress, live, travel, entertain much more simply. Splashiness has grown curiously unchic. Most people tend to live like most other people, in a world of deepfreezes, dishwashers, casseroles, and baby sitters; and a man will very likely see the same dress on his secretary as on his wife. As almost no one today is as cultivated or highbred as formerly, so almost no one is as benighted or boorish. And with so much social and cultural leveling off, vulgar display has steeply declined.

The new vulgarity, it seems to me, is different. The old vulgarity followed that classic rule for the playwright: always show rather than tell. The vulgar used to show how grand they were by the size of their houses, the splendor of their furnishings, the snootiness of their butlers; by how they overdressed or overtipped—or simply overrode those about them. They never told you they were rich; they never had to.

Today the old stage formula has given way to a blunter means of proclaiming one’s importance. Vulgarity has abandoned the playwright’s method for the press agent’s, self-display for self-advertisement. What is more, it is much less the business world that sets the pace in vulgarity than the world of Madison Avenue, of personalized journalism, of TV and Hollywood, of the “communication arts”—of the packagers of culture and the vocal chords of commerce. In that world—whose slogans sometimes actually become shibboleths—people, beyond frequently hiring paid publicists, distribute their own testimonials, write their own plugs, sing their own praises. And when not busy patting their own backs, they are slapping, or stabbing, other people’s. When they cannot command the limelight, they invade it. This, I need hardly say, is an age of name-dropping; and even more, an age of last-name-dropping, when on meeting a famous man of sixty, someone aged twenty-two straightway calls him Bill. And as the first name flourishes in speech, so the first person does in writing. Serious writers compose waggish pieces as a way of plugging their books. Columnists brag, when the most piffling news story breaks, how they had predicted it weeks—nay, months—before. Into the body of their newspaper stints people inject commercials about their TV appearances. When Mr. Mike Wallace interviews Martin Luther King, a large picture of King is flanked by a just-as-large picture of Wallace. Entertaining as a way of getting on in the world is scarcely new; but today, as a form of self-advancement in professional circles, it outdoes the crudest wining and dining of department-store buyers, the most shameless maneuvering of social climbers. There is a whole dramaturgy of expense-account hospitality, of blandly feeding the mouth that bites you, of striking up useful connections on sofas, of cooking up deals in the middle of dinner, of instant self-promotion along the lines of instant coffee. Even those hostesses who today are above the battle and imagine they are exhibiting lions, are merely racing rats.

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However appalling all this may seem, it may yet—when taken inside the framework of the age—be inevitable. What with ratings and samplings, what with press-agentry and polls, what with ruthless competition—and hence gnawing anxiety—at cultural no less than commercial levels, people who are supposed to be molding others must more and more push and promote themselves, make shop windows of their offices, make show windows of their homes, make bylines of their holidays, syndicate their honeymoons.

Furthermore, the whole technique of “informing” and “educating” mass audiences today tends to throw privacy to the winds and to make publicity, far from a reprehensible aspect of modern life, a greatly respected one. All kinds of bigwigs—including intellectual ones—submit, on all kinds of media, to all kinds of questions from all kinds of questioners. To use zoological terms once again—it gets harder and harder to use human ones—there is now, of course, as a vital part of the rat race, a kind of human horse show in which blue-ribboned personalities are trotted up and down, are photographed, interviewed, round-tabled, headlined, televised, shown endorsing things, christening things, attending things, or just being in the midst of things. For the amateur in all this, doubtless the appeal to vanity is enough. But for the professionals, all this—to be fair about it—is part of a fierce struggle not just to succeed but to survive. Unless their photographs constantly appear, they will quickly lose face; again and again and again they must jettison what is left of their taste to safeguard what is left of their talent. The professionals, in their glass houses, are throwing stones at one another and, on occasion, bombs. For big-name feuding is no longer mere internecine strife: the feuding today is a great spectator sport, and which of two feuders will come out ahead is on a par with which of two boxers will, or two football teams.

The worst part of all this is that it has become such a spectator sport. It was said long ago that evil communications corrupt good manners; it might be said more pertinently today that mass communications corrupt them—that we are all being gradually worn down, that without wanting or often being aware of it, we are acquiescing today in what twenty years ago would have appalled us. For today’s vulgarity is far more contaminating to educated people, to a superior kind of people, than the old brand was: people who could never have been persuaded to overdress, or live ostentatiously, or become materialist status seekers, have become more and more reconciled to a loss of privacy, a lack of modesty, an acceptance of the self as a kind of public commodity. And how not, with the very air people breathe heavily commercialized, with the very lives they live everywhere treated as so much copy? Quite literally, it is the gossip columnist’s business today to discuss what is none of his business. But that very statement may not seem valid much longer, or fails to seem so already. For we have entered in America on a new species of communism, a thoroughly capitalist communism, one that sanctions, and indeed exalts, private ownership of things—at the cost of decreeing public ownership of people. The State, oftener called the Public, has demanded the keys to our bedrooms, and a camera permit to all parts of our house; the right to attend not only our weddings but our lyings-in, and indeed to scrutinize and analyze and alter the blueprints of our futures and the floor plans of our lives.

Frequently, too, the click of cameras merges with the clink of silver. Have we so soon forgotten that while quiz programs flourished, school children spelled out, for thousands of dollars, words like pharmaceutical—while the sponsor was introducing words like moisturize? And had the quiz shows not expired through the crookedness of the programs, surely they would have eventually collapsed through the ever-mounting crassness of the audience. For already by the time of the scandals, the once so spectacular $64,000 questions had begun to seem mingy; where once one’s eyes had popped at the take-home pay, one now merely shrugged or yawned. The stakes had to be steadily, and sensationally, boosted; and by now, surely, on just what make of revolver Lincoln had been killed with would have hung 100,000 shares of A. T.&T. or the tallest skyscraper in Toledo. But since money isn’t everything, we have still that other very popular kind of quiz program where interviewers ask people, before many millions of listeners, the sort of questions that their closest friends would never ask them when alone.

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It is perfectly True, of course, that it takes two to make up such interviews and that it takes millions, listening in, to make a go of them. Obviously, without people willing to be questioned and large audiences intent on the answers, there could be no such programs. But psychologically and sociologically, the allotment of blame is not so simple. With the person being interviewed, craving for the limelight may count for less than the fear that it will go elsewhere. And in an age where publicity has become respectable and where psychiatry has licensed every one to Tell All, fewer and fewer are those who will wish to say No. But what has happened to the performer is in the end less important than what has happened to the public. There is no need to talk cant: the average person, rather like the superior person, possesses curiosity and relishes gossip. But to argue that because most people have a touch of the Peeping Tom, it is their inquisitiveness that creates such programs, is pure peeping-tommyrot. For we bring up our children, we order our lives, we try to regulate our society on the contrary principle that our baser instincts should not be pandered to. Those who are most genuinely concerned for freedom of speech are not one whit less concerned for the right to privacy. Nor are such people misled by moral gimmicks—as when sensationalism appears, vigorously waving the banner of truth; or when psychiatry is piously invoked to chaperon smut. The motive of the scandal magazines and the career gossip-mongers is always clear: they may be corrupt, but they are not confusing. It is where the motive attempts a mask, it is where—at a higher cultural level—man’s privacy is invaded on the pretext of a sociological search warrant, it is where the methods of Barnum seek acceptance in the name of Freud, that a more menacing vulgarization occurs. The claim that such practices will widen our horizons or will deepen our understanding can only threaten our culture; and the fourteen-letter words about sex or perversion are corrupting as the four-letter words never were. Some of our columnist guides and TV mentors seem half the time like cultural marriage brokers, and as the progeny of what they mate, what sort of young will inhabit the world of tomorrow? For in time values not only get tarnished; they get squarely turned around. Take a most elementary example. A few years ago George S. Kaufman, by protesting that Stille nacht had become a mere Christmas TV commercial, aroused a storm of protest against himself. And when that happens, who shall argue that people can distinguish God from Mammon, or Christmas from a White Sale, or a complaint against vulgarity from vulgarity itself?

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We live in a World where TV is now sovereign, is indeed so enthroned that 50,000,000 Americans sit bareheaded before it for hours, enduring blare for the sake of glare, and plagued by those powers behind the throne, the intrusive—and worse yet, the intimidated—sponsors. Of course there are good television programs; but sociologically that seems beside the point. The sociological crusher is that for vast numbers of people TV has become viciously habit-forming and brain-softening and taste-degrading; has altered for the worse—as no previous form of communication or entertainment could—the whole cultural climate of American life. Of its intrusive side—the hopeless vulgarity of the commercials; or of its intimidated side—the withdrawing of anything offered in the name of culture at the first whisper of “controversy”—enough has been said, if enough ever can be. But confining ourselves to what we are more immediately concerned with, privacy all too clearly was in sufficient danger before TV appeared; and TV has given it its death blow. And as all liking for privacy vanishes, all dislike of publicity must tend to vanish too. Men that one would have supposed had distinction are nowadays Men of Distinction by way of the ads. Indeed, the better known a man is for his taste or breeding or good character, the more he is sought out to sully or betray them. Virtue has become a big-board commodity; and one that can only triumph by perishing, or survive by seeming priggish. The vulgarity that went with a gorging of food and a greed for possessions was at any rate a material thing, a kind of bodily indulgence; and it could often be material taste on the way up. Today’s dominant vulgarity betrays a kind of corruption of the mind, of moral taste on the way down. And when those who shape our manners send out their beer blurbs as Christmas cards, who shall dare boast that the vulgarity that once featured a clock planted in a Venus de Milo’s belly has disappeared? Some of us might even put back the clock if we could.

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