A new exhibition, recently opened at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, titled The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, claims to examine the “scandal of taste”. Artefacts include a pair of denim thigh-high boots, encrusted with diamonds, designed by Manolo Blahnik in collaboration with the singer Rihanna, and a tweed jacket and mini-crinoline ensemble by the Dutch designer Walter Van Beirendonck. The crinoline opens at the waist to reveal an elephant’s trunk protruding like an oversized phallus. It’s a fun and informative show, illustrating the ways in which vulgar design can be both at the vanguard of fashion and vetoed as a form of bad taste.
The exhibition, curated by Judith Clark, professor of fashion and museology at the London College of Fashion, and her partner, the writer and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, attempts to reconceive “vulgarity”, suggesting that it could be a useful term rather than a thoughtless pejorative, and one whose stakes might extend beyond the realm of fashion. The intelligence of the show lies in this understanding of fashion as just one of the places where we develop and experiment with big ideas. At its heart is an idea of vulgarity as an important aesthetic category – and one that might reveal something particularly acute about the state of our selves and our societies at this critical juncture of history.
There was a time, of course, when we took aesthetic categories seriously. Our finest philosophical minds would devote themselves to understanding what it meant for something to be “sublime” or “beautiful”, exploring how the epithets “grotesque” or “monstrous” operated in social, moral and political contexts. In 1790, Kant reasoned that the experience of the sublime could compel us to confront the limitations of our own understanding, imparting a sharpened sense of the workings of our faculties. The point is that aesthetic categories like the sublime are intellectual, not empty, and they warrant our continued inspection. But if it is true that aesthetic categories reflect back to us a complex picture of our dilemmas and our proclivities, our times and our temperaments, is ours really an age of vulgarity? And how do we reconcile ourselves to this as educators and intellectuals?
The strongest evidence for the vulgarity of our age, is, of course, represented by one of the current US presidential candidates. Quite apart from the uncurbed vulgarity of his enunciations on women, Donald Trump’s is also the vulgarity of commerce, capitalism and unbridled extravagance, dazzlingly displayed. This is epitomised in the stoutly assertive TRUMP brand, lavishly stamped in gold across golf courses, luxury hotels and high-end real estate around the world. And if universities fancy themselves as spaces of dignified intellectual endeavour free from such crude market forces, well, not even universities can escape Trump’s monetising impulse.
Between 2005 and 2010, the “Trump University LLC”, a for-profit US company, offered a real estate training programme to fee-paying students. It is presently subject to two class action lawsuits, soon to be heard in federal court, with former students alleging fraud, misleading marketing practices and aggressive sales tactics. In 2010, “Trump University” was compelled to change its name to “The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative” after the New York State Department of Education rebuked its unlawful use of the title “university” without the requisite licence.
Bona fide universities might breathe a sigh of relief at the dignity restored to our good name and the healthy distance maintained between decent educational institutions and vulgar business enterprises. But vulgarity is a deeply ambivalent category. Nothing about it is clear-cut. It derives from the Latin “vulgaris” – of the masses or the common people. If Trump is the poster boy of vulgarity, the representative of a particular kind of uncouthness that masquerades in showy displays of wealth, the worry is that his vulgarity might also be truly vulgar in that other sense of the word and his campaign connect with that vast portion of the electorate vaguely described as “ordinary people”.
An education, we might think, is one remedy for vulgarity, a smoothing of rough edges, the tempering of judgement and taste, which is why many of us strive to ensure that it is equally available to all. The most basic thing an education can do, though, is to expose students to fully formed thought, expressed in coherent syntactical constructions and multiple clauses. Despite boasts of his education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (proof of his “very good brain”), Trump’s tendency for misshapen sentences and erratically organised phrases betrays a different kind of vulgarity, immediately recognisable to those of us who regularly mark essays or engage in teaching. One commentator kindly described Trump’s speech patterns as a mangled form of jazz, a weirdly cadenced spoken poetry. When his one-time rival for the Republican presidential candidacy, Marco Rubio, accused him of pointless repetition in a CNN debate, Trump adamantly replied: “I do not repeat myself. I do not repeat myself.”
Vulgarity can take the form of a kind of stupidity, betrayed not only in what we say but in how we say it. Trump’s inability to manage a sentence with more than one clause and his jarringly arrhythmic grammatical formulations betray someone who has never learned to listen to conversation in his own language let alone in another, nor spent time reading, patiently understanding and acquiring the patterns of adult discourse, working out how to share in a common speech that is clear, complete and coherent. This is the mark of an exceptionally bad, and thankfully uncommon, kind of student. So, if we are worried about the vulgarity of our post-factual and populist age, perhaps we might also have faith in “ordinary people” and our capacities to listen and engage in a common language committed to a common good.
Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.