Modern Vulgarity and Our Libertarian Future
Never has an age been more awash in vulgarity and obscenity than today. Yet, the flood of vulgarity has brought an art that also takes seriously the problems associated with lives consumed in vulgar pleasures, sex, obscenity and other vices.
Vulgar works of art are as old as human history—a classic in the genre is Aristophanes’ Assembly of Women, where the women of Athens take over the city and make a rule that strapping young men must have sex with older ugly women before they get access to nubile maidens. Aristophanes’ vulgarity serves the purpose of teaching that politics cannot impose such unnatural mating regulations if a healthy political community is to emerge.
Similarly, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World depicts orgies, group sex, new kinds of pornographic experiences called feelies, and other instances of cheap sex, all to show that lives without the possibility of love and interpersonal responsibility are shallow. The challenge is integrating love and sex together in a virtuous life disappears when love is reduced to sex, as it is in the Brave New World.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s short-story “Erostratus” presents a man who engages a prostitute, asks her to disrobe, and then orders her strut her stuff in front of him. He doesn’t want to violate her; he wants to reduce her to a sexual thing in his mind—and for her to know it. This thought the prostitute cannot stomach, so she robes and readies to leave even without taking the pay.
In each of these cases, the vulgarity serves the literary purpose of developing characters or showing how social attitudes undermine human goods. These works aim to educate and to make us see truths about our condition, even if those truths sometimes involve the consequences of an obsessive concern with obscene things.
Modern obscenity is much different. Pornography, the example of such modern obscenity, makes public intimate physical acts that are best experienced in private while suggesting that obscene acts are reducible to physical pleasure. This is why modern obscenity is said, on the Supreme Court’s standard, to appeal to “prurient interests,” though the Court has generally left such works uncensored unless they are utterly devoid of redeeming social or literary value. Much that is vulgar and obscene about modern culture is the result of our public acceptance of modern obscenity. A flood of pornography follows in its wake. Standards of decency are such that it is difficult to get the attention of people nowadays without a little sexual tension.
Yet the situation is not without reasonable grounds for hope. The conservative critique of modern obscenity does not given rise to a new censorship or a new Puritanism. Unregulated art has encouraged liberals interested in the human condition to make art along the lines of old Aristophanean vulgarity. Our art shows how our new, sex-obsessed society fails to answer human aspirations for love, community, virtue, and belonging; it compromises our ability to establish deep personal relations. It fosters empty lives, loneliness, compulsiveness, and thus to the need for overcoming.
Tocqueville tells us that democratic art will not be concerned with heroes or gods. Rather man’s passions, doubts, and “incomprehensible miseries” will inspire modern poetry and art. Through the miseries associated with lives dedicated to vulgarity and obscenity, much modern art indirectly teaches moral lessons that the old censors could appreciate.
Consider Seth Rogan’s Knocked Up! (2007). The irresponsible Ben Stone, a marijuana smoker living off compensation received from an accident and a porn site developer, has a one-night stand with an up and coming journalist. She gets pregnant after a miscommunication about condom use. He grows up slowly, learns to put her needs ahead of his, and promises to become a responsible, courageous father. The gross, vulgar, somewhat unrealistic movie actually puts the pornographic life in its place.
The great TV series The Wire (2002-2008) has too many sex scenes, violent actions, and vulgarities to count. Consider just one. Crime kingpin Avon Barksdale owns a strip club, but it is seedy and certainly nothing glamorous or titillating. The way dancers are treated in the movie tells much about the hyper-masculine world of Baltimore’s inner city—and why that world is inconsistent with love and responsibility. Jimmy, the kind of hero detective, ends up throwing his relationships away with empty, rear entry sex with women against his car on more than one occasion.
P.T. Anderson’s oeuvre, especially his Magnolia (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997), speak, much like the Wire, to the tragedies involved in narcissistic lives dedicated to sexual pleasure, drug use, and the pornography industry.
Conservatives since the 1950s have been asking whatever happened to Randolph Scott, the wholesome cowboy. He is gone for now and possibly forever, in America. With it has gone all discussion of censorship and regulation. Ours is a libertarian future, for the most part, when it comes to the arts, and this has definite drawbacks.
Our vulgar, obscene art nevertheless can often reinforce traditional morality because an art excessively concerned with vulgarity, conducted by serious people, cannot help but show the problems with vulgarity and obscenity. We are going to have to go through modern vulgarity to overcome it. This requires that we confront our culture, distinguishing between art with vulgarity and vulgar art.