Coarse Carnival The Triumph of Vulgarity

Every year Germany's Carnival celebrations include a parade of vulgar political floats on the Monday before Lent. But what if shamelessness and the delight in bad taste is far from over on Ash Wednesday?
A float from the 2017 Düsseldorf carnival parade.

Carnival has never placed any value on decorum, manners or a civil code of conduct.

On the contrary, it flouts common decency, even more so the hygiene of keeping a distance. As shameless as it is, carnival seeks sweaty contact. People shove, lock arms and rock back and forth in time to the music, grin and yell, get drunk and urinate in public. In short, they let it all hang out. After all, that’s the whole idea behind the “fifth season of the year.” Turn morals upside down, uproariously ridicule those in power, stick your tongue out at authority - they can all kiss my ass!

Since the Late Middle Ages, carnival has turned the world on its head. Once a year, the basic rules of decency are suspended, then the mind submits to the carnal body and moral convention to demands of the vulgar, then the king is dethroned and the jester elevated to ruler, the holy profaned and the vulgar is danced around like a golden calf. Carnival means a travesty of the prevailing morals, the suspension of established conventions - though not necessarily to dispose of order. Instead the exceptional situation stabilizes the status quo that it temporarily suspends. By celebrating chaos, the people are calling themselves to order, for “it’s all over on Ash Wednesday,” which marks the start of Lent.

Quelle: dpa
A float depicting British Prime Minister Theresa May.
(Source: dpa)

But what if the filthy laughter bursts beyond the “crazy days” of carnival? What if the exceptional situation turns into a permanent routine and the counterculture flips over into a constant lack of culture? Then we experience the carnivalization of the world and, with it, the triumphant spread of vulgarity, for which nothing is holy and nothing alien anymore.

If vulgarity was once an exception to the rule, today it is the rule that no longer knows any exception. It has penetrated from the ad sections of city magazines (“Kinky slut, ready to do anything”) into every sphere of life, especially into an entertainment culture that has helplessly surrendered itself to it.  It's to be found not only in trash TV, vulgarity’s legitimate domain, with its jungle-themed survival camps and casting shows, but also in the arts, where celebrated stars like Jeff Koons and Richard Prince have inflated the cheapest glitter effects of popular culture into symbols of a cute and monstrous cliché. Or the theater, which is turning classics into orgies of blood and balls with anti-educational zeal. The educated, in particular, appear to have a masochistic joy in dragging the true, the good, and the beautiful through the dirt. Is it because modern culture secretly sympathizes with the vulgar?

The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno once defined the vulgar in art as “the subjective identification with objectively reproduced humiliation” - and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. He considered the culture industry and the popularization of art works to be abominations. And yet vulgarity entered the stage as a sign of dissent in the pop music of the 1960s, as a protest against the sublime, as an anti-bourgeois gesture.

A subversive, uninhibited self rebelling against a repressive ethics of manners and celebrating the ethos of authenticity and lack of self distance: “That’s the way I am, so what?” The symbolic attacks are regularly aimed below the belt. The fund of obscene gestures ranges from Elvis Presley’s swinging hips and Frank Zappa sitting on the toilet to Michael Jackson’s crotch-grabbing and Miley Cyrus showing her rear and tongue. The more vulgarity, the better!

Quelle: dpa
A float for the 2017 Carnival parade in Düsseldorf depicting Donald Trump and Lady Liberty.
(Source: dpa)

Apparently, the longing for the gutter promises release from culture’s constraints. Fashion knows this best of all. It not only flirts with the bling-bling of bad taste, with rhinestone-studded sunglasses und blatant tattoos. It ennobles the ugly, enthrones trash. The London exhibit "The Vulgar. Fashion Redefined," which moved to Vienna at the beginning of March shows that fashion is also always a carnival- a festival of the ostentatious and arrogant, of things slathered on too thickly. It flirts with pornography and feeds off the aggressive energies of the vulgar and holds up a distorting mirror to good taste: “Look here, this is how you want to be, you just don’t dare.”

Not much is left in the meantime from the anti-authoritarian rebellion of pop and the anarchic stimulus of fashion, aside from “loss of shame.” Madonna and Lady Gaga are today the figureheads of an exhibitionist competition in trying to outdo each other, nothing more. The vulgarity of pop has long since seeped into everyday life, into our modes of behavior. Sociologists speak of informalizing. Whatever you want is allowed. You can call it being freed from the prison of morals. But also a deterioration, a willful negligence.

The feeling for what is right and proper - and what isn’t - has been lost. The spirit of laissez-faire leads, as the German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky says, to “downward adaptation.” You then walk through town with a bottle of beer, put on makeup in the train or post a selfie in a bikini on Facebook.

Quelle: dpa
The end of a Düsseldorf carnival float showing Chancellor candidate Martin Schulz going after the mammoth of German politics, sitting Chancellor Angela Merkel.
(Source: dpa)

Above all, in an act of catching-up in doing away with taboos, women have discovered vulgarity. It was still frowned upon for the Alice Schwarz generation to play with sexisms. Today, brash young feminists loudly proclaim to the world their pleasure in sex to underscore the consummated emancipation. Female comedians wallow in “Wetlands” and bellow about their “fuckability.” The riot-comedian Carolin Kebekus appears with her legs spread apart, “with a pair,” and likes to talk about women farting (“incredibly funny”) and, in the name of “Pussy Terror,” calls for a “sexy feminism” that doesn’t sound like “unshaven and unfucked." Vulgarity, for Ms. Kebekus, that’s a compliment.

That’s vulgarity’s trade secret. Being outrageous ensures applause, smug complacency wins points. Vulgar is in its own element, and that of its audience, when it is able to traduce others. The entertainment industry lives from the smirking consent, from appealing to the lowest instincts. Comedians like Atze Schröder and Mario Barth reap howls of laughter when they can bring the world down to the lowest below-the-belt denominator. The star is vicariously vulgar. He is loved by the audience for his profanity. He can get away with anything. His nobody-can-touch-me ego sets him beyond the bounds of propriety.

Quelle: dpa
Lady Liberty gets her revenge in a float for the Düsseldorf carnival parade.
(Source: dpa)

In that, it sets styles, even for politicians. Sigmar Gabriel and Peer Steinbrück flip the bird, the Christian Democrats’ secretary general, Peter Tauber, tells an “asshole” to shut up and the chancellor's chief of staff, Roland Pofalla, can’t stand the sight of a fellow party member’s “mug” anymore. But all of that is nothing compared to the current spectacle of vulgarity in the United States. The propensity for pomp, self-aggrandizement, for open sexism and humiliation of those with a different opinion - Donald Trump is living proof of the decree by the German pope of manners, Asfa-Wossen Asserate: “He who is vulgar, is always and utterly vulgar.”

If that is so, then vulgar’s victory will be total. Through its sheer presence, simply by being outrageous, it degrades everyone else to speechless onlookers. This makes a dialog impossible. The current affairs program, the “heute show,” on German public television, which sees itself surrounded by nothing but “dumbasses,” is the prime example of a vulgarity that, in the name of good intentions, silences everything political with vociferation. In fact, public television is presenting itself here as an extended arm of asocial media that one shouldn’t look upon as an echo chamber of one’s own opinions - but rather as a baboon cage in which groups of people, who have abandoned their civilized veneer, are beating their breasts and signaling they’re ready to bite.


Dieter Schnaas and Christopher Schwarz write for business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the authors, [email protected] and [email protected]