Trump and the age of the vulgar

The rise of Donald Trump presidential was facilitated by the waves of populism that radiated from his public figure. Trump attracted voters who felt excluded from existing power, capital and government centers, and from the political discourse of the Obama administration that emphasized the importance of minorities, immigrants and women’s rights. Trump offered another vision, “attentive” to those who felt “left behind” by old-style politics. Trump’s manners, character and proposals were not only populist but also vulgar. Trump uses vulgarity to stick a finger in the eye of good taste. He chose a deliberately exaggerated style, gilded and luxurious, extravagant and rude. Even the image of his wife Melania shows the same spirit, covered in brilliant jewellery, wearing revealing garments. Both have turned the Trump name, stamped on luxury buildings across America, into a vulgar status symbol. Members of the old political elite were dismissive and complained that Trump, the perfect social outcast, does not know how to play by the rules of the “good society”. He is vulgar, they accused. But this is his power.

A new exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London reviews the history of vulgar fashion. Rich and fascinating, the exhibition offers not only a wide selection of contemporary and historical exhibits, but also some critical insights by curator Adam Phillips on the meaning of vulgarity in culture. Within the elegantly designed exhibition, vulgarity emerges as a conscious choice in defiance against the establishment, a bemused game that ignores the rules, a shiny exaggeration that knows no limits, and a sophisticated interpretation of familiar cultural tropes.

 

The exhibition begins with some dictionary definitions of vulgarity. The word derives from the Latin vulgaris and in turn from vulgus  which has given us also the German word people, volk. Hence vulgarity is a kind of populism. But it is a rough, unrefined populism that defies civilisation. The vulgar person does not belong to the ‘good society’, does not know the rules of behaviour. Eliza Doolittle as a vulgar cockney girl who becomes a “lady” in the musical My Fair Lady, reveals in her persona how vulgarity is rude and embarrassing, but also entertaining and fun, unconventional and “authentic”. Vulgarity needs correction, but it is, in its way, appealing.

Fashion is inherently vulgar, because it can transform a piece of art into a functional object, popular, wearable and commercial. In contrast to sublime art that aspires to be timeless and ethereal, fashion has a price tag and expiry date. At a certain point, it ceases to be relevant and attractive. Fashion designers had reduced the classical art of Greece and Rome into consumers’ product. Fashion copies artistic creations and brands them with a commercial logo. Is the Mondrian dress of Yves Saint Laurent an elegant tribute to modernist painting or a vulgar interpretation of abstract art?

How much gold makes a dress vulgar? Is the gold clergy-inspired dress of the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli vulgar or refined? Perhaps what makes the gold dress vulgar is the excess. Vulgar fashion is reckless. It emphasizes and exaggerates design elements irrespective of the good taste and refinement. Vulgar fashion offers no refined minimalism, but crazy rebellion against the bon ton, full of diamonds, glitter, textiles, fur, prints and ornaments.

Baroque style is vulgar because it ruthlessly exaggerates and enhances any element of design. But if baroque style offers interpretations on high culture, current vulgarism sends its long hands into the realm of poverty. The combination of luxurious dresses and simple fabrics, like the expensive Miu Miu jeans outfits for spring 2017, is also vulgar. It is vulgar because it appropriates the ultimate middle class fashion item, jeans, and manipulates it into a luxury status symbol for the rich, way beyond the reach of its original wearers.

The exhibition manages to evoke aesthetic and moral questions. It is interesting because it draws not only on archival garments but also on that contemporary designer clothing, transferred directly from the fashion shows to the ‘respectable’ museum. This act blurs the thin line between consumer goods and creative art.  Yet perhaps the main message of this exhibition is that vulgarity is the very essence of this blurring, a conscious act of breaking the divide between ethics and economics. However, a moralising attitude would necessarily fail at undoing the damage caused by vulgarity. The reason is simple: as radical British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes declares in a video interview, vulgarity is ultimately a lot of fun.

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Sabbioneta, an Italian utopia

Few places are as daunted by their past as Sabbioneta, the ideal city envisaged by Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna in the 16th century. The Duke Vespasiano was a minor member of the famous clan of the Gonzaga, who ruled the near-by city-state of Mantova. Between 1554 and his death in 1591, he dedicated his energies to transforming his little duchy, the forgotten and insignificant village of Sabbinetta, into a humanist’s utopia.

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Sabbionetta was supposed to host all the institutions and buildings that a secular cultured humanist could want and need: a frescoed palace with a public art gallery, a large library for scholars to browse his book collection, a municipal palace of government, a theater, a large piazza for public rallies, a church (to satisfy the local clergy) and a synagogue (to attract wealthy Jewish financiers), beautiful parks dedicated to leisurely activities, all surrounded by fortified defensive walls. Inspired by renaissance utopias, Vespasiano built an ideal city to match his political and moral vision as a scholar and art-loving enlightened ruler.

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Last winter I visited the city, located less than an hour from Mantova, and found a material example for the power of utopian projects and their inherent limitations. I arrived in Sabbioneta on a cold, rainy, winter day. The bus dropped me off at the gate of the walled city, now surrounded by green fields. I walked into the majestic city square, turned right and entered Vespasiano’s palace. The red-brick monumental building was cold and empty. The humanist duke, an ardent art collector, constructed his palace as a consequence of frescoed rooms that led to the ‘gallery of the antiques’, a large windowed corridor meant to host artefacts from the duke’s collection. Today, the rundown palace hosts temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit, an exhibition of photography by Andy Warhol enhanced the surreal atmosphere at the empty palace, an ironic suggestion that Vespasiano’s 15 minutes of glory had long passed.

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After a stroll in the abandoned synagogue (the Jewish community has long left for Mantova or Milan) and a visit in the local church that hosts Vespasiano’s mausoleum, I sought refuge from the chill of this ghost city in a local café. Between the renaissance monuments, the locals have constructed the necessary spaces for the survival of a small, unassuming Italian village: a couple of cafés and restaurants, a newspaper stand, a post-office and a hardware shop. At the café, the barista told me that even in summer, Sabbioneta lives only through the dreams of its founder. Very few people inhabit the old city, because its fame has raised the rents beyond the locals’ budget, while lack of commercial or industrial initiatives had increased employment.

The insistence on preserving the utopian vision of Vespasiano untouched and unspoilt has alienated many of the young local entrepreneurs. Without an active citizenry, Sabbioneta cannot rise above its mundane existence as a provincial village trapped in an ossified museum city. It lives in the eternal shade of the dead architectural realisation of one man’s political and cultural vision. Vespasiano may have been the perfect ruler, a philosopher-king who envisaged a perfect public life for his subjects. But his vision lived and died with him. He was unable to rally the support of the local population to ensure the continuity of his civil utopia. Without a demos, Sabbioneta has no life. Today, all that is left an empty buildings and a utopian dream, whose ambitious scale any local attempt to revive the city.

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Waiting for the bus back to Mantova, I thought that the etymology of Utopia, a non-place, suggested that the realisation of the ‘ideal city’ was a doomed project. Maybe the failure of Sabbioneta provides an opportunity for inward inspection, a soul-searching exercise for planners of contemporary utopias. 500 years after the publication of Thomas More’s celebrated book, a visit to Sabbioneta is a melancholic reminder of the difficulty of constructing a real place according to ideal plans.

 

Review of A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci

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The final version of this review will be published in Political Studies Review, Volume 14 of the Journal, Issue 4, November 2016.

A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci (ed. and trans. by Derek Boothman). London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 2014.

This volume is a collection of the early letters of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian Marxist political thinker and leader of the Italian Communist Party. Gramsci’s prison diaries, written during his long incarceration under the Fascist regime in Italy, appeared in English translation in 1994 and have since then become a reference point for theorists and historians alike. However, his earlier correspondence, dating from 1908-1926, have not yet been translated. The new collection offers therefore a much-needed addition to the English bookshelf of Gramsci’s works. During the two decades covered in this volume, Gramsci left his native rural Sardinia, discovered Marxism as a student at the University of Turin, and emerged on the national and international political scene as one of the key political leaders in Italy. As this volume reminds us, it is not sufficient to read the prison diaries to understand Gramsci’s thought. His social and political ideas were shaped while engaging actively in politics in Sardinia, as a student in Turin, as a founding member of the Italian Communist Party and its representative in Moscow, and finally in Rome. The collection includes two thirds of the known correspondence of Antonio Gramsci from his high school days up to his arrest, revealing his complex relations with his family, with his wife Julija Schucht, with other revolutionary activists like Palmiro Togliatti, Amedeo Bordiga, and with members of the Comintern in Moscow including Leon Trotsky.

As the editor and translator Derek Boothman suggests in his insightful introduction, the selection of letters sheds light on the evolution and continuities in Gramsci’s thought, tracing the early emergence through dialogue of key Gramscian themes like the nature of the superstructures of society, centralism and party politics, popular culture, passive revolution, hegemony and social alliances (49-50). Boothman’s introduction helps situate the letters in historical context, provides biographical details about Gramsci and his main interlocutors, and explains the conceptual meaning of the letters in the wider framework of his thought. The wide-ranging thematic scope of the letters – personal meditations, political commentary, policy plans for the Communist Party and theoretical reflections – offers a wealth of insights for scholars acquainted with Gramsci’s later writings as well as for first time readers of his work. The English translation from the original Italian is accurately and meticulously executed, paying attention to the different linguistic registers deployed by Gramsci in different periods in his life. Thus, this selection of letters represents a welcome addition to the English language sources by Gramsci and about his work.

 

 

 

 

Women activism and political impact

“Becoming political activists is extremely empowering.”

I heard this statement last night from Michal Barak, an Israeli lawyer who is among the founders of the new organization Women Wage Peace. Michal came to Cambridge with the Palastinian-Israeli social worker Samah Salaime Egbariya,  to discuss their experience of despair during the Gaza war last summer and to tell about their initiative of a women-led peace movement in Israel, which has gathered momentum towards the upcoming general elections in March.

Women wage peace is a non-partisan movement aimed at raising awareness among politicians and the general public of the need for a permanent peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. It gathers over 8,000 women who share a commitment for peace, if nothing else. WIthout offering a  specific solution to the middle east conflict, the organization invites citizens and politicians to engage in fruitful discussions and eventually negotiations for a peace agreement (rather than temporary settlement). I’ve been a member of this organization since the summer, and followed their activities, mostly online.

What is the value of women peace movement? This question has two parts: first, what is the value of women as political activists, and second, why found another non-partisan movement when decision-making is evidently centred in the parties and the parliament.

In reply to the first question, women activists said that they felt more at ease to express their view in feminine company, because the reaction of men to their ideas about politics, security and military issues was dismissive and impatient. They felt that despite the fact that there are leading women in Israeli politics, a woman is not taken as seriously as men. Often, women are not invited to debates on national security and politics (they take more active part in debates on social issues). A women-led movement would allow women to express themselves freely.

However, can we, and should we stretch this argument to say that women have a distinct voice in political debate, that is fundamentally different from men’s? Do they bring a different vision, shaped by their experience as women? I can easily think about women who were political activists for a variety of causes: first of all feminism and gender equality, but also racial equality, world federation, European peace, and much more. Would their action be more effective within a female-led group? Some women say that they feel more comfortable to express themselves among other women. While I can easily identify with this feeling, I strongly believe that the challenge remains to go out there and establish the feminine voice as a legitimate one in a mixed society, as a representative of a particular worldview and not of women as such. While there is nothing inherently wrong in a group of women calling for change, I am concerned by the argument that women feel more comfortable to act and speak out among women. This may perpetuate, rather than help overcome, their difficulties.

The answer to the second question, whether there is need for another peace movement, is, for me, more evident. Yes. In the current situation, an organization that groups people from different backgrounds, beliefs, religions and places, around a shared goal of peace, is doubtfully important. The growing despair in the Israeli public about possible solutions for the conflict calls for a grassroots movement promoting change. Yet for me the final test remains the movement’s ability to impact decision making in the parliament. Its activities should go well beyond the online sphere or the crossroads manifestations. As much as one wants to talk about change from below, the social protest of 2011 shows that effective change can only be attained within political institutions. Only when elected to parliament did the protest leaders have the power to influence socio-economic politics.

Last night was inspiring and encouraging. The women who decided to dedicate time and energies to promote peace deserve more media and public attention. But in my view, they deserve that not because they are women, but because their cause is right.

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