The Viewing of Nature

On experiencing wildlife documentaries…

The last time I broke up with a guy, I kept his Netflix log-in and continued using our shared account. However, in a deliberate act of obfuscation, I only watched nature documentaries, so as to advertise my activity while remaining emotionally impenetrable. “Go ahead,” I thought, “check your ‘Continue Watching.’ You will learn nothing of my heart, save for my love of monsoon-based ecosystems.”

Growing up, my television-skeptical mother limited my screen-time, but allowed me unlimited viewing of Marty Stouffer’s Wild America on the grounds that it was “educational.” The PBS series certainly gave the impression of an immersive lecture in zoology, with Stouffer’s dopey, flat narrations dropping innocuous facts about American wildlife over footage that captivated audiences at the time, despite looking positively amateurish by today’s standards.

The alleged neutrality of the nature documentary has always been a part of its appeal, and its advocates are quick to praise the objectivity and pedagogical value of the genre. This is the myth that fuels our self-satisfied adoration; we do not believe we are watching a “movie,” we believe we are watching “nature,” a Rousseauian Garden of Eden, free from the meddling interpretive lens of man. Every nature documentary, however, always betrays the ideology of the filmmakers, even in the midst of cruelest deception. 

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Wild America was my first experience with the betrayal of “naturalist” cinema. After moving to New York and thus cutting ties to my previously outdoorsy life, I attempted to revisit the nature documentaries of my childhood and Googled Marty Stouffer, who I learned had become a figure of disgrace among many conservationists. In 1996 he had been forced to pay $300,000 to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for clearing protected land. Even more damningly, rumors swirled that he staged some of the more “dramatic” scenes in the show. Stouffer (who is said to have made $18 million from the series) allegedly set a pair of domesticated mountain lions after a tame deer until the predators ran their would-be prey off a cliff.

Of course, running animals off cliffs is a proven technique in the nature doc genre, the most famous incident being the 1958 Disney Academy Award-Winning White Wilderness. Not only did the “documentarians” import lemmings that weren’t native to the Alberta habitat they were filming, the crew actually herded the animals into the Bow River (which they said was the sea), where the poor creatures drowned. Haunting narration of the cruelty lead the audience to believe they were witnessing the mysterious phenomenon of spontaneous mass lemming suicide—a complete myth, in actuality.

It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.

A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny. That destiny is to jump into the ocean. They’ve become victims of an obsession — a one-track thought: ‘Move on! Move on!’ This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space … and so is acted out the legend of mass suicide.

Thanks to animal rights advocacy—and a damning 1982 CBC television special titled Cruel Camera, in particularthe well-being of the animals of nature documentaries quickly became a high priority, with the public consensus being that a policy of non-interference and realism should be prioritized over drama. After all, there’s still plenty of red tooth and claw to be seen if you sit around and wait… and wait… and wait. Of course the prolonged silence of nature punctuated by a predator devouring something harmless and cute—usually a baby—doesn’t create the most child-friendly programming, so Hollywood tends to add a bit of magic to hook ’em young.

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The 2005 runaway hit March of the Penguins was more Disney than Disney, with an anthropomorphized “cast” of Antarctic Emperor Penguins so adorable and charming they might as well have been cartoons. The entire U.S. version of the film—narrated by Morgan Freeman, America’s soothing black grandpa—portrayed the birds as emotionally complex creatureslike dumber, cuter humans. Their bleak mating migration is portrayed as a sort of fairy tale quest—“In the harshest place on earth, love finds a way,” reassures Freeman in the trailer. It’s a family movie in the most literal sense—mated penguins and their offspring are referred to throughout the film as “families.” We’re promised romance, adventure, and a happy ending, a deranged interpretation of the never-ending fight for survival in the bleak and barren wild.

It would be easy to attribute the schlocky framing to American sentimentalism, but not only is March of the Penguins actually a French film, its original narration was even more mawkish. The original French edit of the film used actors actually delivering voice-over dialogue as the penguins themselves, with a child actor for the chicks, of course. There is anthropomorphizing nature, and then there is pure fan-fiction; March of the Penguins—particularly the original French version of it—is guilty of the most dishonest sort of fantasy. It’s a far cry from France’s original naturalist filmmaker—the lulling stoner cadence of Jacques Cousteau, who was an oceanographer first and a filmmaker second. As a scientist who took great care in showing the audience the work that went into every expedition and film, Cousteau’s emphasis on exploration, technology and humankind’s role in the natural world set him apart from the majority of nature documentarians.

In fact, the only auteur heir to Cousteau’s humanist view of nature may be Werner Herzog, who takes it one step further, saying in his unapologetically speciesist Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World,  “To me, it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization, where tree-huggers and whale-huggers in their weirdness are acceptable, while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.” Whether intentional or not, Herzog’s work is a direct attack on the anti-social Henry David Thoreau school of naturalism, which conceives of nature as something perfect and holy, and man’s encroachment upon it as something sinful. Never mind that his mother did his laundry and brought baked goods to his cabin at Walden pond, Thoreau believed he was living the purest life possible, one of austere isolation, haunting the “wilderness” (which wasn’t actually that far from town), and championing above all else the glorification of his sylvan fetish, which was conspicuously lacking a lot of red tooth and claw.

“It’s easy for nature documentaries to venture into an ambiguous racism, where the animals are people and the people are animals.”

Herzog, however, actually goes into the wilderness proper—conditions where it is not uncommon for “nature” to kill a person, and while he is not considered a nature documentarian per se, he’s one of the greatest, bouncing from an interview with a decidedly un-photogenic penguin scientist to the lives of the actual penguins with no interest in partitioning the two as “man” and “wildlife”—they’re both Antarctica to him. Herzog knows full well that the division between nature and society is a flimsy construct, instead espousing a comprehensive, inclusionist conception of life on this planet, closing Encounters at the End of the World with one of his interview subjects quoting Alan Watts: “Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

Herzog was never afforded the romantic fantasy of a separate and somehow benevolent natural world, as he grew up in rural Bavaria without electricity, a telephone or indoor plumbing. His fascination with (and affection for) the late Timothy Treadwell is his strongest statement on nature. Treadwell was the subject of Herzog’s Grizzly Man. An eccentric conservation zealot borne of middle class suburbia, he routinely camped for months in isolated Alaska, appointing himself the protector of a group of grizzly bears, one of whom eventually devoured him (confoundingly, the bears already resided safely on protected land).

It would be easy to disdain Treadwell for his delusion and foolishness, especially as he ranted against the humans he sought to evade, but it is Herzog’s humanity that paints Treadwell himself as the doomed, romantic figure. What could have easily been the story of a dumb hippie who got himself eaten by bears is told as a quixotic tragedy; the mise-en-scène incorporates Treadwell’s own footage beautifully, and Herzog collaborates with him to create a beautiful and dignified memorial. The irony is clear: you need a humanist to tell the story of a naturalist.

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The inclusion of humans in nature documentaries is a touchy subject, and often very politically suspect. One might see a cameo by the indigenous people of a region if they live fairly traditionally, but the focus of the filming is often on their limbs and musculature, and almost never their faces; meanwhile, the animals always get close-ups. Also, when shots of a highly populated urban area are incorporated (generally to indicate the threat that urban centers pose to the wildlife just outside of the city limits), the people are shot overhead and/or at an accelerated speed, as if they are a colony of ants. This is common when filming Asian cities, which always seem to be teeming with humans, as if they are a particularly invasive species. It’s easy for nature documentaries to venture into an ambiguous racism, where the animals are people and the people are animals.

British national treasure David Attenborough is best known for his groundbreaking Planet Earth series, which often seems to conceive of a Planet Earth with no people in it. But at one point during the first season he found it relevant to film faceless men rappelling into a cave in Borneo to harvest the nests of the cave swiftlets. Why include that scene? There is nothing unsustainable about the practice—it does not affect the swiftlet population. And many of the other animals Attenborough films face humans as direct predators, yet he felt little need to include those humans. Well the nest of the cave swiftlet is the main ingredient of bird’s nest soup—and it is constructed by the swiftlet using its own saliva. Those wacky Asians, eating bird spit like a delicacy—how could a proper English filmmaker resist?

Attenborough has also caught flack for “staging” scenes as well. Footage of a polar bear giving birth from the first season was actually filmed in a zoo, and more recently, it was revealed that footage from the flight of a Golden Eagle was “fake,” meaning the bird was obtained from a wildlife sanctuary and handled by professional eagle trainer. But this presents another ethical conundrum; would it not have been violating the idealistic non-intervention ethos of the documentarian to catch an eagle in the wild and strap a camera to its head for the footage? Would it be ethical (or even possible) to bug a polar bear’s den to film it giving birth? Is a polar bear giving birth somehow less “wild” in a zoo? Is a bird from a sanctuary somehow less “wild” while in flight? There is something artistically dishonest about the omissions, no doubt, but how “staged” are these scenes really? The bird was flying, the polar bear gave birth. And a trickery on behalf of the welfare of the animals is hardly the crime of violent interference. Attenborough may not be the best journalist of nature, but he is an excellent and loyal publicist, balancing exposure and privacy entirely for the benefit of his clients, who now face a threat far more dire than spelunkers, documentarians or animal predators.

In early December, a massive flock of snow geese—25,000 grand white birds known for their black tipped wings and deafening, cacophonous honking—attempted to land in Berkeley Pit, a 700-acre Superfund site in Montana, full of acidic water and heavy metals. Employees from the companies that oversee the pit—Atlantic Richfield Co. (oil) and Montana Resources (mining)—rushed over and worked for hours, throughout the night, to scare the birds out of the poison lake. The companies estimate that nearly 90% of the birds were chased away, but thousands died. The Montana Resources manager of environmental affairs said the rust-red water was “white with birds.”

Attenborough filmed snow geese, and after I read about the mass death in Butte, I rewatched the footage of them from season one of Planet Earth. It begins with an overhead shot of an unfathomably large flock—Attenborough says 400,000 but it’s difficult to even think of numbers that big. The din of their shrill honking is edited into a tittering kind of hum, and it’s buried underneath a dramatic, swelling orchestral score. From a great distance, the flock shifts and swirls mid-air like sand in the wind, and when you get closer they look elegant, and somehow organized. Then it cuts to a shot of the birds taking flight directly from the water; they ascend to the heavens, graceful and beatific. And for a moment they are not even birds.

They’re movie stars.

Illustrations by Clifford Vickrey.

Not Here To Make Friends: A Statement of Support For George Ciccariello-Maher

Nobody should suffer employment consequences for political speech on Twitter. Period.

It should be pretty obvious that you don’t have to like someone to stick up for them when the fascists come.

I do not like George Ciccariello-Maher.

As with most of my comrades, I first “met” him online, probably through some ridiculous ultra-leftist Facebook group that I can’t remember but likely left due to irreconcilable infighting over, I don’t know… speculation over how Bordiga would have felt about pornography. I found George very rude and condescending. He felt the need to “warn” me about my more “problematic” friends, which I consider a sort of sexist paternalism. I didn’t like his politics, which I found shallow and histrionic, or his passive aggression, which I found cowardly. Also, as a highly judgmental person who refuses to consort with anyone who is less than very cool or charming, I decided that the white guy academic who wrote “Brechtian Hip-Hop Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes” was a tryhard nerd. Perhaps most unforgivably, his jokes were unfunny. Not offensive in any way—just unfunny.

But none of this matters, because George is under attack. After making an obvious joke at the expense of white supremacists (once again utilizing that classic Ciccariello-Maher wit), an avalanche of right-wing media opportunists seized upon the offending tweet. The hysteria of reactionaries is nothing new, but shockingly, George’s cowardly employers at Drexel University publicly censured him, a ridiculous breach of both academic freedom and free speech.

To quote the folk heroes of our time: I’m not here to make friends. Solidarity is not dependent on amity or admiration, it is the acknowledgment of a shared struggle for dignity, liberation and rights, applied consistently to all of humankind. There is no such thing as conditional solidarity, and while petty bullshit is the spice of life, the work of left politics requires some truly flavorless battles.

The people that any ostensible leftist is obligated to stand up for will not always be likable. Usually they won’t even be leftists. They will have different politics, values and cultures than you. They will overcook their steaks. They will enjoy, and perhaps even prefer, the later seasons of The Simpsons. They will make atrocious decisions in facial hair, which you will suspect they styled in a pretentious effort to look “more ethnic.” They will act in bad faith. They will have bad manners. They will be dull, they will be snobs. They will get on your fucking nerves.

Suck it up. We are fighting for all.

The rule is: nobody should be punished by their employer for the dumb jokes they make online. Nobody should have to worry about having their material security taken away because something they said on Twitter got misinterpreted. Period. It doesn’t matter who they are. It doesn’t matter what you think of them. Because universal human entitlements are universal. That’s the entire point of them. The moment your personal opinions of someone affect whether you believe they ought to be protected, you’re no longer a leftist.

We at Current Affairs stand with George Ciccariello-Maher without qualification or reservation, and we believe he would do the same for us. We’re with you, comrade. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Havana Without a Backpack

An attempt to find decent food in Times Square…

hate tourists because they wear backpacks.

It’s an undignified way for an adult human being to carry their belongings. Take a cue from the locals and carry a purse (or—I’m sorry—“messenger bag,” if you’re really that insecure), but have some self-respect and get a grown-up bag. Moreover, wearing a backpack so guilelessly identifies one as an easy mark. Oh, you’ve decided to identify yourself as a hapless out-of-towner by strapping your personal effects behind you, outside of your line of vision, where I could simply unzip and snag the contents without you even noticing? I should rob you just to teach you a lesson.

Most of all though, backpacks are entirely unnecessary for sightseeing in New York.

It annoys me to see my adopted city treated as a wilderness, requiring “gear” more suited to camping. The backpacks are always bulging too—what is even in them? Water? We have that here—more water than you could ever drink, some of it with bubbles and flavors. Are you schlepping snacks? You’re in snacktown, my friend. An extra three sweaters? Embrace the randomness of life and know that you can never truly plan for the weather. You’re in a massive urban center, and there is absolutely no need load up on supplies like a sherpa dragging rich white idiots up Everest.

Of course, some tourists are indistinguishable from locals, but still others combine their backpacks with even more vulgar affectations, as if reveling in their conspicuousness.

Germans, for example, are particularly bad at matching pace with a crowd, which is unfortunate when you get stuck behind them as they often travel in impenetrable blocs of four or five. In touristy areas it’s easy to get stuck behind them, as they lumber teutonically, impassable and oblivious, the elderly and women with strollers whizzing by and through them as soon as they see a passable breach.

I single out the Germans here not because my cultural chauvinism does not extend to other groups, but because Germans are the group I can single out without getting yelled at—not even by Germans. This is because of the Holocaust.

But we’re getting off track.

It goes without saying that I hate Times Square, the Mecca for backpack-wearing tourists. It’s not at all an uncommon opinion, of course, but it’s worth seeing in print. There is some dispute as to whether former Mayor Rudy Giuliani or his predecessor David Dinkins had a bigger hand in “cleaning up” Times Square, but it was a joint effort with the city and the Disney company that pushed out the old porn shops and dives to make way for the sea of chain restaurants, high end hotels and corporate offices that now blight the area. It is the most visited place in the world, attracting 360,000 pedestrians a day; I’m not sure how many are wearing backpacks, but it is a lot.

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I went to Times Square to eat at Margon, the last real diner from before the Disney “cleansing”—at least that’s what everyone says, and my research turned up no others. Margon is a Cuban restaurant, currently staffed and managed entirely by 17 members of the Rivas family. It has occupied its current location since 1987, when a former dishwasher and Dominican immigrant, Rivas senior, took over the restaurant. Before that the space was a go-go bar.

I made my roommate Nick come with me because he is competent and thoughtful and hungry. I believe that while food is not necessarily best experienced socially, it certainly is best evaluated in the company of others. Also I didn’t want to brave the maddening crowds alone.

We actually wove through the throngs with relative ease, down 46th street and over 7th Avenue, past the McDonald’s and the Actor’s Equity building and suddenly, like a mirage, a massive lateral neon sign—a palm tree and flashy letters reading “Havana Central.” It appears a massive Cuban chain restaurant operates directly across the street from Margon. There are four Havana Centrals in total—Times Square, Yonkers, Edison (New Jersey), and The Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, New York (near the JC Penney). It’s essentially a theme restaurant, with decently priced goods and retro decor modeled after Cuba’s “Golden Era,” which their website describes vaguely as “the 1950s.”

Cuban food is chic now, and not just for the suburbanites of Edison and the tourists in Times Square. A delicious place called Pilar opened up a few blocks away from my own apartment, past the retirement housing on my block, past the family neighborhoods and the larger projects, right on the cusp of “cool” Brooklyn. It attracts deep-rooted members of the neighborhood, but also younger crowds and recent transplants. It is “hip” without being hoity-toity or elite.

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Passing the behemoth Havana Central, we spotted the easy-to-miss entrance to Margon. Once inside it became clear how the Rivas family has been able to hold on to the property. The restaurant is incredibly narrow, with barely enough space for the cafeteria-style steam tables and fryers that kept the food hot behind spotless sneeze-guards. Tables are lined up single file against the wall, with a few larger ones in back. The ceiling is also claustrophobically low, and it’s difficult to imagine the go-go dancers once shimmying in such a cramped space.

Despite the confinement of the room and the rows and rows of steaming food, the air was cool and the atmosphere pleasant. Pitbull played on the radio—though not too loudly—and a woman with an easy smile took our order, pouring a beef stew over a massive pile of beans for me. Nick ordered beef as well, something sautéed with peppers, also served with beans and rice. The portions were massive, but we were ambitious.

I also ordered the octopus salad—which Margon is famous for. It had a piecey texture and a subtle flavor—had you not seen the suckers you might think it was light meat turkey in a light vinegar sauce. The rest of the food was uncomplex and perfectly homey—the thick gravy of my stew was so rich I scraped everything that was left onto my beans and rice to ration it. Nick’s dish was every bit of magic you can do with cheap steak—all robust flavor. It was everything you want out of New York “Spanish style” comfort food, with none of the familiar pitfalls. The rice was not dry and the beans were not starchy. The meat was not gristled and the peppers weren’t slimy.

It was a particularly masculine crowd, and Nick blended in more than I thought he would with his Milwaukee electric tool hat and his glasses on the end of a sport-strap. I think I saw one other woman dining. And while Pilar isn’t as lilywhite as your average cidre-serving restaurant (“Would you like to see our SEE-druh menu?”), the diners at Margon were nearly all black or brown. At a large table in the back, men in work vests laughed over their food. A white guy with a handle-bar mustache and a Tommy Bahama t-shirt sat a few tables behind us. A pregnant woman ordered in Spanish, speaking with familiarity to the woman spooning her food. We left very full, and I was far calmer than I had expected to be after a trip to Times Square.

A few days earlier, JetBlue had sent its first commercial flight from the US to Cuba in nearly 50 years, and it seems as if both the urbanites and the suburbanites have their own Cuban fantasies again, whether nostalgic, chic or bohemian. Margon caters to no fantasy at all. It is a place to eat, to eat comfortably and well, and a place to take refuge from the crowds. It was small enough to escape Disney, and it is too small for backpacks.

Photographs courtesy of Jeremiah Moss

The Necessity of Political Vulgarity

To deny the importance of vulgarity is to reject the revolutionary tradition…

Many were surprised to see the notoriously centrist Vox.com run a glowing profile of a revolutionary socialist quarterly. In leftist circles Vox is generally derided for its bland liberal politics, so when it published a lengthy examination of the popular socialist magazine Jacobin, a hatchet job seemed more likely. But astonishingly enough, Vox covered Jacobin fairly, even generously, in a piece flatteringly titled “Inside Jacobin: how a socialist magazine is winning the left’s war of ideas.”

For a publication inherently antagonistic to capitalism, Jacobin felt downright reasonable to Vox writer Dylan Matthews. Matthews described it as the “leading intellectual voice of the American left, the most vibrant and relevant socialist publication in a very long time,” leaving one to wonder how Jacobin’s frequent allusions to violent revolution sat so comfortably with such proudly pragmatist liberals.

One answer is that, however radical Jacobin’s political program may be, the magazine is committed to maintaining civility and sobriety in its tone. As Matthews explained:

The long-term goal might be a revolutionary working class, but for now [Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara] is most passionate about trying to get more uniques than the New Republic or FiveThirtyEight. He has little patience for left-of-center writers who go out of their way to make enemies, saying of Gawker, “It’s less mean and snarky than it used to be. I don’t like that kind of mean internet humor. … Being mean as a way to fight the power is kind of ridiculous.”

“Being mean” is an interesting aversion for an impertinently revolutionary magazine that sells posters of guillotines and regularly invokes the specter of Soviet communism. Are not guillotines a bit—dare I say—“mean?”

What Sunkara is talking about here is much more specific than “mean,” a rather vague word that he pairs with “snarky” (behead the kings of course, but don’t dare snark against them!). What he is actually talking about is vulgarity, the crass, ugly dispensation of judgment with little to no regard for propriety. Vulgarity is the rejection of the norms of civilized discourse; to be vulgar is to flout the set of implicit conventions that create our social decorum. The vulgar person uses swears and shouts where reasoned discourse is called for. Someone like Saul Alinsky for example, might be considered vulgar, for considering protest tactics like his famously unrealized “fart-in” at the Rochester Philharmonic. (One might question the efficacy of a flatulent protest during a symphony, but it is certainly the sort of vulgarity that cannot be ignored.)

It is understandable for a magazine aspiring to respectability to eschew vulgarity in its pages. To poach the New Republic’s readers may require poaching the New Republic’s restraint in tone, and one does not impress Vox by childishly taunting the bourgeoisie.

Yet to dismiss vulgarity as a tool for fighting the powerful, to say that being mean is “ridiculous,” is to deny history, and to obscure a long and noble tradition of malicious political japery. In fact, “being mean” not only affords unique pleasures to the speaker or writer, but is a crucial rhetorical weapon of the politically excluded.

Vulgarity has always been employed in revolutionary rhetoric, perhaps most notably in the propaganda leading up to Jacobin’s own beloved French Revolution. Forget snark, the pamphleteers of France were all too happy to satirize and smear the upper class with the utmost malice. Clergy, royals, and anyone else in power were slandered and depicted visually in all manner of crass and farcical political cartoons.

Of all the public figures subjected to such vicious derision and gossip (often highly inaccurate gossip at that), Marie Antoinette was singled out for especially inventive and vicious taunting. True to French tradition, the slanderous pamphlets, called libelles, were fond of wordplay. For the Austrian-born Antoinette, they coined Austrichienne, meaning “Austrian bitch,” but also resembling the French word for “ostrich.” Thus, layering a visual pun upon a verbal one, one artist actually portrayed Antoinette stroking a massive, ostrich-like penis, complete with legs and a saddle. Mounted upon the penile steed was progressive royalist Marquis de Lafayette, who sympathized with the peasants but was eventually denounced as a traitor by Robespierre (revolutionaries tend not to be terribly fond of diplomatic fence-straddlers). In another of the ostrich-themed cartoons (it was evidently a series), Marie actually bared her own genitals to the phallic beast and its rider. It’s a stunningly vulgar image, and without a doubt, quite nasty and mean. One couldn’t imagine a Beltway professional depicting the ruling class so crudely today; even the most offensive of right-wing political cartoonists haven’t yet dared to explore the satirical possibilities for giant ostrich-dicks.

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There was also no requirement that a piece of anti-royal propaganda be clever or punny in order to be published. Quite a few of the cartoons regarding Marie were the sort of pure tabloid sensationalism that would make Gawker blush. Likely owing to the rumor that the King suffered from sexual dysfunction, leaving his wife to wild bouts of promiscuity, Antoinette was often in flagrante delicto—sometimes with Lafayette, sometimes the king’s brother—the Count of Artois, and sometimes even with different ladies of the court and her close female friends. These pornographic little pamphlets showed various stages of undress, ranging from a hand up the skirt to full nudity and sexual contact. Cartoonists enjoyed drawing Marie in orgies with both men and women, and the King’s own sad and scandalized penis often made an appearance.

The line between farce and rumor was often blurred by the flip ambiguity of the libelles. It can be difficult to discern today what was speculation and what was just a joke, but some of it was clearly very elaborate parody.

Take the 1789 libelle, L’Autrichienne en Goguettes ou l’Orgie Royale (that’s The Austrian Bitch and her Friends in the Royal Orgy), which is written as a play. In this ribald little piece of fan-fiction, Louis XIV’s brother has cuckolded the impotent king and sired the royal heirs himself:

Characters:

Louis XVI

The Queen

The Count of Artois

The Duchess of Polignac

Bodyguards

The action takes place in the apartments.

Guard: To arms, there comes Her Majesty.

Another guard: There will be an orgy tonight. The female Ganimede is with the Queen.

Another guard: Artois, the beloved one, there he is between vice and virtue. Guess who the vice is.

Guard: You do not need to guess. I can only see that this God is multiplying.

Scene II

The Queen (to Madame de Polignac, who steps aside to let the Queen go): Come, come in my good friend.

The Count of Artois, slightly pushing the Queen and pinching her buttocks: Come in too. What a nice bottom! So firm!

The Queen (whispering): If my heart was as hard, wouldn’t we be good together?

The Count of Artois: Be quiet you crazy woman, or else my brother will have another son tonight.

The Queen: Oh no! Let’s have some pleasure, but no more fruits.

The Count of Artois: All right. I will be careful, if I can.

Madame de Polignac: Where is the King?

The Queen: What do you worry about? Soon he will be here to annoy us.

Charming, no?

It’s important to note that libelles like these were highly illegal—just as illegal as the writings of Voltaire or Rousseau, or any explicitly political tract deemed guilty of “heresy, sedition or personal libel”—and that they were sold right alongside their more serious-minded counterparts (under the counter, of course). Illegal pamphlets had to be printed outside the country, producing dozens of printing presses just outside French borders. Hundreds of agents smuggled pamphlets through a secret network to reach the tabloid-hungry French masses. In order to stem the tide of banned pamphlets about Marie Antoinette in particular, the French government actually sent spies to England to buy up the entire stock before they could make it France. It’s therefore not particularly difficult to argue (as many historians do) for a causal relationship between nasty political porn and the revolution that followed, especially when the pamphlets posed such a risk to produce and obtain.

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Historian Robert Darnton noted in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, his fascinating book on the illegal pamphlets and their illicit circulation, that primary documents indicate that booksellers themselves did not distinguish between the intellectual and the prurient, saying, “We consider [Rousseau’s] Du Contrat Social political theory and Histoire de Dom B pornography, perhaps even as something too crude to be considered literature. But the bookmen of the eighteenth century lumped them together as ‘philosophical books.’”

So if nasty little libelles weren’t that much of a threat to power, why suppress them and punish possession with imprisonment as you would revolutionary philosophy? And for that matter, why would a French citizen risk their freedom for a cartoon of Marie Antoinette enjoying an orgy if there wasn’t something satisfyingly transgressive in the insolent and forbidden consumption of vulgarity?

Historian Lynn Hunt, author of both Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, and The Family Romance of the French Revolution, also holds hard and fast to the significance of meanness and vulgarity in a revolutionary context, saying of the libelles, “There’s a disagreement about this among historians, but I have argued and others have argued that this was a part undermining the aura of the monarchy and making it easier in the end to arrest the king and execute him—and especially to execute the queen.”

One lesson of the French Revolution, then, is that rudeness can be extremely politically useful. There are arguments to be made over who constitutes a valid target, but when crude obscenity is directed at figures of power, their prestige can be tarnished, even in the eyes of the most reverent of subjects. Caricature is designed to exaggerate, and therefore make more noticeable, people’s central defining qualities, and can thus be illuminating even at its most indelicate.

And evidence abounds for the galvanizing power of vulgarity in our own time—just look at the appeal of Donald Trump. Trump has successfully undermined opponents through the use of innuendos and crudities, and has turned the political process upside-down by gleefully undermining its dignity.

Of course Trump’s willingness to be disgusting has been alienating to those who like their politics to come with a sheen of respectability. He so revolted the punctilious and proper conservatives at the National Review that he inspired an entire “Against Trump” issue of the magazine. His braggadocio and dick jokes appall the traditional right; he would have made William F. Buckley’s eyes bulge (although what didn’t?) and he gives Peggy Noonan a traumatic case of the vapors.

But Trump’s vulgarity is appealing precisely because it exposes political truths. As others have noted, Trump’s policies (wildly inconsistent though they may be) are actually no more extreme than those of other Republicans; Trump is just willing to strip away the pretense. Other candidates may say “national security is a fundamental priority,” whereas Trump will opt for “ban all the Muslims.” The latter is far less diplomatic, but in practice the two candidates fundamentally mean the same thing. We should prefer the honest boor, as polite euphemism is constantly used to mask atrocities.

This candor is also the fundamental reason why Old Money types have always detested the arrivistes. The nouveau riche with their gaudy tastes, their leopardskin carpets and solid gold bathroom fixtures, upset the balance of things by giving the game away. They make wealth look like something nasty and indefensible. Douchebags in Lamborghinis fundamentally undermine the self-conception of the upper classes, which is that they are the appointed stewards of taste and judgment against the vast uncultured hordes. But since the rich of all flavors are a monstrosity and a cancer, it’s the flashy, obnoxious kind of wealth that we should hope for, the kind that tells no lies and is more obviously despicable. Civility is destructive because it perpetuates falsehoods, while vulgarity can keep us honest.

In fact, there are times when political vulgarity is not just useful, but vital to convey the passion of messaging. In 1968, a 19-year-old anti-Vietnam protester was arrested in a courthouse for wearing a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft,” leading to a major Supreme Court decision protecting freedom of speech. In 1988, N.W. A. released “Fuck tha Police,” a song that instantly became notorious for the bluntness of its confrontational, profanity-laden lyrics.

In both cases, the vulgarity was an unmistakably clear response to political circumstances. The Vietnam war was a moral obscenity of the highest order; there was no polite way of expressing the appropriate depth of revulsion. N.W.A. were saying what every black person had wanted to say for a long time, in the only words strong enough to even begin to communicate the truth. The depravity of the atrocious acts committed by the powerful far exceed the depravity of any swear words one could use to describe those acts. The death and brutality of Vietnam didn’t just deserve an f-word or two, but warranted every last curse that could be spoken by the human tongue. And as the 18th-century French knew, monarchy is the real barbarity; it was the libellistes who were the true allies of the Enlightenment.

To maintain its potency, vulgarity should certainly be the exception rather than the rule. And there will always be Jacobin and its kin for the more genteel set. But there are certain people to whom one must be mean, certain circumstances in which one must be crude. A politically effective propriety means knowing when to use one’s manners, and when to tell an ostrich-themed dick joke.

And of course, vulgarity isn’t inherently subversive. Even when politicized its effects are often mild and mostly cathartic. When anonymous Twitter trolls deluge establishment journalists with bon mots like “I will eat your ass like McRib,” it may not be particularly revolutionary. But it is not at all unprecedented; it’s not even particularly shocking if you know a little history.

The left will always need its journals and polemic and academic writing, but there are times when it is both right and proper to terrify the bourgeoisie with your own feralness. Reclaiming vulgarity from the Trumps of the world is imperative because if we do not embrace the profane now and again, we will find ourselves handicapped by our own civility. Vulgarity is the language of the people, and so it should be among the grammars of the left, just as it has been historically, to wield righteously against the corrupt and the powerful. We cannot cede vulgarity to the vulgarians; collegial intellectuals will always be niche, but class war need not be.

The Declining Taste of the Global Super-Rich

Today’s “patrons of the arts” are less interested in opera and ballet, and more interested in novelty furniture and enormous sculptures of their own faces…

Last May, with little to no fanfare, the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York City closed down after 12 years, leaving about 16 dancers and about 10 administrators out of a job. The company’s dissolution, quietly announced on Observer.com, was a particularly tragic loss for the dance world, which requires an innovative atmosphere to sustain itself.

Funding for even venerable ballets grows  scarcer and scarcer, and more experimental operations like Cedar Lake are even more vulnerable. It’s a sort of “last hired, first fired” set of priorities, and as a result, the institution of ballet itself is threatened with stagnation. Swan Lake and The Nutcracker are exemplary classics to be sure, but without daring and contemporary new ballets, the artform itself becomes relegated to antiquity. In America specifically, ballet increasingly smacks of a bygone era, making it less attractive to potential funders.

So the bankrolling of ballets has been left to a few super-wealthy benefactors. For Cedar Lake, it was Walmart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie, who invested $11 million of her estimated $4.5 billion fortune to found the project. Laurie gave Cedar Lake a custom-built theater and rehearsal space in Chelsea, and stocked it with a full roster of talent. Boasting job security nearly unheard-of in the dance world, Laurie paid the staff and dancers full-time salaries with vacation, health insurance and even dental.

Unfortunately, the company was notoriously mismanaged. Turnover was high; the bestowing of dental coverage didn’t compensate for otherwise-dire working conditions. The dancers were actually fined for lateness and performance mistakes, a shockingly repressive practice unheard of even in the legendarily regimented dance world.

Both former dancers and employees would later paint Cedar Lake as the vanity project of an imprudent billionaire, who was, unfortunately, their only real donor. Her whims lent the project both its generosity and its tyranny, and when the whims shifted, the ballet was no more.

In recent conversation, a professional opera singer lamented to me the the state of his profession under recent funding woes. The trajectory for an opera singer, he told me, used to be a fairly established route. A singer would graduate from a conservatory, then spend a couple of years performing for some backwater German town to hone their skills—a sort of apprenticeship that both developed the artist’s voice and brought opera—a much more appreciated artform in Europe—to a smaller community.

Such is no longer the case. The austerity measures taken across Europe have dealt arts funding a serious blow, particularly in the less wealthy countries. In 2012, The New York Times reported that not only were the smaller opera houses getting the ax, but even once sacrosanct institutions were under fire; the legendary La Scala opera house in Milan was landed with a $9 million dollar deficit that year. Smaller countries like the Netherlands lost 25% of their arts funding, and Portugal dispensed with its Ministry of Culture entirely.

Some companies attempted to adapt to shoe-string budgets by going “punk”—doing away with famously grand productions in favor of sparser shows, and even a few “experimental” one-man performances.

“It’s austerity for opera,” proclaimed the exasperated tenor. When I admitted to him that the only opera I can afford these days are sparse, DIY productions at a loft in Bushwick, he was encouraging, saying “that’s great—just go.” But there’s no getting around now the fact that there’s something missing from a minimalist Carmen; no matter how “experimental” it might be, it’s not a vision fully realized.

“The thing about opera is,” he said, “you get a lot of people working together to create this massive spectacle, and then it’s over. And all you have to take home with you is the experience.” The creation of such coordinated, ephemeral spectacles requires both serious committment and serious material resources.

The gilded age tradition of wealthy benefactors is clearly over. The very wealthy—now often nouveau riche and unbound to the trappings of aristocratic noblesse oblige—no longer consider themselves stewards of the sublime. As classical music scholar John Halle opined in “The Last Symphony” in Jacobin magazine, the upper and ascending classes no longer subject their children to the rigorous training necessary for classical musical scholarship. As Halle says, “today’s elite lacks the patience and culture for classical music.” Consequently, the patronage system has become rather passé, and even the odd anachronistic billionaire-funded ballet company might find itself dismissed on a whim. Put bluntly, the upper class just aren’t as classy as they used to be.

So too has public funding for high art taken a beating. While Americans might yearn for the sort of well-funded public arts programs they imagine Europeans prioritize, the reality is much bleaker. Despite Europe’s zealous emphasis on promoting a rich culture for a united continent, the European Union is constantly hacking away at centuries-old institutions in the name of belt-tightening.

But if the would-be private donors are now cretins, and public funding has been slashed to bits, who finances art today?

first encountered the name Dakis Joannou while working as an arts and culture writer for a fun counterculture blog. Scouring the Internet for something subversive to cover for our “arty dirtbag” readership, I happened across a newly-published coffee table book, 1968: Radical Italian Design, which collected photos of a number of garish pieces of impractical-looking furniture. Since strange furniture always gets the clicks, the book made for a perfect post. It was doubly improved by the fact that the furniture in question was so unequivocally terrible.

Radical Italian Design was a bold avant-garde movement out of the late 1960’s that eschewed both form and function on principle, meaning the furniture it inspired is both intentionally garish and practically dysfunctional. The design philosophy is one of overt aesthetic and utilitarian offense—it is ugly, it is useless, and that is all on purpose, with none of the cheek that could even give it a campy appeal. I cannot stress this enough; it’s just terrible, ugly fucking furniture.

15-1968-radical-italian-furniture-yatzer

What interested me most, however, was that I had never heard of Radical Italian Design before. I’m no design expert, but I can at least distinguish a Verner Panton from an Eames, and I like to think I am passably aware of most of the significant stuff. I was also very familiar with the Memphis Group, another Italian design movement of slightly less offensive garish white elephants, once aptly described by The San Francisco Chronicle as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.” But Memphis Group looks highly practical and understated in comparison to the Radical movement. How, then, I wondered, did this book about an unpleasant—but relatively minor—design movement come to be?

It turns out that every single piece of furniture photographed for 1968 belonged to one man: Dakis Joannou, a Greek-Cypriot billionaire, industrialist, hotel magnate, the largest importer of Coca-Cola in Europe and Africa, and one of the most famous art collectors in the world. 1968: Radical Italian Design is actually a project of the Athens-based Deste Foundation, Joannou’s arts non-profit, and an organization that conveniently allows him to monetize and promote his own personal art collection.

Deste has produced a rather extensive series of books advertising and legitimizing Joannou’s private collections. In 2012, for example, just as Greece began its descent into a dire humanitarian crisis, Joannou hosted a show of selections from his drawing collection at the Deste Foundation’s Project Space—a few months later, the show was made into a book. Joannou titled the show and subsequent anthology “Animal Spirits,” after the Keynesian economic term describing the “spontaneous urge to action, rather than inaction,” meaning the decisions we make that are borne of some primal human instinct, rather than measured or calculated reasoning.

If it seems like an arcane non-sequitur to name an art show for the uber-wealthy after an economic concept, consider it damage control. “Animal Spirits” actually ran as a substitute for an even ritzier art event of Joannou’s, in which 300 or so of his friends would travel to the vacation destination island of Hydra—the so-called “gem of the Saronic Gulf”—to party in opulence, and bask in the beauty, sun and art. The reason for the cancellation? The weekend coincided with the Greek elections. Even Joannou, generally insensitive to all matters of decency, admitted that going forward with the show would have been “inappropriate.”

Joannou is a big fan of the “Animal Spirits” idea, and the romance of such a mystical concept of rugged individualism guides his hand when it comes building his art collection. As Greece struggled to keep its people fed and housed, Joannou’s billions—which remained relatively untouched due to tax loopholes for the shipping industry—never quite trickled down to destitute Greeks, not to mention Greek cultural institutions.

In a glowing profile in Departures, a self-described “luxury” and “lifestyle” magazine, Joannou was quick to explain why “support isn’t helping anybody. In the beginning, a lot of people thought that’s what I was doing, and they would ask for funding for this or that. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not into that.’ It’s about creating a platform.”

And who has Joannou given a platform to? As a collector of work from around the globe (though rarely, as many of his critics point out, Greek artists) he’s actually most famous for giving the world Jeff Koons, from whom he purchased the very first piece of his collection in 1985.

The now-famous sculpture was “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank,” which Joannou purchased for for $2,700. The sculpture, best described as a basketball suspended in a glass fishtank, was a big break in the early days of Koons’s art career, not too long after he had left a career as a Wall Street commodities broker. Since then, of course, Koons has exploded into an infamous art superstar of sorts, even though his critical reception has been decidedly mixed—Nation art critic Arthur Danto described his work as “aesthetic terrorism.” Koons’s works have increased in both scale and price, with his massive metallic sculpture “Balloon Dog” raking in a cool $58.4 million. And who could blame Christie’s auction house for bidding so high? It’s big! It’s shiny! It looks like a balloon that has been twisted into the shape of a dog!

Koons was actually so possessive of this innovative idea that when one gallery began selling little balloon dog bookends in their gift shop, he sent them a cease and desist letter. Koons makes tchotchkes, but they’re art tchotchkes, and whether it’s a porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles, or a series of inflatable toy Incredible Hulks adorned with bric-à-brac, everything he makes is immediately recognizable, insistently conspicuous, and totally unchallenging.

Now of course Koons and Joannou are dear friends, with Joannou facing scrutiny for charging Koons with curating a show of works pulled from Joannou’s collection at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, where Joannou is also a museum trustee. A public museum showing the private collection of one of the host muesuem’s own trustees would be enough to raise eyebrows, but Joannou handed the reigns over to Koons, his own prized pony, so to speak. The conflict of interest was glaring and extremely controversial, but the show went on. Wealth confers license to operate as one pleases, no matter how noisily one’s peers may register their ethical objections.

If that incident wasn’t incestuous enough, Koons also famously designed Joannou’s mega-yacht, The Guilty, which is quite possibly the ugliest boat in the world. The 115-foot long luxury liner is wrapped in a World War I British Naval camouflage called “Dazzle,” which was designed to evade enemy fire with a mish-mash of angular chaos. If you were to take a helicopter overhead, you’d see a massive mural of Iggy Pop on top, an artist whom Koons considers appropriately “Dionysian” for the setting. Ironically, Joannou has had to paper over the notorious “camouflage” of The Guilty, in order to disguise it from paparazzi. (Or perhaps to keep out design-enthusiast marauders?)

In a 2013 interview with Forbes, Joannou described the design concept thusly: “We did what we wanted; style was irrelevant. We designed a boat in an antistyle method. We have no rules, no programs, no plans.” The description echoes the ideological influence of Joannou’s own Italian Radical Design collection, which is, coincidentally, housed in the “living room” of the mega-yacht. The hideous is not to be spurned but embraced; style was irrelevant.

At first glance, Joannou’s collecting habits may seem like the eccentric vagaries of a an insanely wealthy magnate searching for legacy and legitimacy. I won’t deny the eccentricity charge, or the role of ego. One of Joannou’s beneficiaries, painter George Condo, has immortalized Joannou in surrealist portraiture. Another Deste favorite, sculptor Pawel Althamer, sculpted his dear friend Dakis as a Native American chief in full war bonnet, taking a cast of Joannou’s own face for accuracy.

But Chief Dakis’s project isn’t just bohemian wealth run amok, it’s explicitly ideological, the Animal Spirits of a man who fancies himself a Howard Roarke visionary, despite his total lack of credentials as a doyen.

And this is the state of fine arts under contemporary capitalism. Classics and antiquity have lost cultural cache in the age of disruption, and there is no longer an aristocratic imperative to support noble projects of lofty ambition. Today we’ve neither dutiful Kings, Vaticans, or robber barons to seduce the hoi polloi into complicity with visions of the transplendent. Nor do the experiments in democracy we deem “states” seem to be doing much better, having withdrawn much of the already measly funding available for highbrow cultural endeavors.

Even dictators don’t care to seem interested in bribing the proletariat with great works any more. Before being deposed, Moammar Gadhafi shelled out big bucks for private concerts from such virtuosos as Beyoncé and Mariah Carey. Despite intense criticism, Nicki Minaj took home $2 million last year to play for Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos. And forget about the nouveaux riches investing in art for the people. Crooked pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli is despised for jacking up drug prices, but he is only slightly less despised for spending $2 million on the only existing pressing of a “secret” Wu-Tang Clan album and then threatening to destroy it.

So what we have now, if we’re lucky, is the odd production of Swan Lake (because it’s still good), a valiant but tragically austere Carmen (because it’s the best we can do), and Jeff Koons, because his work flatters Dakis Joannou’s vision of a Dionysian rebel.

For the new era of bourgeoisie, the symphony, the ballet, the opera and the museum hold less appeal than a pop star playing your private party, and they certainly can’t compete with holding court in an art empire of your own design. The ruling classes ain’t what they used to be, and vulgar narcissists like Joannou aren’t content with anything short of taking the products of their patronage home with them—and he does, all aboard The Guilty, bobbing atop his fugly floating Versailles.