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How Does Vulgarity Differ from Bad Taste?

Does Vulgarity Damage Culture?

[VULGAR: lacking sophistication or good taste, unrefined: the vulgar trappings of wealth; making explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions: a vulgar joke; (dated) characteristic of or belonging to the masses.]

The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

Susan Sontag

Taste ripens at the expense of happiness.

Jules Renard

There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England, or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty, and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty’s confidence.

E. M. Forster

Bad taste is timeless.

It was a tricky position for a young Socialist to find himself in. I clucked with the gang over the amount of steak that Americans threw away—but my eyes lingered on the steak... My dream America was as far away as the Catholic Worker’s. However, we foreign-born America-fanciers (if I may invent a group to stuff some generalizations into) occasionally ran to a taste for vulgarity and a craving for streamlined trash: we would not have liked an America as pure as the native radicals wanted. The worst of us were not even embarrassed by salesmen called “Elmer,” although we could do without historians named Chauncey Truslow Adams, Jr. The authentic tended to put us to sleep, but swing and bastard country music revived us. We liked, when it slunk onto the scene, Las Vegas much better than Williamsburg. Americans believed we were putting them on, or down. The fact is, though, that after the war, a perverse quest for the un-European seized a few of us, and there was nothing condescending about it.

Wilfrid Sheed

When I talk about the coming peril a very large number of people will probably imagine that I mean Bolshevism. I quite agree that Bolshevism would be a peril, but I do not think that it is coming. I do not think that, especially in England, we have either the virtues or the vices of a revolution. The kind of thing that I want to suggest to you is something that is coming of itself, or at least it is capable of coming of itself, more or less independently of the whole questions of socialism and individualism as they used to be debated. As I say, it is not easy to get a name for it. I suppose that the very simplest name for it is “vulgarity”; but, as I shall point out in a moment, that word itself, especially in its derivation, may mislead us. I do not know whether it would be safe in such a connection to whisper the word “America,” now by far the wealthiest of States and, in the degraded conditions of our day, therefore the most influential ... You know the old joke of the man who said, “Columbus did not discover America. It had often been discovered before, but it was always hushed up,” which is, I believe, historically fairly accurate. But to call this tendency vulgar or to call it American is only, as I say, a very loose and crude way of attempting to define it, and I am not at all sure that it can be properly defined. . . When I say that I am afraid that Culture is going to suffer from a flattening, a repetition, a staleness, a lack of dignity and distinction, the first thing that everybody will say is, “Oh, that is democracy”. . . when you walk down the street and see the whole of one side of a great house, so to speak, occupied with an enormous poster on which is written in large letters, “Keep that schoolgirl complexion,” that exactly fulfils my definition of vulgarity. It is vulgar because the man [who created it] is not a poor peasant unacquainted with grace and elegance, and he is not an over-civilised eighteenth-century artist dwelling too much upon grace and elegance. He is a person capable of drawing and recognising the power of those light and pleasant human sentiments, and then of handling them as if they were so much mud, of treating them as nobody would treat such an idea . . . To put it shortly, the evil I am trying to warn you of is not excessive democracy, it is not excessive ugliness, it is not excessive anarchy. It might be stated thus: It is standardization by a low standard.

G. K. Chesterton (from Culture and the Coming Peril, circa 1930)

Thoughts about Vulgarity & Bad Taste

A gentleman considers what is right; the vulgar consider what will pay.


Vulgarity is the rich man’s modest contribution to democracy.

A thing is not vulgar merely because it is common.

William Hazlitt

The higher a man stands, the more the word “vulgar” becomes unintelligible to him.

John Ruskin

A vulgar philosophy laments the wickedness of the world, but when we come to think of it we realise that the confusion of life, the doubt and turmoil and bewildering responsibility of life, largely arises from the enormous amount of good in the world.   NEW LINK (Jan 28/23)

G. K. Chesterton

Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.

Charles Bukowski

No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American pubic.

H. L. Mencken

Camp is popularity plus vulgarity plus innocence.

Indra Jahalani

I love luxury. And luxury lies not in richness and ornateness but in the absence of vulgarity. Vulgarity is the ugliest word in our language. I stay in the game to fight it.

Coco Chanel

Vulgarity is the garlic in the salad of life.

Cyril Connolly

No crime is vulgar, but all vulgarity is crime.

Oscar Wilde

It’s worse than wicked, my dear, it’s vulgar.


Nothing is more exhilarating than Philistine vulgarity.

Vladimir Nabokov

As always, the British especially shudder at the latest American vulgarity, and then they embrace it with enthusiasm two years later.

Alistair Cooke

Stupidity and vulgarity are harder to put up with than sin, harder on the nerves.

Flannery O’Connor

[Rudolph Valentino was] what is commonly called for want of a better name, a gentleman. In brief, Valentino’s agony was the agony of a man of relatively civilized feelings thrown into a situation of intolerable vulgarity.

H. L. Mencken

Television is not vulgar because people are vulgar; it is vulgar because people are similar in their prurient interests and sharply differentiated in their civilized concerns.

George Gilder

Many people will wonder why governments that are clever enough to devise ways to shield children from the dangers of prayer in the classroom should not be clever enough to shield them from the evils of vulgarity in entertainment.

Edward Grimsley

The keynote of American civilization is a sort of warm-hearted vulgarity.

Raymond Chandler

It is the absence of a stable upper class that is responsible for much of the vulgarity of the American scene. Should we blush before the visitor for this deficiency?

Mary McCarthy

The need to be right—the sign of a vulgar mind.

Albert Camus

Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are no people who are quite so vulgar as the over-refined.

Mark Twain

The vulgar man is always the most distinguished, for the very desire to be distinguished is vulgar.

G. K. Chesterton

There is never vulgarity in a whole truth, however commonplace. It may be unimportant or painful. It cannot be vulgar. Vulgarity is only in concealment of truth, or in affectation.

John Ruskin

Very notable was his distinction between coarseness and vulgarity, coarseness, revealing something; vulgarity, concealing something.

E. M. Forster

Though not evil per se, no one doubts that in some sense bad taste is a bad thing.

We well know that it is bad taste to talk of our wives; but we do not so well know that it is the same to speak of ourselves.

La Rochefoucauld

Vulgarity begins when imagination succumbs to the explicit.

Doris Day

Indecency, vulgarity, obscenity—these are strictly confined to man; he invented them. Among the higher animals there is no trace of them.

Mark Twain

Vulgarity is the conduct of other people, just as falsehoods are the truths of other people.

Oscar Wilde

I’ve been accused of vulgarity. I say that’s bullshit.

Mel Brooks

What is exhilarating in bad taste is the aristocratic pleasure of giving offense.

Charles Baudelaire

Will minus intellect constitutes vulgarity.

Arthur Schopenhauer

I think that what most surprises anybody who goes into politics from even a modestly cerebral background is the vulgarity of much of the cut and thrust of politics.

Chris Patten

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