Interview with American Vulgaria Founder and Editor Ryan Simón.

Following an interview with Intentism founder Vittorio Pelosi that appeared in American Vulgaria,
https://americanvulgaria.com/interview-vittorio-pelosi/ the Intentists have had the privilege of putting the questions to American Vulgaria founder and editor Ryan Simón. The following was conducted via email.

1. Can you give us some background information into why you started AMERICAN VULGARIA and some insight into the choice of name? Is it connected to the Hong Kong comedy film of the same name?

Looking back on the early days of AMERICAN VULGARIA, before we even gave it an official name, I’m seeing several points of origin. However, the title “Vulgaria” occurred to me while driving home from my parent’s farm in Lolo, MT.

It’s a pretty funny scene, really: I was driving back to my apartment in Missoula, MT, mindlessly listening to Dr. Dre’s incredibly vulgar song “Xxplosive,” when a car pulled up alongside me driven by an elderly woman who was flailing her arm at a squawking, disturbed parrot on her passenger-seat headrest – a scene completely out of place in bucolic Montana. The image played to the soundtrack of Dr. Dre left a powerful imprint on my mind that I mulled over throughout the next couple weeks. Gradually, a fictional story developed in my mind: the elderly woman, distracted by the parrot, dies in an accidental car crash, from which the parrot escapes to arbitrarily squawk obscene, out-of-context Dr. Dre lyrics across various American locales, unintentionally inspiring national chaos, as the bird unknowingly offends urban and rural sensibilities.

I loved this story, and I immediately planned on fleshing it out into a book novel. However, the more I thought about this fictional bird and the fictional outrage to this bird’s obviously unintentional vulgarities, the more I considered real-world examples of vulgar language ironically inspiring violent behavior. This thought process led me to seriously consider what it means to be “vulgar,” especially given the word’s Latin origins: vulgus, which means “common person” or “the common people.” Simultaneously, I read somewhere that with the inauguration of President Trump, we were inaugurating the “Era of the Vulgarian” – which seemed true enough; and, yet, again: to be vulgar is essentially to be common.

To me, the “Era of the Vulgarian” signified a return to our commonality, a sort of reunification based on our less refined behaviors – a reawakening of our wild, animalistic instincts. In my mind, I referred to our collective inner wilderness as “Vulgaria,” which you may think of as Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow, the more primitive, unconscious components of our personalities. According to Jung, we often repress our shadow, as it carries the nastier aspects of ourselves that we’d rather not confront, let alone claim. And yet that confrontation is important to our wellbeing and, arguably, our survival.

In exploring these concepts of Vulgaria and the Jungian shadow, I realized my own capacity for this sort of animalistic tribalism – for incredibly vulgar tendencies that I cloaked under the guise of an “anti-tribal” identity. I also observed these tendencies in many of the mainstream magazines and art circles who seemed suddenly more than willing to sacrifice their artistic integrity to deliver a social or political “message” through their art work. And so, with all that in mind, I redirected my creative energy from writing a novel to starting an art & culture magazine by the name of AMERICAN VULGARIA with which to attract a community of artists and writers to not only gain a multi-angled perspective on these concepts but to also promote artistic gratitude, which I feel is in decline due to reasons I’ll address below.

Ultimately, I wanted to build a platform to explore ideas and share artwork that are otherwise not deemed “commercial friendly.” I should note here that the intent never was – and never will be – to be obscene or vulgar simply to garner attention. We are seeing plenty of that in the “Era of the Vulgaria,” and it drives me up the wall.

I suppose to best explain “Why Vulgaria?”, here’s an excerpt from our “About” section:

“Vulgar” stems from the Latin vulgus, which means “common person” and not simply “saying naughty things.” Our universal baseline is vulgar: rot and reproduction, digestion and excretion, bodily urges and subconscious impulses — these are the things that connect us, regardless of class lines or moral differences. The best art doesn’t evade our base vulgarity. It confronts and transmogrifies our vulgar baseline into something beautiful and enlightening; and under conditions of excess beauty and enlightenment, art reminds us of our inner murk and darkness.

On that note, I hadn’t heard of the movie Vulgaria until after I checked the name’s availability. Yet, judging by the movie’s synopsis, it is something I want to see and possibly review on AMERICAN VULGARIA, as the premise is of vulgarian interest.

2. The Intentists are very interested in your phrase ‘Promote artistic gratitude, not censorship.’ Can you expound on what you mean – particularly the first clause?

At least in the U.S., I see an alarming lack of gratitude for the arts, and I believe this ingratitude stems from a deep, cultural entrenchment in irony – or worse: self-irony. While I leave the first clause here open-ended (“promote artistic gratitude among whom?”), I believe the ingratitude stems from the art community itself, especially in mainstream U.S. culture. On the consumer end, our cultural ingratitude amounts to a sort of mass-scale unconsciousness, a hypnotic lull effected by the self-referential, self-ironic delivery of U.S. entertainment – namely U.S. television and advertisements.

David Foster Wallace cracked this code in his 1990 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he observed how TV shows and commercials have co-opted the metafictional devices used in postmodern literature to create an aura of self-irony that beats TV’s cynical critics to the punch. A lengthy excerpt from the essay:

TV’s self-mocking invitation to itself as indulgence, transgression, a glorious “giving in” (again, not exactly foreign to addictive cycles) is one of the two ingenious ways it’s consolidated its six-hour hold on my generation’s cojones. The other is postmodern irony. The commercials for Alf’s Boston debut in a syndicated package feature the fat, cynical, gloriously decadent puppet (so much like Snoopy, like Garfield, like Bart, like Butt-Head) advising me to “Eat a whole lot of food and stare at the TV.” His pitch is an ironic permission-slip to do what I do best whenever I feel confused and guilty: assume, inside, a sort of fetal position, a pose of passive reception to comfort, escape, reassurance. The cycle is self-nourishing.

Consider the Super Bowl commercial that mocks itself for being Just Another Super Bowl Commercial Trying to Sell You Something (*wink wink*). This form of self-mockery essentially rewards the cynical, commercial-savvy viewers for their cynicism, as if the commercial’s actors are sitting right there beside you, playfully nudging you in the ribs while pointing out how stupid and vapid and overbudgeted the commercial is, effectively overriding the viewer’s bullshit meter by pretending to be just as cynical and consciously aware as the viewer. The fact remains that you don’t actually need the product being sold, and deep down you know that – and the commercial knows that you know that – but through self-irony the commercial overrules your better judgment. And because commercials are a legitimate form of entertainment in the U.S., this cynical self-irony significantly overlaps with other forms of entertainment, such as art.

The early avant-garde ancestors to postmodernism employed self-irony as a means to mock the meaninglessness and vapidity of the overbudgeted “high art” scene circa WWI. The oft-cited example here: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a dismantled, mass-produced, standard urinal submitted for an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. It’s an “anti-art” art work, intended to critically engage the viewer into looking deeper than the art work’s repulsive, vulgar aesthetic – thereby implying that there’s a deeper layer, an underlying meaning, to art than simply an art work’s pretty aesthetic. All of which I find incredibly funny and thought-provoking; yet, the problem of artistic ingratitude occurs here when such self-ironic anti-art becomes popular and mainstream.

Anti-art art is inherently and intentionally ironic, and such irony is useful at disrupting stagnant conventions and hypocritical institutions. In the case of anti-art, the anti-artwork disrupts the stagnant convents of an ossified art community. However, as Lewis Hyde puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”

Anti-art as a genre is destructively, cynically self-ironic. And because art is an incredibly intimate mode of self-expression, many artists naturally gravitate towards “anti-art” to shield themselves from a fear of ridicule, much in the same way that TV shows and commercials employ self-mockery to escape criticism. It’s sad, really.

But, sure, self-irony is also funny and humbling. E.g., it’s funny when the comic-book anti-hero Deadpool calls out the bullshit pretentions of the superhero genre at large. Yet, even so, at the end of the day …Deadpool is still a comic-book superhero whose story more or less relies on the same tropes and character arcs as any other superhero comic-book. Likewise, the Banksy-style of anti-art graffiti is cool and thought-provoking to a point. But beyond that point, once Banksy’s anti-art hits the mainstream and ironically accumulates the same pretentious interests criticized by his anti-art, the culture affected by Banksy’s work only gains another layer of cynicism, this time directed towards Banksy’s cynicism. As such, cynical self-irony becomes the next object of cynical self-irony – and so on.

In addition to the resistance to Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” the rise of postmodern self-irony is another reason why I find the Intentists’ attempts to “ungag the artist” so commendable and necessary. By restoring that intimate connection between artists and their art, by removing these cynical postmodern barriers that disrupt any self-revealing search for meaning, we may restore art to its sacred grandeur. I believe the downstream cultural and social consequences of a restored appreciation for the arts to be incalculably positive.

At the least, it’ll restore our confidence in free speech and expression, as we re-familiarize ourselves with the “imperfect” aspect of the Intentists’ definition of the meaning of an art work: “the imperfect outworking of intention.” And the result of that is a deeper understanding of humanity and its flaws, contributing to fewer events of unwarranted censorship.

3. We are familiar with the English rendering of the early 19th century French slogan “l’art pour l’art”- ‘Art for Art’s sake.’ However, you have redefined this as ‘We are artists for art’s sake.’ As a movement that attempts to ungag the artist and place he or she back in the hermeneutical mix, the Intentists find your quote of real interest. Can you say a little more on this? I’m incredibly drawn to the aesthetic “art for art’s sake” movement, both as a starting point to simply appreciating the aesthetic value of art – to understand what it is exactly I’m looking at – and as a defense against the propagandic moralization of art. Gautier, Swinburne, Oscar Wilde – the 19th century decadents’ idealization of beauty and refined aesthetic pleasure solves, at least for me, the problem of shoddy, anemic art succeeding on an agreeable “message” that has nothing to do with artist’s talent or the art’s aesthetic qualities. The comedian is perhaps a good analogue to the artist here: if a comedian seeks affirmative handclapping over genuine laughter, the comedian has essentially relinquished, or at least subordinated, comedy to moral preaching. And it’s my Aristotelian belief that good art, like good comedy, inherently promotes ethical and emotional insight without the propagandic insertions of moral or social values. I see these insertions as fulfilling the artist’s egotistical need to be seen as a good person rather than an artistic need for genuine self-expression.

Consider this quote by Oscar Wilde:

No better way is there to learn to love Nature than to understand Art. It dignifies every flower of the field. And, the boy who sees the thing of beauty which a bird on the wing becomes when transferred to wood or canvas will probably not throw the customary stone.

Having said all that, a strict adherence to this decadent brand of aestheticism also risks hollowing out the meaning of an artwork by essentially treating art as a superficially pleasing mix of artificial colors – as if the only way to truly appreciate art is to dumbly stare at a painting and say, “Pretty.” What’s more, I see the decadent’s preference for artificiality over naturalness as a sort of soul-depleting cul-de-sac. As a fan of Jungian psychology, my interest in art’s engagement with our inner naturalness, our inner wilderness, prevents me from viewing an art work as a completely isolated, self-contained objet d’art.

There’s more to art than the art object. There’s an unspoken communication between the artist and the art, between the art and the viewer, that originates deeper than consciousness. It’s irrational and intangible – and possibly more important than the object itself.

I think what initially broke the l’art pour l’art spell for me was rereading the essays of Susan Sontag, who quotes Oscar Wilde at the start of her seminal essay “Against Interpretation,” calls for an “erotics of the arts” in place of a hermeneutics, effectively neutering art by denying our search for meaning in art. Sure, it is possible to obscure art with meaning – e.g., to see the allegory of depression and isolation in the painted blue curtains without truly seeing the painted blue curtains – however, Sontag’s rail against interpretation seems an oversteering into extreme, meaningless aestheticism.

So, I’m happy you detected the slight deviation from “art for art’s sake” to “artists for art’s sake,” as your intuition is spot on here: we intentionally chose this to reintroduce the artist to the hermeneutical mix, as you stated – and to reintroduce the artist with all of the artist’s human baggage. As meaning-oriented creatures, it’s completely unnatural for us to not search for meaning in a work of art. And now that I’ve typed that out, I’m thinking that art itself is a tangible byproduct of the artist’s search for meaning – of the artist asking a question and seeking the answer through the creative process; and with the fulfillment of that creative quest, the artist supplies answers to be questioned by posterity.

By redefining “art for art’s sake” as “artists for art sake,” we are reconciling the amoral art object with the morally burdened artist, uniting Sontag’s secular “erotics of the arts” with our inescapable search for meaning.

4. How can we find out more about what you are doing?

To learn more about us, you can start by checking out our “About” page at AMERICANVULGARIA.com: LINK HERE – wherein you’ll find more information on our mission statement, how we’re funded, how to subscribe to our newsletter, and so on.

For general inquires, you can email us at inquiry@americanvulgaria.com. To pitch an article or art feature, you can email us at pitch@americanvulgaria.com.

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