Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How to Have Taste

At work I used to sit next to a colleague who dressed in Diesel jeans, Prada trainers and Carhartt T-shirts (this was a few years ago mind). On his desk was a row of suitably moronic magazines (Loaded, Surface, Wallpaper) and a single hardback book: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This was a (virtually, well – 24) grown man with a Harry Potter book on his desk (for years too – he'd never read it all). He used to (literally) laugh at me dressed in Gap (ill-fitting sale stuff only), River Island and Primark (hey – he did earn more than a third more than me) – clothes he wouldn't be seen dead in. I used to laugh at him with his Harry Potter – a book I wouldn't be seen dead with. Taste is funny – it's so relative. Taste is such a matter of... taste. Or is it? I'd never be seen reading a Harry Potter book on public transport – not because they're badly written or boring (though they are both) – but because, you know, it's just so mainstream. And aren't they, you know, for kids? I'd much rather be caught reading Celine, Bukowski, Gogol, Austen, anyone else really. He likewise (wrongly, foolishly) thought he stood out from the crowd (yawn) with his exclusive, expensive, elitist brands... but everyone thinks that and does that. We all recognise other people with bad taste but we can't see it in ourselves.

It's a funny thing. Ugly people know they're ugly. Poor people know they're poor. Stupid people know they're stupid. But people with bad taste would never think, recognise or believe they have bad taste – but can see bad taste in others. It's like people with bad B.O. Surely they don't know they have it – otherwise they'd do something about it, right? Also, it's not something you can really bring up. In fact, doing so would be construed much the same way as being called ugly or boring, say. There's no subtle way of putting it: you have no taste.

And just what is taste? Like the above example of my colleague, one can't have good taste in everything (my ex-colleague also had bad taste in music and women; I also have it in wine). It can cover just about everything in life: books, films, partners, art, houses, friends, bars, architecture, restaurants, haircuts, travel, music, TV, interior design, food, furniture, fashion, jewellery... the list goes on forever.

Although taste usually manifests itself in physicality (a book or a chair, say), what actually makes good taste is harder to define. It can be about style, feeling, a sensation, elegance, atmosphere – something almost intangible. Good taste transcends trends.

Everyone has their own opinion of what good taste is, which is ridiculous, as everyone can't have good taste. There needs to be rules. But who makes the rules? Well, the mass media do to a certain extent. Magazines, TV programmes, celebrities and shops are arbiters of good taste in such matters as fashion, music, books and interior design. But largely it's people's innate stubborness that presumes they're right – that they've got the best taste and everyone else is wrong.

Like the myth that we live in a meritocratic society, people can change or learn taste. Growing up, moving away, meeting different people, going to different places, reading, listening and watching the right stimulus can all contribute to helping people with bad taste learn good taste (or vice versa). Everyone has a friend who liked the same music you did when you were like twelve years old – but who still likes it. This is stagnated bad taste. Many people do have the same taste all their lives. This is fine if it's Matisse, Dickens and Jacques Tati but not if it's Pizza Hut, Enya and 'Allo 'Allo.

People's homes are usually the best place to gauge their taste. Most homes nowadays have lost all character – largely to blame for this is IKEA, the cheap epitome of acceptable, now somewhat bland and homogeneous, good taste. I remember another work colleague rushing over to tell us all about her newly furnished flat. 'It looks just like an IKEA showroom!', she gushed, as if this was the ultimate in interior design. No one has interesting things any more in their home – it's all mass-produced, new, badly-made, bland, branded crap. The contemporary house is severely lacking good book or record collections, paintings, limited edition prints, ancient artefacts, fine oak furniture, William Morris cushions, curious bric-a-brac... you get the drift. Nowadays, people's living rooms consist of vulgar wide-screen TVs, crappy DVDs and Playstations. Their bedrooms have a bed, bedside table and lamp. Every room looks like a badly lit showroom.

Class has always played an important part in taste. Traditionally, the very rich (upper class) and very poor (working class) have had the worst taste. The middle class, though maybe having the best taste, has also suffered from having the blandest taste too. But in this modern world boundaries and class systems are constantly shifting, evolving and morphing. But not that much. Class should be dictated by taste.

Taste is relative regarding time and place. What was the height of good taste in 18th century Venice wouldn't be in 21st century Tokyo (though you never know). France is famous for good taste in many things: food, clothes, literature, art, cinema, and bad taste in music and advertising. The English have good taste in music and advertising but bad taste in everything else.

The line between good and bad taste inevitably gets blurred even more when terms such as retro, ironic and kitsch are bought into the equation. Painters such as Vladimir Tretchikoff and J H Lynch, whose cheap prints appealed to millions of British working class families in the 50s and 60s – they outsold Picasso and Matisse – are now highly prized by young, middle class professionals (read: ponces) who pay over the odds for them on ebay. Designer cool man Wayne Hemingway has even published a lavish book about kitsch art – which he collects. Apparently it reminds him of his childhood. He's an example of someone who changed from bad taste to good taste to ponce.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I greatly enjoyed your insights about the value of popular taste and the merits of mass-market masterpieces. Since I'm working on a book about Tretchikoff, I was glad that you mentioned him in that context.

Tretchi was a People's Painter, and so I'm always interested in what people think about his art. Especially bloggers, who are particularly outspoken.

Do you know his art well? Do you have any memories or stories related to his paintings? I like your way of thinking and would be pleased to meet you during my visit to London from 18 to 21 October. Perhaps, you could share your opinion about Tretchi's work and I'd be happy to quote it in my book.

Thank you for your assistance.

Boris Gorelik
Moscow, Russia
gorelik (a)