Text by Aaron Peasley
It’s often said that there’s no accounting for taste, but that notion has not prevented innumerable editors, writers, theorists, and philosophers from attempting to do just that. Taste—like cool—is a concept that is not only subjective but also inherently indecipherable: a system of shared preferences that represent a “history of the present.”
De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum—there
is no accounting for taste.
The first generation of philosophers to tackle the topic framed taste as a kind of noblesse oblige. Eighteenth century aesthetic theorists like Immanuel Kant defined taste—one of the more complex human senses—as an intellectual and moral imperative.
If beauty was the best evidence of God, then the ability to recognize and appreciate it became the distinguishing characteristic of a moral citizen. Kant’s theories linked beauty and intellect, arguing that taste should hold beauty at arm’s length.
Elevated from mere pleasure, taste was shrouded in rules and convention. Throughout the Age of Enlightenment, taste eschewed excess, prizing manners in life, order and proportion in architecture, and discernment in fine art. Taste was the preserve of the elite and mirrored a noble class system and its values of discipline, rationalism, discernment, and detachment. Artist John Ruskin, a leading critic of the Victorian era, claimed, “the eye is a nobler organ.”
There were exceptions to this narrow, moralistic view. Marie Antoinette–considered by many to be one of the first true tastemakers with her penchant for extravagant clothes and luxuries–proved that too much of a good thing could be fatal. (In fact, the French Revolution actually helped usher in the end of the Age of Enlightenment). In Britain and Europe, as the middle classes grew and an era of individualism took hold, taste was no longer a strictly top-down affair.
Liberated from churches, places of worship, and the elite halls of the aristocracy, taste became a commodity. The seductive arcades of Paris, with their grand marble entrances, cast iron columns, and glass roofs, became the first examples of attainable luxury. Precursors to department stores, the passages introduced shopping as a civilized social experience that catered to the rising middle classes. For the first time in history, people were able to invest in cosmopolitan spoils: fine china, objets d’art, and imported silk.
Taste began its evolution into what we now consider popular taste. As an unprecedented tide of new wealth emerged in Britain, style and fashion began its migration from the elegant arts (painting, music, and gardening) into lesser matters, infiltrating fashion, food, and entertaining. To keep such outrageous profligacy at bay, taste developed a capricious system of codes, arcane references, and sophisticated signifiers.
By the 20th century–the era of populism–taste increasingly mirrored the objectives of global commercialism and the influence of mass media. In contrast to the Puritanism espoused by the early aesthetic theorists, taste became emulative, linked with the leisure class and the bourgeoning concept of lifestyle. No longer a righteous obligation, taste swapped intellectual discipline for glamour, privilege, and comfort.
Then came Hollywood. In the postwar years, taste began moving from West to East, a trajectory noted by prophets such as Andy Warhol, whose work positioned taste as existing somewhere between the Avant Garde and the mainstream, the MGM backlot and downtown Manhattan. Warhol darling, Shakespearean actress, and cinema deity Elizabeth Taylor famously pushed the limits of what good taste could be, paving the way for generations of celebrity tastemakers and personal “brands.” Taylor once dined with Princess Margaret and one particular exchange captured the era’s clash of milieus.
The Princess asked Taylor, who was wearing the 68-carat diamond ring given to her by Richard Burton, “Is that the famous diamond? How very vulgar!” “Yes,” replied Taylor with camp insouciance, “Ain’t it great?”
Then there is kitsch, the exuberant repudiation of conventional good taste, a gaudy byproduct of globalized mass production. Kitsch is plastic, fake Vuitton, real Cavalli, Valley of The Dolls, The Madonna Inn, Drag Queens, shag carpet, fake gilded furniture, Edible Arrangements, SkyMall catalogues, and Juicy Couture leisure suits. Kitsch, much like its cousin camp, “sees everything in quotation marks,” according to Susan Sontag. Kitsch hungrily grabs for the flashy, the artificial, the over-the-top, and the tawdry.
According to John Waters, “to understand bad taste, you have to have good taste,” and appreciating kitsch requires its own kind of perspicacity. True kitsch acknowledges where good taste ends, but proceeds anyway. Legendary editor Diana Vreeland, who exhorted the power of style over fashion and pushed the limits editorially, famously proclaimed, “A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical.”
Today, however, the culture at large can seem to be mired in paprika; look around and the political and cultural landscape appears to be all sizzle, no steak. Nowadays, hospitality designers must consider Instagram when designing new spaces (discretion tends not to play so well on a tiny smartphone screen); pop stars have adopted hyper referentiality and pornography as the visual cues of the day; and in fashion, runways– never known for their understatement–are now compelled to compete with the street style carnival outside the venue. When the Chanel show is staged in a supermarket festooned with branded perishables, it might be fair to say that bad taste has wrested the upper hand.
It seems all too easy to blame the Internet, yet the endless hydra of visuals and online noise has done more to upend the traditional taste matrix than Liz Taylor ever could. Today’s on-demand smartphone era offers an impossibly diffuse number of styles, options, visual references, and icons. If taste is cultivated in the traditional sense, it’s now done so on our devices via Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. Traditional tastemakers have been recast as “influencers,” a large, nebulous army that wields power purely by dint of their social media followers and relentlessly curated self-presentation. Spend enough time online and the idea of Good Taste begins to seem horribly démodé.
We are most certainly living in the End of Taste. In interior design, one of the last frontiers where taste still counts for something, the rediscovery of the postmodern design collective Memphis, famously renounced as a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price,” is a sign that all bets are off. Nowadays, aesthetic rigor–the monastic adherence to a single design philosophy–almost qualifies as fringe behavior. The “curated” thrown-together look–a pastiche of styles and decorative movements–has become the standard-bearer of unthreatening good taste.
Then again, there’s nothing taste abhors more than sentimentality. Karl Lagerfeld, one of the few who have managed to cling onto his status as a bona fide tastemaker throughout the decades, has never met a design trend he didn’t love. From Memphis to stark brutalism, the designer sheds aesthetic skins with alacrity. Yet here, Lagerfeld is once again prescient: taste in the 21st century has become increasingly diffuse. Like it or not, we are now waist deep in the anything-goes zeitgeist where taste has become both a putdown and a paradox–if you can actually put your finger on it, it probably wasn’t tasteful in the first place.
01 Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who is considered the central figure of modern philosophy. [Wikipedia] 02 John Ruskin was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era. [Wikipedia]
03 Marie Antoinette an Archduchess of Austria, was the fifteenth and second youngest child of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Empress Maria Theresa. [Wikipedia] 04a Elizabeth Taylor, was an English-American actress, businesswoman and humanitarian. Her husband, Richard Burton, was a Welsh stage and cinema actor noted for his mellifluous baritone voice and his acting talent. [Wikipedia]
04b The Taylor–Burton Diamond is a 68 carats diamond that became notable when it was purchased by the actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1969. [Wikipedia] 05 Princess Margaret was the younger daughter of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and the only sibling of Queen Elizabeth II. [Wikipedia] 06 The Madonna Inn is a motel known for it’s kitschy interiors, located in San Luis Obispo, California. [Wikipedia]
07 Juicy Couture is an American contemporary clothing brand with fashion spanning their signature velour tracksuits, clothing, handbags, shoes, swimwear, fragrance, and accessories. [Wikipedia] 08 John Waters is an American film director, screenwriter, producer, actor who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films. [Flickr] 09 Chanel is a high fashion house that specializes in haute couture. and ready-to-wear clothes, luxury goods and fashion accessories. [Wikipedia]
10 Memphis was an Italian design and architecture group founded in Milan by Ettore Sottsass in 1981 that designed Postmodern furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass and metal objects from 1981 to 1987. 11 Karl Lagerfeld is the head designer and creative director of the fashion house Chanel as well as the Italian house Fendi and his own fashion label.
Notes on what taste is not:
personal Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but taste commands a social context. This is why hermits, shut-ins, and agoraphobics aren’t suited to the role of tastemaker.
Static Taste, by its very nature, promulgates rules and then promptly breaks them. From a scholarly point of view, Taste is inherently epochal and emulative. To quote Susan Sontag, “taste has no system and no proof.”
homogenous True Taste abhors the cookie-cutter and “off the rack.” Money can’t buy you class and it cannot buy you taste.
fashionable Like “style,” Taste transcends the whims of the endlessly churning fashion apparatus. Those who hew too closely to fashion—remaining safely cloistered within the styles of the day, however outré they may be—don’t have much of a shot at immortality.
a birthright Taste, unlike class, is no accident of birth, but something that can be acquired with the right amount of homework. One could very well make the case that many of the most prominent tastemakers of the modern age—Coco Chanel comes to mind—were bootstrappers of lowly birth and extreme ambition.
Self-conscious Self-consciousness destroys taste instantly. Taste isn’t manifesto or doctrine. To possess it, it’s critical that one exude an air of complete and utter nonchalance at all times.
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