“Taste? Taste?” the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, adjusting his bardic cape and tapping the ground with his madman’s cane, bellowed. “Cows have taste.” Wright was a man of eccentric behaviour and unconventional habits, a true original with neither predecessors nor successors. Still, he felt his own buildings transcended frivolous fashion and touched The Absolute. They were timeless. And he was wrong.
The tides of taste come and go pitilessly, exposing our temporary fetishes and foibles like waves eroding the shore. That oligarch with his collection of Jeff Koons balloon creatures? Soon he will find he has over-spent on fashionable crapola. Damien Hirst? There’s an awful lot of Hirst now hanging over a fatigued art market. That developer revealing his latest blob of public art in a windswept piazza? He thought he was marrying the goddess fame, but instead it was a grubby one night stand with the slut of celebrity.
On the other hand, The Old Masters are now depressed in price: you could buy 20 Rembrandts for the price of a single Modigliani. It’s really all a matter of taste, but the question remains: is there an accurate way to judge art? If it’s all so fragile and variable, can you define excellence? Or does art come and go like hemlines? Is your choice as relevant as mine, even if you prefer sculpture made out of nail clippings and feathers, while I like Donatello and Donald Judd?
Discussing taste is a very good way to start an argument. It is the greatest taboo. To test the proposition, try telling someone they have bad taste. The same people who might all too readily be frank about sex and money are the same ones who flinch when their taste is under scrutiny. Taste is more cruelly revealing than, for example, HNW or where you place yourself on the LGBT spectrum. Why? Because you can borrow money or get dressed in drag, but taste reveals your real self.
But as soon as you begin to think about “Taste” with a capital T, it becomes very difficult: like trying to embrace fog. It’s this very elusiveness that makes it so potent. If anybody could understand Taste, there would be no value in the argument. If there were a reliable form of Taste which could be acquired through cash or cunning, someone would have bottled and branded it by now.
I used to work with Terence Conran, who would pick up an object and brightly say to me: “And this, my dear Stephen, is good design.” And I would reply: “Come off it, Terence, you mean it’s your taste.” Taste is an arbitrator, a discriminator and a betrayer. It’s the mechanism we use to establish our own preferences and to be witheringly snooty about the preferences of others.
And Taste is a modern thing. There was, to be sure, no such thing as Medieval Taste because there was no choice. Your feudal lord did not have a range of mottes, baileys, bartizans, drawbridges, dungeons, machicolations and turrets to choose from. There was what there was. Taste only entered human affairs when wealth and excess meant there were decisions to be made.
And, accordingly, the modern world gave us taste-makers. A magnificent prima donna in this milieu was the decorator Elsie de Wolfe whose work for post-feudal robber baron Henry J. Frick introduced new American money to old French furniture, a process still, to a degree, continuing . . . although who’s to say this will never change? Just when we thought that the brown furniture of the 19th century was forever consigned to the skip of history, it is making a tentative comeback as the taste for fashionably bleached Minimalism recedes.
What a disinterested reading of the history shows is that art, especially great art, has no permanent values. What’s highly regarded in one generation is very often contumaciously despised by the next. Just sit back and watch those Damien Hirst prices collapse. He will be down there soon with Vladimir Tretchikoff’s Green Lady.
There is no such thing as a great artist who has enjoyed a continuously high reputation, although few have had a rise and descent as rapid as Damien’s seems likely to be. Michelangelo was once thought a buffoon who specialized in over-muscled hermaphrodites. Raphael was tepid. And you could not give away Spanish baroque masters Murillo and Ribera.
El Greco and Vermeer, universal geniuses according to our own taste, spent centuries after their deaths in total obscurity, only to be rediscovered when the flow of taste made them acceptable again. Significantly, it was the very same art critic who popularized Van Gogh who rehabbed El Greco, seeing in his attenuated forms and astonishing palette common ground. Maybe he also enjoyed a shared hint of madness.
Everything is in a cycle of decline or resurrection. Just a few short years after Lytton Strachey said “One thing is certain, no-one will ever want to revive the 19th century,” Laura Ashley began her camp Victorian adventure in chintz and pie-crust collars. And for most the 20th century, New York’s Museum of Modern Art made the polite modernismo of abstract art as tasteful as Elsie de Wolfe’s old French furniture had once been. But any minute now, figurative art will be revived. Maybe this is happening already. Why? Because the only thing certain about taste is that it changes.
The great art historian Bernard Berenson believed that taste begins only when appetite is satisfied: if you are scrabbling for survival, hungry and poor, and your children have bare feet and your wife is on the streets, you are, perhaps, not much concerned if your chiffonier has a ball and claw foot or a barley twist leg.
But once past subsistence, we begin to make choices which express ourselves. This is why Nietzsche believed that all of life is a question of taste, and why Marx said the epic battles of the modern world will be fought not with lance and sword, but with dry goods. And, especially, art.
Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things by Stephen Bayley is published by Circa Press
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