The futile pursuit of good taste

What is good taste? And who decides it? It’s a question I discussed last weekend with the architect and designer Harry Nuriev, museum director Melissa Chiu and Net-a-Porter president Alison Loehnis: three arbiters of style. But the only real agreement we could come to on the subject is that there are no longer any rules.

Until about 20 years ago there remained fairly static ideas about what passed as de rigueur. In a world in which opinions were decided by a small cabal of voices, the number of “serious” art collectors numbered in the low hundreds and the major markets were assumed to be in Paris, London and New York, there was an easy consensus about the kind of furniture one should sit on, the brand of bag you carried or the art you hung on your walls.

Trends were cyclical and ever shifting — but the things representing “good taste” remained quite fixed in people’s minds. If your chairs were Le Corbusier, you owned a Giacometti, or you swung an Hermès Birkin handbag, you were part of an elite group whose taste was aspired to and admired. Today, however, taste has become more fluid and subjective. Its arbitration is less clear cut. The internet has made everyone a critic, new markets have mushroomed outside the traditional centres and consensus has largely broken down.

Where once good taste was seen as a mark of privilege and education, today’s tastemakers are a far more reactive crowd. And the things that emerge as barometers of our cultural standing are less likely the product of explicit connoisseurship than they are the result of a collective, internet-fed, hive mind.

Nuriev was born in Russia: earlier this month he worked with the culinary studio We Are Ona to create a pop-up restaurant that was the talk of art week in New York. When not creating happenings in one of the world’s most notoriously unimpressible communities, he makes eiderdowns from old boxer shorts and bespoke wallpaper with a trompe l’oeil effect to look like mould: he’s currently crushing plastic Evian bottles to create a bespoke chandelier. His work treads the line between the tasteless and the transcendent and the classic and the crass, but his bold “transformer” vision has made him one of the most in-demand designers of today.

© Julien Lienard

Asked what good taste is, he shrugs and says he has no idea. But he does know his clients want to work with him because they feel that he represents the kind of design statement they want to make.

“Good taste” has become more democratic. Not to mention politicised: most national galleries are in the midst of major rehangs to try to showcase works by women, non-white or outsider artists whose works have been until now overlooked. When Chiu, the Asian-Australian director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, first started working as an Asian contemporary art expert, people dismissed her by saying it didn’t exist. For connoisseurs, Asian art meant ancient porcelains and dynastic swag. It was only with the emergence of a new consumer market, and the internet, that those opinions changed. Once, she argues, artists hoping for longevity would have to follow a very specific career path. Today, some of the most feverishly collected artists — those who are sold for millions at auction — have never had a single work shown in a museum.

Is good taste, then something innate and elevated, or is it simply hitting certain trends? Even with the proliferation of influencers, click culture and social media, some things still bubble to the surface as being considered “tasteful” at any given time. In fashion, for example, we are in the grip of a much vaunted “stealth wealth” phase, wherein logos are more muted, fabrics more luxurious and it is currently considered the height of chic to be swathed in layers of beige.

But is this good taste or simply “safe taste” — an attempt to conceal one’s riches by trying to look completely meh? Surely the true arbiters of “great” taste should have more verve and expression; that’s certainly what I look for when choosing The Aesthetes you see in the FT Weekend’s HTSI magazine.

And what about Old Masters? One would assume that some things must surpass all metrics with their expertise and beauty, and yet even the most revered of artists can languish, dusty and unloved. Look at Vermeer, currently the subject of the most popular show on earth at the Rijksmuseum, but whose paintings, now widely considered masterpieces, could barely dent a passing interest for nearly 200 years.

Good taste was an expression of privilege and tradition — controlled and manipulated by a powerful elite. But that hegemony of mostly white, male creative personalities is now being reframed to reflect more diverse intellects. Most importantly, I think, good taste should not be dull: it should be bold, audacious and original. It should dare to flout convention, provoke and yet ultimately beguile.

Email Jo at [email protected]



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