A version of this column ran in our Provincial Newspaper Arts Section ‘Salon’ on Saturday June 9th 2012.
Perhaps not surprisingly given my line of work, I’m fascinated by the question of taste: what it is, what it’s worth, and how – if you’re thinking you’d like to increase your current supply – one comes to acquire it. I’d like to think that my position on the question of taste is not only evolving, it exists in a constant state of flux.
Because I’m not entirely certain of the origins or basis of own supply of taste, I’m as intrigued as much by its absence in some as its abundance in others. For example, I know any number of perfectly gifted, intelligent and interesting people who are decidedly challenged when it comes to matters of taste; I’d no more trust them to pick out wallpaper than I would trust a loved one’s heart by-pass operation to a tree surgeon.
I suspect that taste may be something akin to artistic talent, if only in this limited sense: while it may be true that some are born with more of it than others, as a faculty it’s useless unless you work on it. As the English novelist Martin Amis says of writers, “Genius is all the God-given stuff – the altitude of perception and articulacy. Talent is craft.” Amis’s point, as I take it, is something of a commonplace among artists, as in: it’s all very well to be gifted, but there’s no substitute for hard work, discipline, and experience. Taste, it turns out, is one part nature to nine parts nurture.
Photo: Submitted – Roger Sterling of Mad Men seated in a Corona Chair designed by Poul M Volther
But what most intrigues me about taste is how subject it is to history and circumstance. One of the reasons the hit television series Mad Men is so popular is because– with its painstaking recreation of an era sixty-years removed from our own – it serves to remind us that the past is at once terribly familiar and deeply strange. And the source of that strangeness is little more, really, than a matter of taste; as the cut of their clothes and the style of their furniture suggest, the denizens of Mad Men are effectively us, but us with our sense of taste removed. Or perhaps not so much ‘removed’ as yet-unborn. That is, what makes them so interesting is how convincingly they illustrate that taste is conditional, almost entirely caught up in the march of time.
Given the practical bent of this column, I want to return to the question of how one might set about acquiring good taste given that it is so subject to change. The answer is actually quite simple, at least in principle: education. In my view, anyone can acquire and cultivate sufficient reserves of good taste; it’s a matter of application. There’s no getting around the fact that you’ve got to immerse yourself in what philosophers call ‘the discourse,’ which, so far as taste is concerned, simply means ‘you’ve got to pay close attention to what’s going on in the world of design.’ In part, this is what I mean when I celebrate – as I so often do – democratic design. Design is democratic because we all have equal opportunity, if we’re prepared to attach our attention to the conversation going on all around us, to build up reserves of taste sufficient to appreciate it.
Now, you may not be in a position to afford to decorate your home the way Roger Sterling in Mad Men decorates his office – his white leather Corona chair, for example, costs more than the car I currently drive – but you can certainly afford to position yourself to know why that office is a triumph of good taste.