Posted on February 18, 2016 by Mary Hood | 0 Comments
In some cases, bad taste is one of those “I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it” kind of things. For many of us, bad taste often depends on context, expectations, and other subjective variables—and it’s this subjectivity that can make bad taste a touchy subject. But that doesn’t stop philosophers—both old and contemporary—from voicing opinions on the matter.
As explained in an article on Apartment Therapy, British philosopher Alain de Botton claims that taste—whether bad or good—stems from an effort to find inner balance by exerting control over our exteriors (like our clothing style and our home design). He offers some examples: An individual experiencing anxiety in a chaotic work environment may gravitate towards calm, minimalist living environments the bring them much-needed serenity. A person working a low-paying, tedious job may prefer a living space filled with small comfort items, playful knick-knacks, and personal effects. Surely taste is shaped by other lifestyle and life history elements, but the general theory makes sense.
Bad taste, according to de Botton, is excess of any kind, and this excess is an attempt to compensate for some previous trauma—“a trauma created by a badly broken and unbalanced world.” This phenomenon can happen at the level of the individual: according to this theory, experiencing a lack in childhood, whether it’s a lack of money or love or some other essential thing, may spur bad taste in the adult in the form of excess (excess jewelry, excess status symbols, excess collectibles…). De Botton explains that bad taste can happen at the level of the nation-state as well and cites Russian and Saudi-Arabian architecture and general style as examples: “A century of extreme deprivation under Communism and an eternity of eking out a living in the barren deserts of Saudi Arabia have created understandably desperate desires for compensation.”
He stresses that we shouldn’t blame those with bad taste, however. Instead, we should look to the causes of bad taste—the events and circumstances that inflicted trauma on a person or a people. Correct this, and we correct bad taste.
As you may imagine, this theory has incited some criticism. For one, who decides what qualifies as “excess,” and how did they acquire their unspoken authority in aesthetics? Even if we’re not blaming the person with bad taste, simply stating that they have bad taste implies that we understand the distinction between ugly and beautiful and they don’t, which, given the subjective nature of taste, is inherently problematic. De Botton’s remarks on the “excessive” style habits of the Russians and Saudis raises the question, perhaps accidentally: According to whom is this an example of bad taste? Western Europeans? Philosophers? The college-educated?
Additionally, when we think of our own tastes, we understand that an abundance of factors go into why we like one sweater more than another. Our personal histories (beyond trauma and need for balance) shape our aesthetic. In fact, fond memories—the opposite of trauma—are often the reason we seek certain style elements—whether it’s colors, fragrances, or textures, we like what they remind us of.
Moreover, taste is social. As Pierre Bourdieu theorizes in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, what qualifies as “good taste” changes over the decades and is dependent on the tastes of the upper class. In fact, taste is one way the members of the upper class distinguish themselves from their poorer counterparts, and as soon as these markers of “good taste” are adopted by the lower class, they are abandoned by the upper class. Take for example the French manicure. Once considered a chic and classy way to wear nails, today, French tips are often viewed as passé, or worse—trashy—and only brave beauty bloggers are suggesting that the French manicure may be cool again. Let’s also remember that tastes—even those of the wealthier classes—may, in part, be influenced by fashion trend predicting services, i.e. the programs that decide which colors, textures, and patterns will be featured by designers of all price ranges during the coming seasons.
Cleary, the topic of taste is multi-faceted.
Despite the limitations of de Botton’s theory, it ultimately comes from a loving place—a desire to soothe the broken spirits of people by addressing what causes them trauma. Mainly, underpaying, humiliating jobs and national policies that implicitly devalue a people (one may think of the recent push in the U.S. for voter registration laws that make it more difficult for minorities to vote), are the kind of things that de Botton is concerned about. Show other people appreciation, at a personal, professional, and legislative level, and they will be less likely to experience the urge to compensate for an unsolved lack.