Amid this blight and beauty, what is good taste anyway?

On Books

December 19, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

In this loveliest, ugliest time of the year, the terror of obesity drives people from the temptations of flavor. So, instead, let's consider the question of taste. What's that? Among offerings, the Encarta World Dictionary does as good a job as any: "The distinctive quality of something ... The faculty of making discerning judgments in aesthetic matters ... A sense of what is proper or acceptable socially."

Is taste -- good taste, bad taste -- important?

Listen: Edgar Allan Poe, in his "The Poetic Principle," wrote that "The sole arbiter [of beauty] is taste." John Ruskin, in a famous lecture titled "The Crown of Wild Olive," said, "Taste ... is the only morality . ... Tell me what you like and I'll tell you what you are." And Arnold Bennett, the august English novelist complicated the whole thing with: "Good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste."

None of that gets close to a satisfactory definition. For those who would go beyond the quip, I commend beginning with Clarinda Harriss' essay on this page. It is as clean and moving a delineation between sentiment and sentimentality -- between the vulgar and the divine -- as I can remember reading.

It drives me to put aside assessing a specific book today, to consider an abstract. Harriss' sublime distinction leaves in its shadow the more mundane -- and more pervasive -- question of good taste vs. bad taste, between the icky and the elegant.

One formulation of an answer -- which I rather like -- centers on the rose. Consider this: There are no two objects on earth more different than a freshly opening rose with a hint of dew on its petals in spring morning sunlight, on one hand, and that exact blossom precisely preserved in a block of Lucite, on the other.

That's a fairly simple image: one is of high, rare natural beauty. The other is artificial, crafted by human hands.

But if it were that simple, only the natural would be beautiful. That would obliterate the idea of beauty in much of what we call art. There's folly in attempting to define art. But one thing that I think can be generally agreed is that -- with apologies to chimpanzees -- the defining characteristic of art is that it is the product of the mind and hand of humankind.

There is much that is in good taste and that is not art. Almost everything that is purely natural is in good taste -- until and unless the hand of man intrudes. But there are hand-fashioned artless objects of high good taste as well: a classic automobile, a splendidly made wine, the perfect little black cocktail dress.

And, to help things along, it is often argued, in the last generation or so, that beauty has very little if anything to do with what is art: There is a post-modernist thought, brewing and building since just after World War I, suggested by Marcel Duchamp and others of like mind, that previous, traditional art is dead. That conclusion is that all the value of the representational in visual arts, the melodic in music, the coherent in literature has been exhausted.

What that left artists to do is an interesting question. But that vision does suggest that there can be works of genuine art that are tasteless. There are, of course, all sorts of tasteful things that have nothing to do with artfulness.

Clement Greenberg, the immortal and irascible art critic and historian, gave truly bad taste eminence in his classic essay "Avant Garde and Kitsch" in 1939. Kitsch is bad taste at its ultimate. He warned that bad taste "has gone on a triumphal tour of the world." His phrase for the worst of popular bad taste was vulgaris triumphus -- vulgarity triumphant.

For anyone with deep interest in questions of taste, there is a fascinating, early-1999 collection by Greenberg, who died n 1994: "Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste" (Oxford University Press, 207 pages, $27.95). There's nothing simple about it, but it's fair to say that Greenberg is, finally, tasteful.

Among dozens of less demanding references is "The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste" by Jane and Michael Stern (HarperCollins, 331 pages, $29.95 on publication in 1990). The Sterns wrote a joint newspaper column on pop tastes and more than a dozen books.

The Sterns held out as icons "Walter and Margaret Keane, the husband-and-wife painting team of the sixties who invented the big-teary-eyes school of painting." Their best definition is that "appropriateness can be a helpful measure of good taste; more to the point, extreme inappropriateness is a sure signal of bad taste."

The Sterns stick to America -- but I have yet to find any place that didn't show a fair amount of it. In Germany, it abounds. In Switzerland, it militates.

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