Why is it so appalling to learn that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor employed a footman to hand-cut their lavatory paper? The entire history of art, architecture and design shows that there has been a great deal of disputing about taste. In fact, the only certain thing about taste is that it changes. But what is it? The Romans knew it without doubt; in the 18th century the virtuosi sat in their salons and pondered its meaning while a brittle Scarlatti keyboard piece entertained them. But in the 19th century, with the explosion of consumerism, all moral certainty disappeared and the notion of "good taste" was invented to normalize middle-class behaviour. In our own century taste has become a taboo since the judgements we make about dress, manners, food and art are painfully revealing of social and educational backgrounds which we would sometimes prefer remained obscure.
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A British design critic (Harley Earl and the Dream Machine, 1983) offers an opinionated tour of the modern and mercurial concept of taste, that "merciless betrayer of social and cultural attitudes." "Good" and "bad" taste, Bayley argues, are not absolutes, and no longer the simple matter of rules they were in Joshua Reynolds's England. Indeed, taste changes: El Greco was neglected until Picasso became his champion, and even Shakespeare was sometimes scorned. Thanks to Mme. de Pompadour (the "ancien regime version of 'born to shop'"), "taste ceased to be metaphorical and became instead a particular vision of the haute-bourgeoisie." Much fun is to be had here contemplating the vulgarity of the leopard-skin upholstery in billionaire Alan Bond's Mercedes, or the way the nouveaux riches acquire "an image of self by having Elsie de Wolfe buy them chandeliers or, today, Ralph Lauren dress them in the "romanticized" trappings of WASP society. The definitions here are neither simple nor pristine, and beg questions repeatedly asked. Taste, Bayley claims, has mostly to do with intentions (such as to impress). Yet good design is measurable - "durable, affordable, useful, efficient." Unfortunately, good design has been confused with good taste - the meaning of "good" being debased by a specious sense of superiority. And "designer" became a "dead" label when it was attached to jeans. Clearly allied with the modernists for whom Walter Gropius's office is a shrine, Bayley sees their passion for simplicity and functionalism as born of a certain time and place. He has much to say about architecture (today mostly "pure kitsch") interior design ("the red light district of culture"), as well as fashion and food. Much of the impact of this smart, sweeping, intermittently clarifying commentary comes from well-captioned b&w photographs of influential landmarks of taste - from a Paris restaurant of 1900 to Converse sneakers, Coco Chanel, a William Morris print, and the Rothschilds' chateau. (Kirkus Reviews)