What is good taste? And who decides? I discussed this question last weekend with architect and designer Harry Nuriev, museum director Melissa Chiu, and Alison Loehnis, president of Net-a-Porter: the three arbiters of style. But the only real deal we could come the point is that there are no more rules.
Until about 20 years ago, fairly static ideas about the past remained de rigueur. In a world in which opinion was determined by a small clash of voices, the number of “serious” art collectors numbered in the hundreds, and the major markets in Paris, London, and New York were assumed to have an easy consensus on what furniture to sit on, what brand of bag you carried or what artwork did you hang on your wall?
Trends were cyclical and ever-changing – but things that represented ‘good taste’ were pretty fixed in people’s minds. If you owned Le Corbusier chairs, owned Giacometti, or rocked an Hermès Birkin handbag, you were part of an elite group whose taste you coveted and admired. Today, however, taste has become more fluid and subjective. His refereeing is less clear. The Internet has made everyone critical, new markets have mushroomed outside traditional centers, and consensus has largely broken down.
Where good taste was once seen as a sign of privilege and education, today’s tastemakers are a much more reactive crowd. And the things that emerge as barometers of our cultural state are less likely to be the products of expressed aptitude than the result of a collective Internet-fed hive mind.
Born in Russia, Nuriev worked with culinary studio We Are Ona earlier this month to create a pop-up restaurant that was the talk of New York Art Week. When he’s not creating events in one of the world’s most notoriously unimpressive communities, he’s making old boxers and custom trompe l’oeil wallpaper to look like mold: he’s currently smashing plastic Evian bottles to create a custom chandelier. His work straddles the line between tasteless and transcendent, classic and rough, but his bold “transformer” vision has made him one of the most sought-after designers today.
When asked what good taste is, he shrugs and says he has no idea. But he knows his clients want to work with him because they feel he represents the kind of design statement they want.
“Good taste” has become more democratic. Not to mention politicized: most national galleries are undergoing major overhauls to try to present the work of women, non-white or outsider artists whose work has been overlooked. When Chiu, the Asian-Australian director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., first began working as an expert on contemporary Asian art, people dismissed him as nonexistent. For connoisseurs, Asian art meant ancient porcelains and dynastic swag. Only with the advent of a new consumer market and the Internet did these opinions change. Once, he argues, artists hoping for longevity had to follow a very specific career path. Some of today’s most feverishly collected artists – those who sell for millions at auction – have never seen a single work in a museum.
Is good taste something innate and elevated, or does it simply follow certain trends? Even with the proliferation of influencers, click culture, and social media, certain things emerge as always considered “tasteful.” In fashion, for example, we’re in a much-touted “stealth riches” phase, where logos are more muted, textiles are more luxurious, and it’s currently considered the height of chic to be covered in layers of beige.
But is this good taste or simply “safe taste” – an attempt to hide your wealth by trying to look totally meh? Surely arbitrators of “great” taste should have more courage and expression; That’s certainly what I’m looking for when choosing The Aesthetes featured in FT Weekend’s HTSI magazine.
And what about the old masters? One assumes that certain things must surpass all standards of skill and beauty, but even the most revered artists can wither and grow dusty and unloved. Check out Vermeer, currently the world’s most popular show at the Rijksmuseum, but whose paintings, now widely regarded as masterpieces, have barely managed to suppress passing interest for nearly 200 years.
Good taste was an expression of privilege and tradition – controlled and manipulated by a powerful elite. But the hegemony of mostly white, male creatives is now being reshaped to reflect more diverse intellects. The most important thing, I think, is that good taste should not be boring: it should be bold, daring and original. He must dare to defy convention, provoke and ultimately deceive.
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