Being told that you have good taste isn’t much of a compliment to anyone. Grayson Perry, Turner-prize winning transvestite potter whose alter-ego is Claire, an Essex house-wife, has stated that in the art world tasteful is being told ‘you’re cowardly’. You can see how it wouldn’t be a compliment to the leading artists who suspend dead animals in formaldehyde, display soiled sheets or reproduce balloon animals in stainless steel.
But what Perry looks at in his series ‘All in the Best of Taste’ is that it isn’t much of a compliment to any of us. We know this already – for one thing it is impossible to have bad taste because the fashion designers won’t let you. Marc Jacobs called his latest collection ‘an exploration of bad taste. . .those ochres, mustards, pinks and grid patterns – some people would consider them ugly’. Christopher Kane used purple moire, the watermark-patterned satin used to line coffins in his latest pieces because it was ‘gross, yet brilliant.’ If we can wear our grandma’s cardigans and be thought indie, buy devices to stretch holes in our ears from mainstream shops and watch bad taste dark comedy commissioned by the BBC then the boundaries collapse.
For another thing there is an element of that saying in the film ‘Chinatown’: ‘Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough’. Jacob Epstein’s now celebrated nude sculptures decorating the Embassy of Zimbabwe shocked the Edwardians and were hacked away. Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, the gentleman’s urinal was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists but has recently been named the most influential modern art work of all time. The Museum of Bad Art was established in 1994 and now has three galleries in the Boston area but what has been at some point been called bad art or bad taste sits in every single gallery in the world.
Grayson Perry is a poster boy for bad taste. Criticised for appearing on Question Time in dressed as a pantomime widow he is the same man who said he might have been a serial killer if he hadn’t gone to art school. When asked why he needs to put sex, violence or politics in his work he explains that ‘without it, it would be pottery. I think that crude melding of those two parts is what makes my work.’
In the accompanying Channel 4 series to Perry’s latest project – a series of social commentary tapestries based on Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’ – he travelled around Britain trying to find out more about the nation’s taste. He meets Jane, who bought a show flat complete with all the furnishings, buying the middle class dream because she was afraid of getting it wrong, and realises that a Sunderland hard man might spend a greater proportion of his income on art – his tattoos – than a London banker does on a Damien Hirst.
The artist devotes the three programmes and the six tapestries to working, middle and upper classes and stresses that taste is tribal, all about conformity to social groups. But Perry argues that he himself is from all three social strata and breaks down distinctions in his use of the tapestries. He says tapestries ‘were made for the Lord of the Manor and they would depict great mythical battles like Hannnibal crossing the alps or some great nation changing event but I’m using that same context to depict whether people shop at Ikea or whether they go to Waitrose’.
If taste is about groups then it seems that these groups shift and flow; the elegant fox fur that signalled class for years is now seen as revolting, Burberry scarves may have been destroyed forever, and the piling on of bling is good taste for groups as disparate as the Queen, that chav on the bus and a bride at an Indian wedding. The ‘alternative’ outfit of big glasses, piercings and knitwear is now a uniform; looking around a lecture every student has on the same bad taste garish jumper and dip-dyed hair wouldn’t cancel you out from an interview at a bank.
You can feel instinctively that the idea of ‘good taste’ isn’t what it was; you would probably only use the word ’tasteful’ when talking about a funeral. Taste might have now become about how we deal with death or extreme violations; Eric Fischl’s ‘Tumbling Woman’, in memory of those who died during September 11th was removed from the Rockerfeller Centre after viewers complained it was in bad taste. But this taboo might too disappear; Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull ‘For the Love of God’ had an asking price of £50 million, down the other end of the scale a shop near me has started selling coffins patterned with leopard print, ice creams or Star Wars characters.
The idea of taste has been too battered to stand up. The boundaries have collapsed; the kitsch, the skeletons, the toilet humour, the sexual and the mustard reign. And so if it is impossible to have bad taste then being told that you have good taste is like being praised for having two ears.