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Issue 102


An email debate

BY Giles Foden and Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 01 OCT 06

Dear Giles

‘Taste’ sounds so old-fashioned – way too Bernard Berenson. It smacks of posh blokes in tweeds chuntering on about scholarship and telling us what we should and shouldn’t like. But the more I think about it, the more important it seems. At a time when everything is so knowing, and culture at every level is dished up to us like ready-made meals, it’s all too easy to absorb it in the same stratified way.

Of course, taste can be pre-packaged too, but only to an extent. Because it’s a mix of nature and nurture, and the nature bit is bound to butt in sooner or later. However much critical theory you plough through, every so often you look at a painting and realize that the reason you’re not getting it isn’t anything polysyllabic; it’s because you’ve never liked that colour or those shapes. It’s not that the polysyllabic stuff doesn’t matter, because it does; but something basic matters more, and that’s the instinctive part of your taste.


Dear Alice

‘Taste’ feels to me like an essential thing, something internal, as physical as the word’s more primary meaning. And yet it can be learnt. At the same time it’s all too often revealed as a political or social posture – usually one of repression – masquerading as an aesthetic one. Taste is compartmentalized too. I feel I have literary taste but don’t trust my judgments in clothes or décor. ‘Hideous!’ my wife screeches when I return from the shops wearing something that she was not consulted on. She comes from a family of taste divas. When I ask her what taste is, she says: ‘If you haven’t got it, you couldn’t know.’


P.S. National taste specialisms? Check out German-made kids’ trike at www.puky.de and compare with UK-designed ones in Argos or Woolworth’s. No contest, but then the Puky is nearly twice the price.

Dear Giles,

Aren’t you confusing taste with ‘good taste’? Your literary taste may be more refined than your taste in fashion and shades of emulsion, but you still have taste in those things, because you’ll instinctively choose one over another. It’s just that you – and your wife – don’t consider those preferences to be particularly discerning, and you don’t seem to feel offended by that, presumably because you haven’t invested much time or energy in them. But if I criticized your literary taste, you’d probably find that offensive, and feel justified in doing so, as I would if you slated my taste in fashion, come to that, because, like your wife, I care deeply about it and have spent lots of time acquiring knowledge and enjoying its subtleties.

But taste isn’t just a matter of investment, because of the trade-off between the instinctive and the acquired. Surely it’s most interesting when instinct prevails, and nature beats nurture. I take your point about national taste. Puky bikes don’t do it for me, and not just because I’m not German. I’m too childish to get past the puky/pukey name and don’t like those naff biomorphic curves.

National taste is mostly nurtured, because it’s about familiarity driving a self-perpetuating cycle. Take food. We Brits weren’t genetically doomed only to eat over-cooked junk before we joined the EU; it’s just that most of us had never had the chance to taste anything different. Look at what’s happened since we did. Or take design. Scandinavians aren’t pre-programmed to warm to natural materials, organic shapes, earthy colours and anything by Poul Kjaerholm and Arne Jacobsen. But because they grow up surrounded by that stuff, it becomes reassuringly familiar and different styles seem jarring.
So why do some people break out of those cycles and create something new? Why is it that what we think of as the ‘typical’ West Coast architectural style – glass houses in open spaces – was conceived by Austrian émigrés, Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra? It’s impossible to think of the same buildings making the same impact in Austria. Surely that’s a case of nature trouncing nurture. Is there any other way of producing things that are really interesting?


Dear Alice,

No, it is you who is confused, duckie. When we say someone has taste, it is implicit that it is good taste, in whichever department. Anything else is just a preference, as you say. I agree with you that taste is more than just an investment of time or energy – I could spend years looking at Vogue or a fancy paint catalogue and still get it wrong – yet I’m uncomfortable with taste just being an innate, hard-wired thing too. Probably one must define it as a nurture-enhanced visceral aesthetic, but I find my literary taste bridling at such phrasing.

On Puky bikes: you might not like the name or the curves (yes: a trend that has gone too far), but when you compare them with British equivalents, they are the Rolls-Royces of the trike world.

Maybe we can agree that taste is subject to evolution, both personally and nationally, and that is where the cycles come in. When a sufficient number of cycles cohere, taste becomes fashion, by which time the truly tasteful have already moved on, retaining affection only for the classics as well as the new thing. A classic is something that can be appreciated across the ages because it is inherently ‘patient of interpretation’, as Frank Kermode put it, in accordance with the spirit of one age or the next. I understand the little black dress is one such, and Shakespeare, and Saarinen tulip tables. Not sure about Puky bikes in the very long run. Or Rolls-Royces even. Or email debates as a journalistic form: one sign of taste is knowing when to stop.


Alice Rawsthorn is the Design Critic of the International Herald Tribune

Giles Foden is a freelance writer living in London. The film of his novel The Last King of Scotland opens the London Film Festival in October and goes on general Release in the UK in January