What Does It Mean to Have 'Bad Taste'? Here's One Fascinating Theory

What Does It Mean to Have 'Bad Taste'? Here's One Fascinating Theory

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Nancy Mitchell
Aug 4, 2015
What's responsible for interiors like this one? Are they just a horrible accident, or is there something deeper at play? 70s interior from vintage Better Homes and Gardens, via Creative Pro.
(Image credit: Better Homes and Gardens)

We probably all know at least one person who has bad taste — you know, that friend you have where, when you're invited over to their house, you hope against hope that they don't ask you what you think of anything. But what is 'bad taste' anyway? What does it mean to have good or bad taste, and why do people like the things that they do? Writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has a fascinating theory.

(A text version of this video can be found here.)

According to de Botton, taste — the particular style of things you choose to surround yourself with — is an attempt at creating balance. So someone whose life is especially chaotic might be drawn to serene, minimalist interiors, while someone who felt worn down by the cares and demands of modern life might feel drawn to warm, rustic styles.

But then how do you account for so-called 'bad taste'? De Botton broadly defines bad taste as excess of any kind (while the accompanying video, somewhat snarkily, offers up Michael Graves and Frank Gehry buildings as examples of said excess). De Botton thinks that people who embrace excess are doing so as a means of dealing with trauma of some kind, making up for something that is, or was once, grievously missing from their life. So nouveau riche types, suddenly confronted with the means to spend after a lifetime of austerity, embrace gaudiness and ostentatiousness, while people trapped on the low end of the economic ladder, with no options besides working grueling, thankless jobs, tend to embrace sentimentality, finding in decor we might deem cloying a warm escape from the relentless grind of everyday life.

According to de Botton, bad taste isn't something we need to 'fix' — because it's the symptom, not the problem. Bad taste is "a trauma created by a badly broken and unbalanced world," and if we can only create a more just, equitable society, then gaudy excess will disappear forever.

It's a nice idea — and one that could help explain why everything in Scandinavia is so damn beautiful. But take it too far and it starts to sound a bit pseudoscience-y. I love modern design, and according to the video lovers of modern, minimalist design are drawn to this style because their interior life is so chaotic. Ok, fair enough. But I also really like color. Is that because I feel that my life isn't... colorful enough? Am I drawn to colors out of some sort of existential boredom? And why has my taste changed throughout my life? Is it driven by shifts in my personality, or something more external?

Paris: World's most beautiful city? Or bastion of disgusting excess?
(Image credit: William Perugini/Shutterstock)

Also, this entire argument presupposes that bad and good taste are monolithic. If this is true, who, exactly, is the person that gets to decide what's good and what's bad? Some people love Beaux-Arts architecture — it is, in fact, one of the things that makes Paris so gorgeous. But others who prefer more minimalist styles might hold up this kind of building as an example of the very excess that de Botton decries. Who's right?

French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, argued that there is no such thing as objectively good or bad taste, and that 'good taste' is determined by the ruling class in a society as a way of setting of themselves apart from less powerful classes, and establishing the things they enjoy as somehow superior. German philosopher Georg Simmel noted that as soon as fashions are adopted by the lower classes, they will be abandoned by the upper classes, a phenomenon that could explain why what constitutes 'good taste' is constantly shifting.

According to these two, things favored by the lower classes (or by the recently wealthy, who, culturally, haven't really assimilated into the upper classes) aren't objectively bad: they're just considered to be in bad taste because the people who like them aren't the ones making the rules.

There's a lot more that could be said about this, but hopefully this will give you plenty to think about when you're at the home of your friend who collects those weird dolls. Maybe taste — just like beauty — is in the eye of the beholder.

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