I was listening to an episode of the Radio 4 programme “In Our Time” the other week which discussed taste. Here are some notes.
Early C18th Britain had become the leading commercial power in Europe. This brought new wealth and luxury into British society. The fear was that this would make the British soft and lead to their imperial decline, as it had for the Roman Empire before. Britain was a hard-working, Protestant, parliamentary democracy. France was its Papist, absolutist, decadent other across the channel. There was an anxiety that luxury (excessive self-gratification) will subvert virtue.
The modern concept of taste was born in France and became harnessed to the debates around luxury in Britain. After 1688 the authority of the British court declined so unlike Louis XIV’s dictation of taste in France, there was a much more open debate about what taste might be.
Taste has the economic basis of dignifying expense. It also has an intellectual basis; the exercise of taste is brought to the centre of philosophy by Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury’s deism sees aesthetic as the best proof of God. He also argues that taste explains virtue and moral judgement as the sense of beauty in society. The man of sophistication and taste is therefore a moral man as well.
Addison in The Spectator describes how people can be better than just pursuers of pleasure by pursuing the refined arts; taste is the capacity to be recpetive to these arts. It becomes a distinguishing competence of modern citizens.
British taste is opposed to enthusiasm and excess as a result of being opposed to religious enthusiasm and to the excess of the court of King Charles. A way of appropriate virtue rather than dangerous enthusiasm. The design rules of the time are a reaction to excess. Taste is a vocabulary for an ordered religiosity.
Taste covered deportment as well as visual aesthetics. You could have taste without having high birth. Taste is potentially a very socially subversive idea. Taste was mocked as well as embraced from the start. Bad taste was mocked savagely, for example by Pope.
Taste is based on a set of rules. This opens it to the masses. But it is also meant to involve long exposure to the rules, making them intuitive. Poor taste gets much more coverage than good taste. Critics fall back on the classical idea of decorum, that surroundings should reflect status. So commentaries on the tasteless gaudiness of those who dress above their station proliferate, as does hatred of new money.
Sheet music, novels, galleries etc. make culture more public and more publicly accessible, especially to the rising middle classes. Taste is deployed socially against popular fads and economically against imports, often at the same time. Good taste is the ingredient old money has that new money hasn’t. You can only really have taste if you’re born to it.
Taste as both innate and discriminatory and rule-based and emancipatory.
Wedgewood had to get buy-in from tastemakers when launching new works to ensure their success, a triangle of entrepenuers, critics and lords results.
Taste was very much a feature of the Empire. For settlers one of the aims of Empire was often to recreate yourself, which you did through displaying taste.
In Britain people fall back on the language of decorum when in doubt about taste.
Liberty has a similar trajectory to taste, spreading through society from the aristocracy. And now “tasteful” is the ultimate put-down.
Shaftesbury, Addison, George Coleman