Taste is often theorized as a social or cultural phenomenon. Defined under the terms that fabricate cultural patterns of choice and preference, Taste is contested territory. How could it not be? Taste is founded on the drawing of boundaries and distinctions entwined in sociological history and class.
In his essay, “A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz,” Dave Hickey wrote “Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.” It’s an intriguing proposition. The essay focuses on the public persona that was Liberace and on his particular brand of taste. Hickey argues Liberace was unaware of his own “subversive theatricality” and “like a black man in black-face, he took it to the limit and reveled in the impertinence of his pseudo-masquerade.” Liberace’s taste became political. His particularly spectacular and opulent, over the top, rococo stage performances, costumes and embellished objects, screamed their subversive messages without ever voicing them, and, at times, even Liberace was unaware. Hickey states, “What Liberace did was Americanize the closet, democratize it, fit it out with transparent walls, take it up on stage and demand our complicity in his “open secret.”” This kind of activism might not have been possible with conventional taste.
Liberace was a “pop naïf.” He was born in Wisconsin at the dawn of the 1920’s to a working class family burdened by a looming depression. Following Hickey’s premise, we assume Liberace’s underprivileged upbringing in combination with what Liberace was to become and the resultant taste “buds” he was to embrace, equated to his real taste; an earnest, expressionistic exclamatory explosion of consumption and identity construction. Liberace’s taste was collectively considered far too eccentric to be within the normative brackets of “good taste.” Nevertheless “bad taste” isn’t necessarily bad. Bad can do things Good cannot. And even if Liberace was, as mentioned before, unaware of his perversities and unique position to persuade and influence, his taste spoke for him and became a vehicle for subversion and transgression. At a time in history when “coming out” would have meant the end of his career, Liberace “took the rhetoric of the closet public,” and created one “of deniable disclosure — a language of theatrical transgression that had its own content.” The Liberace Museum, now closed, as of late 2010, then serves as a historic monument to the man himself and all his artifacts. Both the real and the fake blend together, again like the man himself, and we are left with impressions of a man publicly perceived, but not really known.
Liberace set in motion numerous employers of taste, prompting its possible utilities to the public. I often think of Elvis as a kind of hetero version of Liberace. Born about fifteen years later than Liberace, they both consumed major portions of the popular market during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Subversive in a very different kind of way, Elvis pioneered rock ‘n’ roll music into the popular realm, fashioning a new aesthetic, a new sound, and a new sensibility.
Liberace and Elvis had many similarities. They both had a high tolerance for flair, spectacle and glamour, an affinity for decoration to the point of repulsion and an incredible desire for consumption. In Hickey’s essay, he notes Liberace had “purchased a 1962 Rolls Royce Phantom v Landau (one of only seven made)” and had covered it with hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrored mosaic tiles — a gesture comparable to Rauschenberg erasing a De Kooning, but Lee didn’t get that.” Of equal endeavor was Elvis’ 1960 Cadillac limousine painted in over 40 coats of diamond dust and pearl paint. The car is now at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. These two examples target the limits of gaudy found and put to bed. They are two examples of both men exploring the limits of their bad taste in as grand a way as they could dream. Conversely, when “bad taste” is used well, with credence and purpose and as an agent of antagonism and a vehicle for criticality, it can shake up the status quo, and both men accomplished that.
Following Hickey’s premise, it would seem that the almost caricaturist quality of Liberace and Elvis’ taste can plausibly be deduced to their impoverished upbringing and markedly astronomical rise to fame. Their individual surges to influence and the “taste” they took with them served as branding techniques and territorial markers of ideology. The production of such commodities, as they themselves were, served to push the sale of such “sponsored” commodities that they themselves amassed or spoke for, as part of their branded “taste.” That being said, through oppositional partiality to the perceived agreeable ways demonstrated through performance (gesture) and taste, both Elvis and Liberace probed hegemonic structures of behavior, dress, manner, and preference.
I have begun to explore taste in my own work. As a graphic designer turned illustrator in my undergrad years, and as someone who has grown up with an interior designer mom and television director dad, the frame and how things were composed within it was always of top value growing up. The visual reigned and how a room was designed, how a shot was blocked, how a page was laid out, how type was set, how pantone swatches were chosen, all depended on an acute and tasteful eye which I took great measure to understand and develop. I trained all through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood to have “good taste.” I believed, and still do, although my level of criticality and theory is much more astute and aware, in the modernist apex, but I also believe in the postmodern breakdown of all that was so precisely set up and appreciated for in Modernism. Now more literate in the politics of representation, I pay more attention to my “likes:” what smells I like, what shows I like, what designs I like, what fabrics I like, what movies I like, what I like to touch, what I like to wear, who I like, but ultimately, why do I like these things and these people? What is a “genuine” “like” and what is a learned, social, constructed “like?” Taste infers what is agreeable or pleasurable/pleasing to somebody or something. It harkens flavor and implies a kind of history of trial and error. What is a “genuine” opinion towards taste and what is a constructed one brings to fore the vast and complex web of cultural theory that delves into the depths of lived and mirrored experience. It is a contested postmodern space, creditably difficult to pin down.
The danger with “good taste” is an eventual monopolizing aesthetic and way of life. If it were not for “bad taste” we would be caught in a modernist progression, doomed to search for some version of penultimate taste, only to plateau into drones of reproducibility, conveyor belting our way through life, stuck in a tasteful bubble. Television is a good example of “good taste” dampening more radical and engaging subject matter and content. Surveys, polls and trial runs are integral processes to the production of television shows. Statistics are logged and captured, streaming their way to the top business executives’ excel sheets deducing creative visual content into gridded numbers, ratios and odds. Obviously there are many reasons for this, most notably television’s now direct tie to large corporate models geared toward a targeted financial outcome (income). Decisions are made by CEO’s, investors and Boards of whatever, leaving the actual content that is broadcast of secondary or tertiary concern. It’s no secret Television is a service industry and is meant for entertainment; it’s just a bit melancholic that due to its now incestuous business models and almost caste like system hierarchies, the produced material has, except for few cases, turned to crud.
Taste has and always will occupy a particularly fertile ground. Its inherent shifty disposition, evidenced through social history and cultural artifacts has demonstrated how taste can be used as tool to activate, to engage or to deviate, whatever the measure at hand. I plan to continue and challenge taste in my own work.