On Good Taste
27 April 2007

With setting up our new home in Melbourne we have had a lot of occasion to visit what are known locally as the 'two-dollar' shops where you can buy a huge variety of household goods, toys, tools and even clothing. In fact the only thing that the items seem to have in common is that they are cheap and made in China, Vietnam, or some other low-wage economy.

Now, I love a bargain and it is easy to be tempted to buy a lot of stuff that, if I thought about it, I could predict will just be thrown away within a year or two. So this got me thinking about the subject of 'good taste'.

Coming from Britain, the expression 'good taste' comes with a lot of baggage. It used to be a class thing and there was a lot of snobbery. As a student we used to laugh at the ceramic painted gnomes in people's gardens and the painted ceramic ducks on living-room walls. I remember looking at the full-page advertisements in the weekend colour supplements for 'collectors edition' plates with sentimental designs of puppies with big mournful eyes, and wondering who on earth was buying all this stuff. Snobbery is an ugly thing and I am glad that certain forms of it have disappeared. But I sometimes wonder if we have also abandoned the idea of good taste. The proliferation of cheaply-produced plastic and electronic goods that will soon become land-fill can't be good for the planet.

It is not only the two-dollar shops that set me thinking. A recent article in Melbourne's The Age lamented the poor taste of much that appears on commercial TV here. In the rush for ratings, 'Reality TV' has proved a gold-mine – cheap to produce and if you put a few exhibitionists in front of the cameras then the voyeur in most of us will guarantee an audience.

It is hard to talk about these things without appearing snobbish or judgemental. People's tastes do vary and there is no objective way of measuring whether one preference is better than other. So here are my own guidelines for good taste:

  1. Is it well-made? We may like different shapes and colours, but there is no excuse for something that breaks easily or doesn't do what it is supposed to do. Publications with spelling mistakes or badly-acted films are other examples. Of course it may cost more to make something well, but after bitter experience I have concluded that it is better to pay more for something that lasts than to pay twice (or thrice) for things that break.

  2. Is it beautiful? Designers have long known that things can be both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

  3. Does it lift the spirit? I have seen too many works of art that are technically brilliant, even beautiful, but which leave me feeling depressed, cynical or soiled.

  4. Do I really need it? It is easy to talk myself into saying 'yes', but do I really need it?

  5. Is it in the right place? Nothing exists in isolation but everything interacts with everything else. A thing may be beautiful, well-made and useful but if it is put in a crowded space, or in a place where it becomes the centre of attention in a wrong way, then this is bad taste.

I would be interested in what others think on this subject? Is it possible to talk freely with being too 'politially correct'? Or am I just being a snob?