Monday, January 26, 2015

The Cost of Good Taste

Good taste has a cost, at least a social cost. In past times, the best of taste was affordable to those of who lived in their society's mount Olympus of status, either made or hereditary. The old money are now irrelevant and the new money concern themselves more with creature comfort than creativity. Luxury trumps beauty in cost, as beauty is more or less out of production except for in a few furtive and well concealed places. Good taste has experienced a degree of democratization unthinkable perhaps in earlier times. Say that you read Chaucer or Homer for fun and they will mock you, but Shakespeare has become far more acceptable among people with a smidgen of education than he once was.

Why has good taste become more socially affordable? State run schools did nothing for it. My father recounts his music teacher in high school forcing them to listen to Beethoven's symphonies while the students ignored it and bought Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock after school. Perhaps the myth that education makes a person intelligent has contributed to this insular trend. The mad rush of middle class and upper-middle class families to put their children through higher education exposes a significant part of the populace, at least momentarily, to things of permanent and everlasting gravity before they progress to skills-based endeavors for their careers. Another possibility is that travel has made good taste more accessible. It seems everyone with a degree or above the median income figure knows someone who has seen the Sistine chapel ceiling or the Mona Lisa, which hardly could have been said a few decades ago. The downside of this newfangled accessibility is that good taste costs money to perpetuate and create, a lot of money. Money which individual middle class consumers neither have nor wish to spend. The good taste of the past is objectified, treated as an interesting museum piece while little concern is made for the future aside from outdoor shopping parks.

No where is this problem more arrant and apparent than in ecclesiastical architecture. Diocesan churches built in the last sixty years, aside from the brutal stylistic cues reflective of the commissioning parties' theological tendencies, are religious shopping parks. They are informal, comfortable, non-combative except during Christmas, and everyone can do whatever they want in whatever place they want. As much as I dislike the baroque altar and plaster statues, they did emphasize the Divine in an unambiguous way cushioned auditorium seating fails to do. And many in the congregation will have seen the Sistine chapel.

Without good taste among those with wealth, taste is doomed to be ossified and stilled in amber, a relic for those of future times to discover. In recent days I have revived a passion for antique automobiles instilled in me by my father. When he was my age (25) he drove to work every day in a 1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom II that he bought from a pair of Yale students for the measly sum of $1,100 only to sell it a decade later at the apparent profit of $4,500 (the moron who owns it now turned it into a hot rod). That car was built during the Great Depression for an English client and would have been the ultimate status symbol of the time, an outward sign of one's social class. When my father bought that car it was thirty years old, considered technologically Byzantine, and impractical—before the classic car market developed. Now, cars of that sort are owned by collectors while new Rolls-Royces are over-sized aluminum boxes stuffed with leather and walnut veneers—something has to distinguish it from its BMW parts. The car is a loud, tasteless way to say "I've made it" rather than a stylish way to say "I've got it." 

When I see an article about some seemingly small enterprise like learning calligraphy for making altar cards or iconography I become excited, much as I do when young people attempt the forgotten medium of poetry. Good taste wed with creativity will survive, albeit in smaller and smaller circles, hiding from both new money and equality!


  1. I've gotten my share of mockery around the office for carrying around classic works of literature for my lunchtime reading. I have also received approbation for such reading from unexpected persons. We live in odd times.

  2. I remember being docked points in college classes for using "archaic language". English professors are the bane of English literature.

    "Books R boooooring" has become a common saying if that book isn't a teeny bopper harlequin romance or outright pornography in print. If the prose of books that do well these days are any indicator then I know several 10 year-olds with better vocabulary than the average adult. Pathetic.

    How many people these days- do you think - could appreciate Poe's 'The Raven', understand it, or reflect on the beauty of the poetry?