How Bad Taste Dominated 2023

I first broached the subject of bad taste (about which there’s no disputing) back in July here. My point was basically this: “If culture is enlightenment, the new bad taste glorifies most any excess and flouts the most accepted of values. Are the Barbarians at the gates?”

They’re not only at the gates, they have sacked the city. Well, you say, one person’s bad taste is another’s flair or style. True, but relative standards of discernment have all but disappeared, if they ever truly existed. The Guardian’s fashion editor recently said the following:

The notion of good taste has always been problematic. Taste gets tangled up with class, status, knowing the unwritten rules, even with breeding. It doesn’t have to be. Having a good eye and a discerning sense of taste is nothing to do with snobbery, although the two are often lazily conflated.

Really, it’s more complicated than that, which is why I am trying to write a book about it. Bad taste now moves the world, as we saw all through 2023. It is the new cultural standard, and our complaining or ranting won’t change that. Trump offers a thousand examples. So does celebrity culture and the false status it accrues. Traditional education has caved to the world Claudine Gay represents. Pop culture could well be considered the godparent of ChatGPT. And so on.

Whatever cultural bona fides I have came through a lot of education and a lot of communications work in different fields. The late 1950s were my incubation period. American class and culture changed radically after World War II, becoming more democratic in word if not in deed. The war created an economy that floated a lot of boats in a culture that sustained them—for a while.

As an example, in that era the art world of Jack Kerouac, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and the abstract expressionists represented a culture that aligned itself against the world of money, which happened to be the province of their patrons. A few like Warhol got rich, while others created a taste for the new that reflected or ignored the personal poverty their producers had to live with. Most musicians also lived “on the edge” and still do. But wealthy buyers created that taste for the new art even while its creators looked down their noses at money and the money culture that supported it. The art world is still dealing with the aftereffects of this.

In other words, the money culture, or consumer capitalism, now more than ever dominates our lifestyle and, I think, has produced the recent epidemic of what old traditionalists like me call bad taste. The digital world has enabled it to thrive, and our complaints and protests won’t change anything. Our culture now provides us with everything—and nothing.

The kitschy and the tacky are all around us, and they have defined much of pop art for a long time. This won’t last forever, but old-fashioned culture-lovers like me are hiding out until it’s over.

“Fear of bad taste envelops us like a fog.” —Gustave Flaubert