A recent article in artnews argues that there has been something of a "slippery slope" with respect to the standards of taste in art that has led to a rush of first entrants into works with "bad taste," the assumption being that today's bad taste is tomorrow's good taste. Tracey Emin, whose 1998 My Bed, replete with soiled sheets and other residuals from her sexual and personal life, is offered up as an example of the success such "transgressive" bad taste art has had. As Richard Woodward, author of the article puts it:
Bad taste often passes for avant-garde taste these days—so long as the artist signals “transgressive” intent. And whereas kitsch in art was once to be assiduously disdained, art that traffics in sentimentality and bathos behind a dancing veil of ironic laughter has become highly prized. Jeff Koons, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Richard Prince, and Takashi Murakami are just a few of those who have learned that coy subversion can be popular and lucrative. As long as everyone is in on the joke that the art is satirizing its own historical codes of representation, there is nothing to be upset about.
Later in the article, Woodward diagnoses the demise of "taste" in contemporary art:
“Taste” is a word in bad odor lately, bearing connotations of rank snobbery. Judgments of what is in good or bad taste are often viewed as a masquerade for class privilege. Clement Greenberg may have been the last critic unafraid to wield the notion without trepidation. In the collection of essays Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste he found several ways to insert the term into his arguments.
Now perhaps I'm too beholden to Hume's work on taste, and too much a fan of Greenberg as well, but it seems premature to be performing a post mortem on the standards of taste in art. Whereas a Humean approach will accept that there are certain objective features and relationships within an artwork that only a refined sensibility that usually results from years of exposure and experience can make one sensitive to, with the possession of such refined sensibility being characateristic of good taste, for Woodward taste is merely the relic of what has already become sedimented as established artwork. The focus then shifts to the process whereby what has not yet become sedimented - that is, art in bad taste - emerges as the most fertile place to search for that which is the next generation's good taste.
For anyone familiar with Nietzsche, this is a familiar refrain. As Nietzsche puts it in §4 of The Gay Science:
What is new, however, is always evil, being that which wants to conquer and overthrow the old boundary markers and the old pieties; and only what is old is good. The good men are in all ages those who dig the old thoughts, digging deep and getting them to bear fruit - the farmers of the spirit. But eventually all land is depleted, and the ploughshare of evil must come again and again.
So is Nietzsche the first to ring the death knell of "taste"? I would argue no, but open this topic for discussion.
Perhaps fittingly, Woodward ends his article with a brief interview with John Waters, the grandmaster of bad taste, and Waters himself will apparently echo Nietzsche's sentiments when he admits that he wanted to be the hammer to the standards of good taste, he wanted and ultimately became a central figure of the counterculture movement, but ironically, he concludes: “When I was one [counterculture; jb], no one wanted to be one. Counterculture won some things a long time ago. Counterculture’s in control. I’m the insider. I’m the establishment.”
Looking back at the original trailer for Waters' Pink Flamingos, a film I confess shocked me as over the top bad taste when I first saw it, I still wonder whether or not Waters is indeed the new "establishment" standard of taste." Another confession: Waters' film Hairspray (with John Travolta playing the mom and Christopher Walken the father) is one of our family's favorite films, so perhaps Waters is right! Here's the original trailer to Pink Flamingos: