1 FEBRUARY 1992, Page 27

BOOKS Not quite ghastly enough

Bevis Hillier

Nature [Max wrote] had in some corner of the earth produced two large brown diamonds, of which she was very proud; and it had seemed to her that Andrew Lang's face would be the best of all possible settings for them. So there they were.

Stephen Bayley's publishers had a black- and-white photograph of Mr Bayley look- ing up winsomely and ruffling his Byronic curls with both hands. And it seemed to them that the best of all possible settings for it would be the front cover of a book called Taste. Not everyone's taste, of course; but then Bayley, whose tone is markedly apologetic and undoctrinaire, would be the last to claim it was.

It was much easier for Peter Ward's pub- lishers to decide what should go on the front of his book about kitsch, subtitled 'A Consumer's Guide to Bad Taste': the inevitable plaster flying ducks, which just beat garden gnomes in the league table of thumping clichés of kitsch. (One needs to qualify this by saying 'English kitsch'; neither of these suburban icons signifies in the American canon of yuk, or nausoleum. An Encyclopaedia of Bad Taste recently published in New York gave leopardskin and fake leopardskin clothes and uphol- stery pride of place.) I thought Ian Jack had finally laid the English cliche to rest with his article headed 'Stop this cruel trade in flying ducks' in the Sunday Times of 29 June 1975, but, no, every time a tele- vision set-designer wants to convey that we are not at Castle Howard, out come those damn ducks to be dusted down again with their backs to the wall. And I see from an ad in Private Eye that an enterprising man- ufacturer, yoking two markets, is offering plaster flying gnomes.

Along with the ducks on Ward's cover is Dali's lobster telephone, the comparable cliché of haul kitsch, and a parody of Tretchikoffs 'green-faced woman' painting — the artist was not mad about allowing the original to be reproduced in a book entitled Kitsch in Sync. (It took me a couple of minutes to work out the pun in that meaningless title: it's the worst pun since Why is a bee like a rook? Bee caws.)

In reviewing these two books I have to declare a lack of interest. Sorry, I mean I have to declare an interest: for the last 30 years I have been preparing a book with the unequivocal title Bad Taste. My rhesus life blood has gone into this book, and most of my life savings into the 2,000 black- and-white photographs and 500 colour transparencies for it. So I was eager to see Brass praying mantis umbrella stand, from the Bevis Hillier Museum of Bad Taste whether Bayley's and Ward's contributions would be thunder-stealers or ground-bait.

In 1961 I was passing the Oxfam shop in Oxford when a vase in the window caught my eye. It was Victorian and made of spelter, a zinc alloy which is perhaps the least alluring material known to civilised man. The body of it was crawling with cherubs, and the handle, if you can imagine this, was in the form of a thinly robed woman pouring a jug of water into the neck of the vase. It was transcendentally awful.

I went in and asked the price. One of the women assistants turned to the other and said, 'Yes, we've been waiting to see who'd come in for that, haven't we, Doris?' The price was 30s. and I paid up. The vase became a conversation piece in my rooms at Magdalen — 'that great hunka junk,' one friend called it. It was the nucleus of what I called my Museum of Bad Taste.

Ten years later, somebody brought Lady Diana Cooper to see the Museum, which by then filled a room of my London flat. The three of us had lunch in a restaurant before going to the flat. Lady Diana told me she was sure she would not be shocked, and that she would not agree with my con- cepts of bad taste, if indeed such a thing existed. But when she found that the exhibits included one stuffed frog spanking another under a glass dome — a tableau to which a Victorian had added the label 'Good Mother' — she said, 'Well, I con- cede one could hardly call this good taste.'

Part of my reason for building up the Museum was that I was disaffected from almost everything that had happened in art since (and including) Picasso and I thought that if I started at what seemed to me rock- bottom and worked my way upwards, that would be as valid a critical approach as starting at the conventionally accepted top (say, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rembrandt) and working downwards. Either exercise raises the fundamental questions of art philosophy. Are there any criteria by which one can judge a work of art, or is it just a matter of cycles of taste succeeding each other (the florid, the austere and so on)? And if there are principles of taste, can they be codified? Or is it all just a matter of personal preference — and, if so, can that taste be improved by looking at more works of art and thus giving oneself a greater reservoir of comparisons?

Anybody who is ready with instant, confi- dent answers should remember that two great Victorians took opposite views on these topics.

Gerard Manley Hopkins:

If a man disputes your judgment in taste, how can you prove he is wrong? If a man thinks beautiful what you think bad, you must believe he is sincere when he tells you so; and if he is educated how are you to say that his judgment is worse than yours? In fact, de gustibus non es: disputandum. Critic- ism therefore in matters of taste cannot be judicial. And purely common-sense criticism is not enough, we agreed. So criticism in matters of taste has no weight at all.

(On the Origin of Beauty: a Platonic Dialogue)

John Ruskin:

I had always, however, a clear conviction that there was a law in this matter: that good architecture might be indisputably discerned

and divided from the bad, that the opposition in their very nature and essence was clearly visible and that we were all of us just as unwise in disputing about the matter without reference to principle, as we would be for debating about the genuineness of a coin without ringing it.

(The Stones of Venice)

Like Hopkins and Ruskin, Bayley and Ward approach taste from opposite poles. Bayley, who was formerly head of the Design Museum, was brought up on what Osbert Lancaster used to call 'the Bauhaus balls'. In his attempt to break free of the puritan aesthetic of Gropius/Corbusier/functionalism/beautility, he resembles a member of some gloomy religious sect wondering whether he dare go to the theatre. Ward, by contrast, revels in kitsch — the more outrageous the better — and bids us consider it as an art form in its own right.

The difference in the two men's own taste is crystallised in Bayley's words on Gropius's own sterile study (room) `so admired by people like me' (that is, people 'schooled in the reductivist aesthetic of Modernism that until recently dominated contemporary thought') and Peter Ward's caustic view of the 'matt black 1980s' ('Who really needs a matt-black egg-cup, for God's sake?'). Bayley suggests in a finger-wagging PoIonian aside that:

It is usually forgotten — or perhaps not realised — that beauty often arises out of the proper husbandry of the design principles our culture eschews.

Ward condemns the Bauhaus school of design:

We know where that led to in architecture — to unlamented tower blocks on windy in- human estates. We all know, don't we, that the ultimate aim of the perpetration of these structures was to destroy the importance of the individual in society and to force people to function collectively, with no quirkiness or eccentricity or fun whatsoever?

11 a raison.

Both men wriggle about (and don't think I'm unaware of the difficulties) in trying to define taste. The very word is unfortunate, suggestive of nasty supercilious coteries of Aesthetes looking down on everybody. A man of taste, Peter Conrad has written, is one who does a work of art a favour by liking it. There is the awkward question whether taste amounts to anything more than fashion: two of the most frequent questions I get when people hear I'm writ- ing a book on bad taste are, `Do you include anything before Victoria?' and 'Over the 30 years you've been working on the book, haven't some of the things you chose early on become good taste?' I think there is a timeless, irreducible core of the irredeemably bad. The stuffed frogs are strong candidates; so also is a brass umbrella-stand in the form of a praying mantis, which rips all umbrellas to shreds.

Then there is this chic word kitsch (or Kitsch), to which its users seem to give

whatever meaning they please. To some it is as synonymous with `bad taste' as Abyssinia with Ethiopia. To others, kitsch means deliberate bad taste, which rather takes off the zest: bad poets are funnier when they think they are good.

In a preface self-abasing enough to sug- gest a Moral Rearmer's confession-session, Stephen Bayley muses:

Unlike Freud's, my analysis and style may not be quite equal to the task. I may lapse too easily into facetious, image-seeking circumlocutions, squinting at ideas, all the while offending an inner ideal and perhaps sadly indicating an inadequate mastery of the material.

You said it, boy! But in fact Bayley sets out the dilemma of the writer-on-taste with candour and clarity, writing of

the conflict between my observation that taste changes, that values are fugitive, and my per- sonal conviction that there are certain forms, shapes and ideas which transcend time and have a special, permanent value.

One knows what he means. I am told that the whole of mathematics is based on cer- tain 'givens' that cannot be proved. I would find it hard to quarrel with an aesthetic theory which took it for granted that a Rembrandt self-portrait was better than Tretchikoffs 'green-faced woman'. If it is better, what makes it better? Can we for- mulate the difference in words? And, if so, can we distil principles that can be applied to all works in all ages? While you feel Bayley is longing to lay down the law (and occasionally he does — the Rothschilds' Waddesdon Manor is 'absurdly ugly'; Thonet bentwood furniture has 'a timeless harmony'; Le Corbusier's 1925 pavilion was 'an exquisite moment in European civilisa- tion'), he knows that today it is uncool to be authoritarian, and comes down on Hop- kins's side, not Ruskin's — laissez faire, not laws for the tablets of eternity.

Like Chaucer and the editor of the Sun,

Bayley realises that it is more entertaining to read about the bad guys than the good guys. So several passages in his lively and learned history of taste are about those people who might be called 'connoisseurs of the bad' — those who decided to study and collect, not what they thought good, but what they thought execrable. It made sense to 19th-century museum directors, who thought they were displaying objects for modern artisans to emulate, also to put on show the things they should not copy. This tendency reached its height, or nadir, in the collection that Gustav Pazaurek opened in the Stuttgart Museum in the first decade of the 20th century — he called it The Museum of Bad Taste'. In 1933 the Nazis closed it down, because they did not like the idea of foreigners coming to guffaw at such products of the Fatherland as a stove in the form of a Teutonic knight in armour or a pair of trouser-braces decorat- ed with swastikas.

In 1964 Evelyn Waugh wrote in a book review, The index is contemptible.' Even as a big game hunter of bad taste, I am seldom tempted to use that adjective (vile, grisly, rebarbative, yes) but I am tempted to use it of the illustrations in Stephen Bayley's book. For a start, I would have welcomed some colour plates, even at the risk of having Mr Bayley's face in full technicolor on the cover. Do the publishers think colour has nothing to do with taste? And the black and white illustrations we are given are dismally reproduced. I hear on all sides that publishing is in the doldrums, but it will not be hoiked out of them by such false economies as this.

By comparison, Peter Ward's book is exceptionally well illustrated. The colour illustration that scores a direct hit, for me, is of psychedelic lava-lamps' in which globs of coloured gloop move slowly up and down. Unfortunately, Ward has a literary style to match the objects in his illustra- Electric fire in the form of a Scottie dog — the flex is the 'lead'. From the Bevis Hillier Museum of Bad Taste. tions. Indicating that a 'Chamber of Hor- rors' opened by the Victorian Sir Henry Cole had to be closed down because manu- facturers were not flattered at being repre- sented in it, Ward comments: 'The Chamber of Horrors took an early bath.' It is, I suppose, tenable that a book on bad taste should be written in ghastly prose. (Reviewing the last effort in the genre, Gillo Dorfles's Kitsch, in 1970, Hugh Hon- our wrote, 'The English translation is only too suitably bad.') Some of Ward's knock- about is funny — the chapter-heading 'Schlock around the Clock', for example, and the concept of 'safe kitsch'.

The other thing to be said for Ward is that he is committed. He may not know much about art, but he knows what he doesn't like. Stephen Bayley is far the more sophisticated and winning writer, but his essay is muzzy with the doubts of a Bauhaus escapee; he may need a period of readjustment at RAF Lyneham.

Ground-bait, I think.