Notes on Our Tasteless Era
Recent journalism, criticism, and social media posts suggest a surge in bad taste across art, fashion, and media. What does this mean and what are the causes?
There seems to be an emerging consensus that we live in a tasteless era.
1. Rebecca Jennings: "Tacky is back!"
“Stereotypically ‘bad taste,’” writes Rebecca Jennings in VOX, “is having a moment. ... Selling Sunset, hyperpop, Pete Davidson, micro-miniskirts, cocaine decor, revisionist retellings of maligned ’90s women like Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, and Monica Lewinsky.”
Such eager proclamations of "bad taste" are quite curious in our omnivore 21st century, as few still believe in the existence of an absolute "good taste" spanning all eras and cultures. But we use these words because we remain aware of a mythic, old-fashioned Good Taste, one that was firmly anchored in cultural capital (familiarity with the “correct” behaviors inside high-status circles). This notion of good taste meant sharing the same aesthetic sensibility with other well-educated, well-to-do people. Bad taste, on the other hand, was the appreciation of things that would fail to meet those particular elite standards.
The GeoCities chic that Jennings describes is an intentional rebellion against standard good taste, which makes it a very familiar form of tastelessness. Whenever aesthetics swing too far towards rigid, clean, well-mannered classics claiming permanence, there will be an inevitable pendulum swing towards the gaudy. The success of reserved, slim-fit menswear, for example, invited a backlash of tie-dye Grateful Dead tees, bold Hawaiian shirts, and raver-fit trousers. Similarly, the dissemination of prig minimalism into every café, office space, and AirBnB opened the door for tackiness to function as an easy means of distinction.
The perpetual internecine cultural struggle among creative types results in a constant series of vibe shifts between “good” and “bad” taste with mechanical predictability. This also means these changes can be explained through internal structural reasons rather than sudden changes to the collective psyche. Americans aren't necessarily responding to a “growing sense of doom” when they dress like Clarissa Explains it All; they just are distinguishing themselves from established norms through simple negation.
The contemporary tackiness Jennings identifies thus falls into the same mold as camp ironic appreciation. For Susan Sontag, “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.” GeoCities chic is similar: an intentional tastelessness proposed by savvy individuals with an ironic distance. They like cocaine decor because they know it's wrong, and we'll know they're making aesthetic judgements when they draw their own clear lines between "right" and "wrong" versions of GeoCities chic.
2. Dean Kissick: "THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL: TASTE, FIGURES, IMAGES"
Kissick calls NFTs the “most tasteless aesthetic phenomenon in history" — but NFT culture is tasteless in a different way than camp tackiness. There is another reliable way to produce tasteless things besides the intentional negation of good taste: Creators can also lack knowledge about what constitutes good taste. Kissick writes, “I don’t think the artists behind the most popular PFP series have much interest in aesthetic judgments of any sort" — there is no knowing tackiness, just “listless, enervated garishness, and saccharine vacancy.” NFTs are tasteless because they are ersatz art.
Faux artists have made ersatz art for centuries, so the question of our times is simply why "the culture" has felt the need to treat NFTs as a legitimate artistic practice. Why would the Food section of the New York Times focus its energy on restaurants run by chefs boasting about their ageusia? The obvious answer is money, but I also suspect that the ultra-poptimist detente with kitsch makes journalists and critics reluctant about castigating kitsch for being "lesser" art. There has always been tastelessness, but kitsch wins the cultural moment when those with taste refuse to wield their discernment to weed out the overgrowth.
3. KK Ottesen: “The digital artist known as Beeple: ‘I’m just trying to expand people’s idea of what art is’”
Beeple puts a human face on Tastelessness and makes it appear like a full-fledged artistic movement. Conforming to Kissick's understanding of the NFT world, Beeple's anti-institutionalism and naïveté suggest an unintentional tastelessness. He told The New Yorker, “When you say, ‘Abstract Expressionism,’ literally, I have no idea what the hell that is.” Beeple is a true outsider artist; he creates his work without reference to the art world's basic institutional rules and communal aesthetic standards, nor within its historical narrative. Perhaps there is a smidge of intention in his tastelessness – trickled-down Warholian ideas that kitsch is subversive — and this is what inspires him to graft Jeff Bezos’ head onto rocket ships.
Beeple does know enough about art history, however, to pose like an avant-garde artist of earlier times. He told Ottesen, “I’m just trying to expand people’s idea of what art is.” This is a fascinating statement, because it's unclear what possible barrier prevents open-minded art audiences from understanding the Beeple oeuvre as "art." The only suitable answer to this ontological riddle is taste. Beeple is fighting for the dignity of mediocre, tasteless art. The Tastelessness movement demands that bad art should receive equal esteem as good art.
4. Amanda Mull: "Fashion Has Abandoned Human Taste"
In her extremely well-argued piece, Mull demonstrates that certain economic and technological mechanisms output tasteless and “joyless” clothing aesthetics. We’ve moved past the “fast fashion” of H&M to the ultra-fast fashion of SHEIN, which pumps out massive numbers of disposable garments every day in a wide variety of styles. SHEIN is unapologetic kitsch — the clothes just need to resemble real clothes without ever needing to be real clothes.
Mull raises the important point that there are no designers manqué at the helm: just “empty suits” who rely on algorithms to calculate the next designs. For the entire history of capitalism, economic data has always pointed companies towards ripping off lowest common denominator styles, but there was an irksome barrier called shame that tempered the worst cash grabs. Actual human creative directors had to make their decisions knowing they'd later have to face their friends and fellow employees. Algorithms make it easier to maximize profit, because managers can look like technocratic geniuses by simply ceding all creative power to the machines.
We also must consider the fact that SHEIN is a Chinese company. China first influenced global pop culture by providing the latest crop of wealth consumers, which forced European luxury brands and American entertainment companies to adapt their products to Chinese sensibilities. But as we're seeing with SHEIN, Chinese manufacturers are beginning to design products for the West, and their local sensibilities will begin to permeate global culture. If "good taste" has been based in an extremely Western-centric idea of cultural capital – specifically, Kant’s theory of contemplative aesthetics, Old Money subtlety, Parisian runway elegance, and angular avant-garde dogmatism — we're heading for a conflict in what constitutes tasteful.
5. Aaron Grant: “The Most Money I’ve Spent in One Day”
Taste requires more than following the right aesthetic rules — you also must follow them in a seemingly effortless manner. Core to “good taste” is the principle of detachment: Those born to Old Money simply emanate “good taste,” which makes any active attempt to wield good taste look like bad taste.
But alas, the internet is killing off detachment. Social media requires active broadcasting to others in order to prove one's existence. But more important, Old Money families have lost their monopoly on creating the most representative images of what “society" looks like. Even three decades ago, the “society pages” in newspapers gave disproportionate attention to well-to-do adults. Instagram and TikTok have created true competition over our visual understanding of society, and in the last five years, young middle-status strivers have emerged as the Gold Medalists. In taking over the dominant aesthetics, hustle has become the reigning ethos. If Beat poets believed “all effort was uncool, a hassle,” strivers excitedly cram their LinkedIn deets into IG profiles, brag about the packed sardine-can of rectangles in work calendars, and engage in unabashed conspicuous consumption. Judging from Instagram Stories alone, one would think commercial flights only offer business class seating.
As Aaron Grant shows in the video above, strivers are unfamiliar with the principle of detachment, nor would the concept even make logical sense to them. Grant is a teenager who made a supposed entrepreneurial fortune in “dropshipping." Instead of being shy about his wealth, he'd rather emerge from his bathtub of coins to provide normies with a little practical life advice from his annals of accrued wisdom. While sitting on the hood of a sports car, he warns, “Do not spend money on designer things” — except, he notes, his own extremely tasteless Louis Vuitton glasses, which he deems acceptable because “they look cool.” Is this prima facie hypocrisy meant to be ironic? Based on the tone of his other videos, this seems unlikely. But no one concerned with detachment would have attempted such a botched humblebrag in the first place.
"Good taste" anchored in cultural capital can be elitist and discriminatory, and bad-old art world “gatekeepers” long deployed cultural capital to prevent most people from even getting the chance to vie for our attention. The internet allows everyone to bypass such snobbish institutions, and "tastelessness" — in this elite framing — is an inevitable byproduct of such democracy. This sets up the dilemma for democratic critics who still want to nurture innovation: We may regret the weaponization of taste in class politics, but the total leveling of aesthetic standards has made culture increasingly predictable, kitsch-ridden, and "joyless."
At the end of the VOX piece on tackiness, Rebecca Jennings repeats her brilliant observation on our post-trend present: “Most trends move too fast to be even a little bit meaningful anymore. Just because something’s tacky today doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow. Why even bother paying attention?” To put a slightly more optimistic spin on the future: Tastelessness will quickly invite its own tasteful backlash. And perhaps this is the moment we'll figure out how to revitalize and rehabilitate the notion of taste to work for us in the internet era.