Well Made Austerities

Nathalie Olah, Bad Taste: Or the Politics of Uglines

Dialogue Books, 240pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780349702261

reviewed by Alice Brewer

Much of what concerns Bad Taste, Olah’s second full-length book, is traceable to a chapter of her first. Exploring the cultural impoverishments of New Labour and the decade of austerity that followed, Olah’s Steal as Much as You Can (2019) argued that tastefulness should be understood as the uncodified aesthetic of the risk-averse. Her focus was arts programming: how unwilling our middle- and upper-class cadre of editors, commissioners and marketing executives are to take risks in times of economic uncertainty, how easily they ‘revert to type’ and [double] down on the on the “safe” and easily marketable output of their peers’. Against the comparatively permissive commissioning atmospheres of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, today’s cultural output is remarkably tasteful, with little ambition to disrupt or redefine popular sensibility: it is either familiarly middle-class in idiom, or conducive enough to existing critical languages and thus able to achieve flattering (often brief) write-ups in the press.

Olah’s focus here is contemporary prose: the ‘explosion in the number of artfully-written memoirs [. . .] photogenic, peach or “millennial pink”-coloured dust jackets [. . .] cleanly-written prose, exquisite phraseology and well-executed pauses’. The mutually tasteful critic and work of art is continuous, I think, with what Theodor Adorno once called cultured philistinism: thinkers who want to be right beyond all other consideration, who thus prize artworks difficult enough to affirm their good learning and professional affiliation, and who, when met confronted with genuine formal innovation, with ‘what is not comprehensible, from which no-one gets anything’, shrink away, plead incomprehension.

Conscripting instead the language of French structuralists, Bad Taste identifies a similar trend across popular Anglophone culture writ large. Taste — good taste — is again a peculiarly affirmative, reciprocal sort of aesthetic category. Far from being a set of unmediated likes and dislikes functioning as personally and factually as the operation of the tongue, possessing taste is decided by how well one performs on a class- and situation-specific ‘scoreboard of suitability and approval’. As Olah describes early, formative experiences with teachers, employers, bank managers, having it is defined by how willing and able an individual is ‘to emulate the social mores and preferences of those in power’.

Possessing this ability is more important than ever: ‘[p]resentation’, Olah writes, ‘is not only important to the outcome of a person’s life, but in many ways, paramount’. There are several contributing factors: the capacity to image-curate on social media; the scarcity of stable and higher-earning jobs; the fact of cultural capital, in which changes to the availability and access to education, professional identity and so-called ‘high culture’ means that prestige is less clearly tied to the actual possession of wealth. (The muddying effect of this latter phenomenon was exemplified in Essex-native Victoria Beckham’s recent insistence that she grew up ‘working class’, despite the fact that her father drove her to school in a Rolls Royce.) Possessing taste, for Olah, works partly as a consolation prize for downwardly-mobile middle class graduates: those who benefitted from the expansion of higher education under New Labour, but have experienced a degree of job and housing instability relatively unknown to their parents.

More interesting, I think, are the changes to work and the workplace described. Taste — being the ‘right cultural fit’, as Olah describes the reasons she was given for early job rejections — is a way of discriminating along the lines of class and upbringing without saying so outright, circumventing charges of discrimination along the more legible (and legislated against) lines of ethnicity or disability. Equally, there have been changes to the sorts of work we might undertake.

Olah points to the rise of highly performance-optimised customer services like Uber and TaskRabbit, in which ‘dress, personal smell, preferred topic of conversation and choice of music could be the difference between a five- or one-star rating’, and to the expansion and conceptual drift of the ‘creative industries’ (a term that now refers to ‘advertising, PR, social media management, music management, content creation, producing, publishing, coding, e-commerce, marketing and designing’). With differing levels of prestige and renumeration, such occupations are premised on the promise or delivery of consumer edification, a customer-is-always-right aversion to risk: these too are conditions in which taste, so affirmative and emulative an aesthetic category, is particularly valuable.

Bad Taste is wide-ranging, but its dominant object is the preference for a kind of well-made austerity. Against Adorno’s difficult-enough art, it might be defined as a cultural bias towards activities and objects challenging or interesting enough to pass as a mark of personality, but expensive enough to function as a means of class distinction. Examples include the solid-wood furniture found in magazines like Kinfolk, the mock-therapeutic packaging of Glossier skincare and makeup, and — in farcical repetition of the ‘pastoral’ Olah finds in Bill and Hilary Clinton’s 1990s sartorial choices — the Tough Mudder challenge: a physically-demanding obstacle course and mud run, apparently a favourite away-day choice for the multimillion consulting firm Deloitte.

The ascetic undertones of such objects and experiences also invests these markers of good taste with a sense of moral superiority. Olah views them as a set of lifestyle choices made possible by access to free time and personal financial resources, and made desirable by marketing departments playing on our wishes for personal individuation: she makes a particularly interesting comparison between the wider libidinal enfranchisement of ‘sexiness’ as opposed to the contemporary privileging of ‘natural beauty’, a more internally-won or genetically-bestowed ideal. Made to appear as natural rather than social fact, this current iteration of tastefulness also ends up functioning as a sort of cultural introversion, making little claim to the world beyond the foregone conclusion of its moral and material superiority. Bad Taste’s most evocative example of this tendency is ‘Normcore’ fashion: the sort of clothing sold by Margaret Howell and Toast, for instance, and the strangely well-publicised search for the ‘perfect white T-shirt’. As well as being curiously long-lasting, it is also a trend (unlike, say, indie or grunge) which carries ‘no tangential associations with music, art, film or other modes of cultural expression’, it presents as ‘a fashion of undisputed quality triumphing over fleeting fads’.

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s discussion of the French lifestyle magazine Conaissance de la Campagne, Olah finds the same tendency in the making, eating and marketing of food. The sourdough bread craze, for instance, is an ethically-affirming luxury source of delayed gratification, and its more complex carbohydrate content dovetails nicely with the spiritual wholesomeness promised by health food marketing department. (Olah, describing a job as a copywriter at a juice company, notes how she found herself ‘[defaulting] to a moral judgement about treating the body right’. It it here, however, that Olah’s argument becomes less convincing: this is, I think, because of food’s proximity to taste’s most basic, unalienated sense. Though Olah frames the condemnations lurking in whole-food culture as a cover-up of a biopolitical injustice (the price of fresh fruit and vegetables, the time needed to prepare them), it is difficult to imagine food ever functioning in quite the same way as fashion, leisure, or home decor. So immediately linked to basic homeostatic function, to a very basic form of human flourishing, it is less conducive to the framework of negative liberty that Olah uses in the ‘definition of taste [she] would like for the world’:

related to quirks of personality and personal preference that have been allowed to evolve somewhat organically, and if not wholly individually, then at least without the tyranny of worrying about whether or not they might be “right” or “wrong”

There is also some theoretical unevenness: it is frustrating, for instance, to see Romanticism passingly identified as a project that identified ‘beauty’ with ‘sublimity’ — not least because the concept of taste (and this is true for thinkers as wide-ranging as Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke and William Wordsworth) is important for theoretically grounding these latter ideas. These lapses feel more like the result of editorial pressures than oversight: Olah is an astute critic and researcher, and her book is testament to this. Bad Taste interrogates the complacency and risk-aversion that often passes for genuine aesthetic contribution, and takes seriously the feelings of shame and inadequacy that maintains its promotion. It is a freeing thing to read.

Alice Brewer is a writer and library worker currently living in Cambridge. She has work published or forthcoming in The Arts Desk, Still Point Journal and SPAM Zine.