The List






A Question of Taste


Not so long ago, when Berlin was a city of two halves and a Trabant was an object of desire for most of the inhabitants of the USSR, as it was then known, any Russian drinks makers who boasted of patronage by the Tsars would probably have received a short and painful visit from the KGB. Yet today, nearly twenty years on from the raising of the Iron Curtain, premium vodka makers, in particular, have a curious fascination with the late Russian aristocracy, falling over themselves to claim that their own brand 'evokes the spirit of the Tsars' or is 'made to a recipe favoured by the Tsars', implying that the country's less than competent former rulers were some kind of arbiters of good taste.

A cursory glance at any of the artefacts left from the Romanov's reign, though, soon indicates that they, in fact, had similar taste to their modern day equivalents - the eastern European oligarchs whose money keeps many a Bond Street store afloat. That is to say, the sort of taste that today would deem a Maybach an acceptable means of transport - terrible taste. One only needs to see a Faberge Imperial Egg to realise that vulgar, shiny ostentation was not invented by hip hop stars.

Of course, we could enter into a discussion about whether good taste can really be defined and analysed when such a thing is deemed to be subjective, but I will not venture down this route. Subjectivism is a widely discredited aesthetic theory for the simple reason that there are numerous examples in the world of absolutes; of things that are so obviously good or bad that to offer a converse viewpoint is simply irrational. Think Shakespeare at one end of the spectrum, and Jeffery Archer at the other. And so it is with taste. The difference between good and bad taste is as clear as the difference between the black and the white on this page, and the Romanovs, like many historical figures with too much money and not enough friends willing, or, indeed, able to offer criticism, generally had the latter.


Plato ascribed to Socrates the aphorism that man 'must know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible', and it is this notion that underpins my judgement of how good taste is demarcated. This might sound a bit arcane, but bear with me. It just means that those prone to excess (like the Romanovs) will be susceptible to unnecessary embellishments and obscene exhibitions of wealth, whilst those who, through choice, inhabit the opposite end of the spectrum, will often display the love of the cheap and ephemeral that is endemic in the miserly. Between these two extremities lies the Golden Mean and, thus, the person of taste.


This does not mean that I am promoting adherence to a doctrine of blandness, though - the Golden Mean is not, by necessity, the exact middle, or, in other words, the 'safe' choice. It is the optimum point between excess and asceticism for a given situation. Take the example of a tree and a small plant: several gallons of water might be sufficient to hydrate the tree, but the same amount would leave the plant waterlogged. By following the rule of the Golden Mean, though, we would take account of the greatly different needs of each and ascribe to each the correct amount.


In questions of taste, then, the Golden Mean when, say, choosing a sports car will be somewhat different from that when, for example, choosing a watch.


This may seem like an oversimplification, but as a general rule it serves a useful purpose. In next month's commentary, we will examine how it can be more fully applied.

Click here to read part 2