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Nathalie Olah
Nathalie OlahPhotography by Sophie Davidson

This Incisive New Book Questions the Construction of Good and Bad Taste

As Bad Taste: Or the Politics of Ugliness is published, Nathalie Olah talks about why taste is a bourgeois preoccupation, and how we we derive our sense of pride and self-esteem from what we hold dear

Lead ImageNathalie OlahPhotography by Sophie Davidson

Nathalie Olah is an author and critic whose first book, Steal as Much As You Can, was a witty and at times delightfully caustic polemic about the role that class plays in the culture industry. In Bad Taste: Or the Politics of Ugliness, she returns to the intersection of politics and culture, examining the ways that our understanding of “good” and “bad” taste is constructed, the profound influence that taste has on the course of lives, and how its expression has changed over time. In an age of downward social mobility, she writes, many of us – deprived of more substantial ways of asserting status, such as property ownership – find ourselves creating “small vignettes of respectability in the shabby corners of rented bedrooms” and “[staking a claim] to luxury through the sharing of a bowl of picante olives.” 

Olah is an incisive and insightful critic, and the book covers an expansive range of subjects, from minimalist furniture to Glossier to the films of Pedro Almodovar. While I enjoyed it as a whistle-stop tour of a decade’s worth of aesthetic trends, in some ways I found it quite a bracing read. Its deconstruction of taste is so cutting that it almost inspired an existential crisis: What’s left of our identities without the cultural signifiers which we use to define ourselves? Who are we if we’re not curating our lives for an online audience? How can we know what we really like, when taste is so bound up in external incentives beyond our control? 

Below, we spoke with Nathalie Olah about who is allowed to have ‘bad taste’, the aestheticisation of the climate crisis, how we can disentangle our interests from the demands of the internet, and more. 

James Greig: Bad Taste argues that taste is culturally constructed, rather than being a reflection of innate value, but even with that, standards of good and bad taste are not universally applied. Who is allowed to have ‘bad taste’ and how does that benefit them? 

Nathalie Olah: One criticism I had of the book myself was that what’s considered fashionable at the moment doesn’t really comply with conventional ideas of ‘tasteful’ as being minimalist, understated, and homespun. If you think about the really fashionable, desirable brands right now, a lot of their output is garish, bright and in your face, including a lot of Scandi brands that started out very minimalist.

Taste is also a bourgeois preoccupation. It’s not a concern that really afflicts established wealthy factions, such as the aristocracy in the UK. That’s even true for someone like Donald Trump, whose presentation as a freewheeling upstart is slightly artificial and doesn’t really reflect his class status. So the idea of taste works in an almost inverse way, where people whose wealth, status and social standing are guaranteed to be far more flagrant in the way that they live and present themselves. It’s a set of rules that are handed down to aspirants, which they must conform to.

JG: The book exposes a kind of emptiness at the heart of modern society. Do you think our preoccupation with taste is standing in the way of living a better life? 

NO: Well, I’m not casting aspersions as I’m completely embroiled in all of this, and I don’t really believe in this nostalgic view of the world where things were better in the past. But there were people in my life when I was younger – including one of my grandparents in particular – who lived in a much less self-conscious way than the generation below them, which would have been late Boomer/early Gen X. And living in a less self-conscious way did seem to be more conducive to happiness, along with collectivism and a sense of duty towards one’s neighbours.

It’s interesting to think about: What would my life look like if I didn’t rest on these signifiers for a sense of self? Does my sense of self only exist through the eyes of other people? And is this a huge impediment to our politics? Is it possible to actually have a mass socialist awakening in a society where everyone is just thinking of themselves and how they’re perceived?

“It’s interesting to think about: What would my life look like if I didn’t rest on these signifiers for a sense of self? Does my sense of self only exist through the eyes of other people?” – Nathalie Olah

JG: What role does downward mobility play in our attitudes to taste today?

NO: There is definitely a huge generational divide in terms of where we derive our sense of pride and self-esteem. For older generations, it was through accruing wealth and property, owning a home, going on nice holidays, and being able to buy incrementally nicer cars. It’s not a wholesale phenomenon, and there are exceptions, but at the moment there is downward social mobility, and the housing crisis is one of the largest drivers of that – a lot of people will never be property owners.

So that locus of self-esteem and happiness has to be situated somewhere else. And I think it’s often situated more in the cultural and the experiential. Understandably, I think we sometimes wield that over older generations – there’s been times in my own life where I’ve enjoyed the fact that I am probably better read than people who have been able to buy themselves a three-bedroom house. But that is being born of a slight generational resentment as well. 

JG: You discuss several different aesthetic trends in the book. If you had to choose one to sum up the current moment, what would it be?

NO: The one that interests me the most is the aestheticisation of sustainability and the way that the climate crisis has been translated, by some, into a set of aesthetic codes that don’t have much bearing on reality. There are obviously some alternative lifestyle choices that we can make which are slightly more sustainable, but I’m sceptical of how far consumer choices are going to have any real impact on reversing the effects of climate change. What’s interesting is that if products have the appearance of being more homespun and earthy, then they’re seen as being more ethical. But a lot of the time that’s symbolic rather than functional.

JG: A lot of the book is about how aesthetic trends are shaped by wider economic and political factors. With that in mind, considering the state of the UK at the moment, do you have any predictions about what might be in store in the near future?

NO: We’re in a political moment that kind of reminds me of the early 1990s, although I think that both the Labour Party and the Tory party are currently more right-wing than they were back then. There was a recession that laid the groundwork for a return from Labour that was almost by default, and had nothing to do with the labour movement, which is in some ways similar to today. So maybe things will go a bit like the 90s. What I’m really scared of happening is a resurgence of working class ‘ladette’ culture, which I really hated at the time – I thought it was a caricature which was often perpetrated by people who weren’t really working class. It was quite Jess Phillips, based on the idea that working people are all really loud and bawdy. It worries me that in writing a book which critiques more restrained forms of taste and aesthetic preference, it might be read as giving permission for something like that to return, which I would absolutely hate.

JG: How can we disentangle our aesthetic interests from the tyranny of taste as a class signifier? Embracing bad taste or positioning yourself as someone who doesn’t care about it can become its own trap, its own form of personal branding. So is there a way out?

NO: In the book I am imagining a hypothetical model for a different kind of citizen who doesn’t see themselves through their aesthetic preferences. That is a far-fetched thing that we’re not going to achieve just by reading one book. But I would say that the greatest gratification that I’ve got in terms of enjoying things, and learning to value them, has been through recommendations from close personal friends – things that we really love together, quote to each other, and share with each other. That is something that all of us could cultivate more: finding these smaller pockets of meaning and significance rather than this macro idea of what’s beautiful or desirable.

I think we default so much of our sense of self and sense of happiness to this external committee that doesn’t actually exist. We can try to consciously shut that out and more aggressively protect our own enjoyment and our own peculiar desires, without fear of how they might be perceived or judged by other people. The more you do that, the more it becomes second nature.

Bad Taste: Or the Politics of Ugliness by Nathalie Olah is published by Dialogue, and is out now.