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In Defence Of Bad Taste Post by :richerquicker Category :Essays Author :Carl Van Vechten Date :October 2011 Read :1118

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In Defence Of Bad Taste

"It is a painful thing, at best, to live up to one's
bricabric, if one has any; but to live up to the bricabric
of many lands and of many centuries is a strain which no
wise man would dream of inflicting upon his constitution.

Agnes Repplier.

In Defence of Bad Taste

In America, where men are supposed to know nothing about matters of taste and where women have their dresses planned for them, the household decorator has become an important factor in domestic life. Out of an even hundred rich men how many can say that they have had anything to do with the selection or arrangement of the furnishings for their homes? In theatre programs these matters are regulated and due credit is given to the various firms who have supplied the myriad appeals to the eye; one knows who thought out the combinations of shoes, hats, and parasols, and one knows where each separate article was purchased. Why could not some similar plan of appreciation be followed in the houses of our very rich? Why not, for instance, a card in the hall something like the following:

This house was furnished and decorated according
to the taste of Marcel of the Dilly-Billy Shop


We are living in the kind of house Miss Simone
O'Kelly thought we should live in. The
decorations are pure Louis XV and
the furniture is authentic.

It is not difficult, of course, to differentiate the personal from the impersonal. Nothing clings so ill to the back as borrowed finery and I have yet to find the family which has settled itself fondly and comfortably in chairs which were a part of some one else's aesthetic plan. As a matter of fact many of our millionaires would be more at home in an atmosphere concocted from the ingredients of plain pine tables and blanket-covered mattresses than they are surrounded by the frippery of China and the frivolity of France. If these gentlemen were fortunate enough to enjoy sufficient confidence in their own taste to give it a thorough test it is not safe to think of the extreme burden that would be put on the working capacity of the factories of the Grand Rapids furniture companies. We might find a few emancipated souls scouring the town for heavy refectory tables and divans into which one could sink, reclining or upright, with a perfect sense of ease, but these would be as rare as Steinway pianos in Coney Island.

For Americans are meek in such matters. They credit themselves with no taste. They fear comparison. If the very much sought-after Simone O'Kelly has decorated Mr. B.'s house Mr. M. does not dare to struggle along with merely his own ideas in furnishing his. He calls in an expert who begins, rather inauspiciously, by painting the dining-room salmon pink. The tables and chairs will be made by somebody on Tenth Street, exact copies of a set to be found in the Musee Carnavalet. The legs under the table are awkwardly arranged for diners but they look very well when the table is unclothed. The decorator plans to hang Mr. M.'s personal bedroom in pale plum colour. Mr. M. rebels at this. "I detest," he remarks mildly, "all variants of purple." "Very well," acquiesces the decorator, "we will make it green." In the end Mr. M.'s worst premonitions are realized: the walls are resplendent in a striking shade of magenta. Along the edge of each panel of Chinese brocade a narrow band of absinthe velvet ribbon gives the necessary contrast. The furniture is painted in dull ivory with touches of gold and beryl and the bed cover is peacock blue. Four round cushions of a similar shade repose on the floor at the foot of the bed. The fat manufacturer's wife as she enters this triumph of decoration which might satisfy Louise de la Valliere or please Doris Keane, is an anachronistic figure and she is aware of it. She prefers, on the whole, the brass bedsteads of the summer hotels. Mr. M. himself feels ridiculous. He never enters the room without a groan and a remark on the order of "Good God, what a colour!" His personal taste finds its supreme enjoyment in the Circassian walnut panelling, desk, and tables of the directors' room in the Millionaire's Trust and Savings Bank. "Rich and tasteful": how many times he has used this phrase to express his approval! In the mid-Victorian red plush of his club, too, he is comfortable. "Waiter, another whiskey and soda!"

Mildred is expected home after her first year in boarding school. Her mother wishes to environ her, so to speak. Mildred is delicate in her tastes, so delicate that she scarcely ever expresses herself. Her mind and body are pure; her heart beats faster when she learns of distress. Voluptuousness, Venus, and Vice are all merely words to her. Mother does not explain this to the decorator. "My daughter is returning from school," she says, "I want her room done." "What style of room?" "After all you are supposed to know that. I am engaging you to arrange it for me." "Your daughter, I take it, is a modern girl?" "You may assume as much." In despair for a hint the decorator steals a look at a photograph of the miss, full-lipped, melting dark eyes, and blue-black hair. Sensing an houri he hangs the walls with a deep shade of Persian orange, over which flit tropical birds of emerald and azure; strange pomegranates bleed their seeds at regular intervals. The couch is an adaptation, in colour, of the celebrated Sumurun bed. The dressing table and the chaise-longue are of Chinese lacquer. A heavy bronze incense burner pours forth fumes of Bichara's Scheherazade. From the window frames, stifling the light, depend flame-coloured brocaded curtains embroidered in Egyptian enamelled beads. It is a triumph, this chamber, of style Ballet Russe. Diana is banished ... and shrinking Mildred, returning from school, finds her demure soul at variance with her surroundings.

A man's house should be the expression of the man himself. All the books on the subject and even the household decorators themselves will tell you that. But, if the decoration of a house is to express its owner, it is necessary that he himself inspire it, which implies, of course, the possession of ideas, even though they be bad. And men in these United States are not expected to display mental anguish or pleasure when confronted by colour combinations. In America one is constantly hearing young ladies say, "He's a man and so, of course, knows nothing about colour," or "Of course a man never looks at clothes." It does not seem to be necessary to argue this point. One has only to remember that Veronese was a man; so was Velasquez. Even Paul Poiret and Leon Bakst belong to the sex of Adam. Nevertheless most Americans still consider it a little effemine, a trifle declasse, for a business man (allowances are sometimes made for poets, musicians, actors, and people who live in Greenwich Village), to make any references to colour or form. He may admire, with obvious emphasis on the women they lightly enclose, the costumes of the Follies but he is not permitted to exhibit knowledge of materials and any suddenly expressed desire on his part to rush into a shop and hug some bit of colour from the show window to his heart would be regarded as a symptom of madness.

The audience which gives the final verdict on a farce makes allowances for the author; permits him the use of certain conventions. For example, he is given leave to introduce a hotel corridor into his last act with seven doors opening on a common hallway so that his characters may conveniently and persistently enter the wrong rooms. It may be supposed that I ask for some such license from my audience. "How ridiculous," you may be saying, "I know of interior decorators who spend weeks in reading out the secrets of their clients' souls in order to provide their proper settings." There doubtless are interior decorators who succeed in giving a home the appearance of a well-kept hotel where guests may mingle comfortably and freely. I should not wish to deny this. But I do deny that soul-study is a requirement for the profession. If a man (or a woman) has a soul it will not be a decorator who will discover its fitting housing. Others may object, "But bad taste is rampant. Surely it is better to be guided by some one who knows than to surround oneself with rocking chairs, plaster casts of the Winged Victory, and photographs of various madonnas." I say that it is not better. It is better for each man to express himself, through his taste, as well as through his tongue or his pen, as he may. And it is only through such expression that he will finally arrive (if he ever can) at a condition of household furnishing which will say something to his neighbour as well as to himself. It is a pleasure when one leaves a dinner party to be able to observe "That is his house," just as it is a pleasure when one leaves a concert to remember that a composer has expressed himself and not the result of seven years study in Berlin or Paris.

But Americans have little aptitude for self-expression. They prefer to huddle, like cattle, under unspeakable whips when matters of art are under discussion. They fear ridicule. As a consequence many of the richest men in this country never really live in their own homes, never are comfortable for a moment, although the walls are hung double with Fragonards and hawthorne vases stand so deep upon the tables that no space remains for the "Saturday Review" or "le Temps." And they never, never, never, will know the pleasure which comes while stumbling down a side street in London, or in the mouldy corners of the Venetian ghetto, or in the Marche du Temple in Paris, or, heaven knows, in New York, on lower Fourth Avenue, or in Chinatown, or in a Russian brass shop on Allen Street, or in a big department store (as often there as anywhere) in finding just the lamp for just the table in just the corner, or in discovering a bit of brocade, perhaps the ragged remnant of a waistcoat belonging to an aristocrat of the Directorate, which will lighten the depths of a certain room, or a chair which goes miraculously with a desk already possessed, or a Chinese mirror which one had almost decided did not exist. Nor will they ever experience the joy of sudden decision in front of a picture by Matisse, which ends in the sale of a Delacroix. Nor can they feel the thrill which is part of the replacing of a make-shift rug by the rug of rugs (let us hope it was Solomon's!).

I know a lady in Paris whose salon presents a different aspect each summer. Do her Picassos go, a new Spanish painter has replaced them. Have you missed the Gibbons carving? Spanish church carving has taken its place. "And where are your Venetian embroideries?" "I sold them to the Marquise de V.... The money served to buy these Persian miniatures." This lady has travelled far. She is not experimenting in doubtful taste or bad art; she is not even experimenting in her own taste: she is simply enjoying different epochs, different artists, different forms of art, each in its turn, for so long as it says anything to her. Her house is not a museum. Space and comfort demand exclusion but she excludes nothing forever that she desires.... She exchanges.

Taste at best is relative. It is an axiom that anybody else's taste can never say anything to you although you may feel perfectly certain that it is better than your own. If more of the money of the rich were spent in encouraging children to develop their own ideas in furnishing their own rooms it would serve a better purpose than it does now when it is dropped into the ample pockets of the professional decorators. Oscar Wilde wrote, "A colour sense is more important in the development of the individual than a sense of right and wrong." Any young boy or girl can learn something about such matters; most of them, if not shamed out of it, take a natural interest in their surroundings. You will see how true this is if you attempt to rearrange a child's room. Those who have bad taste, relatively, should literally be allowed to make their own beds. On the whole it is preferable to be comfortable in red and green velvet upholstery than to be beautiful and unhappy in a household decorator's gilded cage.

September 3, 1915.

(The end)
Carl Van Vechten's essay: In Defence Of Bad Taste

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