Last week the shoe designer Christian Louboutin filed a lawsuit against Yves Saint Laurent for putting red soles on its shoes. He claims that to do so infringes his copyright. As you might know, Louboutin's shoes have noticeably red soles.
Such style nuances are a designer's holy grail. A subtle bit of branding that lets those in the know, know, and leaves those who don't know none-the-wiser and satisfyingly excluded. It is about visual language. It is about style and wealth. It is about tribe and commerce. But above all it's about taste: the ugly side of aesthetics.
All of which has been on my mind since Friday when I filed a short round-up of the week's arts news for BBC2's Review Show. I had themed the piece around the idea of taste. I know that's a bit lame as taste is a default theme in the arts, but I excused myself on the grounds that a week in which Mohamed Al Fayed placed his statue of Michael Jackson at Fulham Football Club and Frankie Boyle got a slap on the wrist for his "joke" about Katie Price and her disabled son, was as good a time as any to peg a piece against the subject.
And since then it's been on my mind like an annoying tune, insomuch as I would rather have been thinking about lots of other things but kept finding myself relating every thought to matters of taste. And that's the problem with taste; it's as pervasive and determined as a Russian vine (yes, and with the scars to prove it).
Is Gavin Turk's idea of sticking a giant rusty nail into a spot of land by St Paul's Cathedral in good or bad taste? And did the man and his accomplices who stole the £1.2 million Stradivarius (and £62k bow) from a musician having lunch in a sandwich shop demonstrate some sort of atavistic good taste gene, or were they just ignorant chancers?
And who decides what is good taste and what is bad? Is it the opinion of several million people, or that of people with several million? And at which point does something become good taste in-perpetuity (Georgian architecture) or become supposedly gauche without warning (Ugg boots)?
When is taste allowed to be fickle and when must it be faithful? And while everybody is allowed to have their own taste, they're not really are they?
Take beards for example. Ten years ago if you had a beard your chances of working in the "creative industries" as a rookie were close to zero; today the reverse is probably true. Now, beards haven't changed or young men's ability to grow them, but taste has. So now there are a lot more twenty-somethings with beards than there were a decade or two ago, most of whom would like, or have, a job in the creative industries or be associated with those that do.
Association is a major factor in defining what is and what is not good taste. If we associate a style/brand with a certain way of life to which we aspire, we are likely to consider it good taste. And if that style/brand has a visual shorthand like a recognisable logo; then they are in good shape. But if the associations become negative, that brand is no longer good shape, it is in bad shape.
Which all goes to show the power of design and the associations we prescribe to individual objects and phrases in order to arrive at a point of view we call: "taste".