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Tasting notes

Will Gompertz | 12:10 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

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.

A shoe by Christian Louboutain with distinctive red sole

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".


  • Comment number 1.

    Well done Will. You managed to infer all there is to say about herds and sheep.

    Do not forget the sheep dogs of PR and marketing that ensure those without their own taste can be made to believe they do in fact have some comfort in conformity.

    As for starting on the ladder in creative industry, you and I both started in a company where Old Etonians were the rage at the time. I am not sure if you are one (I am not, but tended to be stubbly) but does your article cover the recent political taste in discussing internships and contacts, as well as the headline matter of taste?

    As an aside, when did trending take over the english language to sideline fashion and popularity? Is this also down to current taste?

  • Comment number 2.

    Re: taste - I fear you have missed part of the point here though Will, beards have changed, beards have changed a lot. So have the kind of faces they appear on.

  • Comment number 3.

    Presumably Christian Louboutin has also filed suit against every other shoe manufacturer in the world for using black on the uppers? I thought not... as if you can copyright a colour... what an idiot.

  • Comment number 4.

    There is a difference between copyright and a trademark. Copyright gives an author the right not to be copied without permission. So if two people come up with the same idea, independently, copyright offers no legal protection to either, because they have not copied.

    A trade mark on the other hand gives the owner of the mark the exclusive right to use the symbol, (or tagline, music or colour combination etc) that makes up the trade mark mark). Use in this context means use for the purpose of trade ie to indicate the source of the goods. So if Louboutin has registered the red soles as a trade mark or has sufficient use of them as an unregistered trade mark, it is entitled to the exclusive use of red soles to indicate it is the maker of those shoes and to stop others using red soles. The ides is that trade marks are a "badge of origin" and the consumer can confidemtly identify the source of the goods bearing the trade mark. The consumer should not be confused into thinking red soled shoes are produced by anyone but Louboutin.

  • Comment number 5.

    Dinner parties is that good or bad taste and should you keep out of the kitchen when the host is cooking spaghetti bolognaise and only understands that the pasta is perfect when it can hold its own weight by clinging to the walls and not the designer floor.

  • Comment number 6.

    It takes time and experience to develop good taste; a lot of mistakes are made on the way. Of course, not everyone makes it before time runs out and I'm afraid there seems no hope for Al Fayed.

    I can only wonder what position a lady would find herself in so you would notice the soles of her shoes.


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