At Oxford in 1960, I had history tutorials from Alan Bennett. Just before he shot to stardom in the revue Beyond the Fringe, he was writing a thesis on the retinue of
Richard II. Another of his pupils was David Bindman, later a professor of art history at London University. I was collecting pottery and Bindman already had an impressive collection of drawings.
In his book Untold Stories (2005), Bennett wrote:
David Bindman would show me Old Master drawings he had picked up for a song, and Bevis Hillier would fetch along ceramics. I knew little of either and could neither confirm nor deny the confident attributions both boys put forward. But they taught me a more useful lesson than I ever taught them, namely that my own taste was for surfaces.
Stephen Bayley says much the same thing, in different words, in his intriguing, clever, curious, maddening book:
For as long as I can remember, I have been helplessly engrossed with the look of things. It may be attributed to a crude infatuation with superficialities and effects.
Absolutely addicted to rhetorical questions (not all of them answered) he begins the book with one:
The construct of beauty versus ugliness is one of the most perplexing in our imaginations. Is there actually such a thing as ugliness? It’s a commonplace to assume the answer is yes.
‘Ugly’ is a politically incorrect word. If we think a man ugly, we may call him ‘not conventionally handsome’. In England, an ill-favoured woman is ‘plain’; the French give her a nice exemption clause in the expression ‘jolie laide’. I think Bayley has chosen Ugly as the title of his book for its provocativeness, its shock value. His core subject is really taste; and maybe a reason for avoiding that word in the title is that ‘taste’ suggests coteries of supercilious cognoscenti looking down on things. (Peter Conrad has written: ‘A man of taste is one who does a work of art a favour by liking it.’) In this book, Bayley is predominantly interested in bad taste. I think bad taste and kitsch are as synonymous as Abyssinia and Ethiopia. Bayley tells us there is a difference between them but doesn’t quite explain what.
He is well qualified to write about taste. In the 1980s he created the Boilerhouse Project at the Victoria & Albert Museum and staged an exhibition called Taste. Later he was chief executive of the Design Museum in London. He’s what’s known as a ‘style guru’.
I would recommend anyone interested in aesthetics to buy this book; but I finished it with mixed feelings. Bayley has always been a sprightly writer, good at sound-bites. Over and over again, in this book, we encounter one-liners that are vivacious and thought-provoking. A few examples: ‘[Leonardo’s] anatomical drawings of women are belligerently un-erotic’; ‘Deformity of one sort or another … is central to the Baroque idea’; ‘Science does not recognise the idea of beauty or ugliness’ (he qualifies that with mention of G.H. Hardy’s tribute to ‘beautiful equations’); ‘Some cultures seem to have a positive will towards ugliness’; ‘The idea that beauty is boring is a recurrent one’; and, contra Ruskin’s hatred of the railway and factories, ‘We now see the remains of industry as hauntingly beautiful’.
This is stimulating and enjoyable. But then there are all those clamorous rhetorical questions. We’re not likely to get an answer to ‘Is Heaven neat and tidy?’ in this life. And what about ‘Is it natural to be disgusted?’ ‘Can ugliness be measured mathematically?’ ‘If a pig is so useful, why is it ugly?’ ‘Is ugliness more than skin-deep?’ ‘Who said flowers are beautiful?’ ‘Why is my taste better than yours?’ We get partial answers; but right at the outset of the book, Bayley disclaims any intellectual pretensions. He says he can’t cope with Kant: didn’t nanny tell him there’s no such word as can’t?
He makes some attempt to tell us about what one might call ‘the connoisseurship of the bad’ — people who have studied what they thought bad rather than good. He mentions Sir Henry Cole, who put ugly things on show at South Kensington to show craftsmen what not to make; and Gustav Pazaurek, who created a museum of bad taste in Stuttgart (closed down by the Nazis in 1933, as they didn’t like the idea of foreigners guffawing at stoves in the form of Teutonic knights or braces decorated with tiny swastikas). But he omits the seminal book by Fritz Karpfen, Der Kitsch and the important study by Professor Arthur Marwick,
A History of Human Beauty; and, as a Chevalier of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres he should know of the kitsch collection formed by M. Romi, illustrated in a 1940s Lilliput.
The book is not well organised; and its greatest weakness is the illustrations. A few are essential to Bayley’s theme — for example, the painting of ‘A Grotesque Old Woman’ by Quentin Massys in the National Gallery, London (the artist himself was nicknamed ‘Squinting Gnat’s-Eyes’ in a 19th-century joke book). But too many look garnered by a conscientious picture-researcher trying to deck out an arbitrary gallimaufry of a book. There are rather more misses than hits.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012