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Of Judgment and Excess: Looking for Bad Taste in L.A.

July 09, 1989|KEVIN ALLMAN

B ad Taste . Like pornography, no one seems able to define it--but everyone claims to know it when they see it.

Unlike bad morals, bad taste is basically harmless, benign, even funny. And unlike bad manners, bad taste is a subjective blight, existing in the eye of the beholder.

"Los Angeles is everything a great American city should be: rich, hilarious, of questionable taste and throbbing with fake glamour," says director John Waters ("Hairspray"), who has made a career out of tackiness; his 1972 film "Pink Flamingos" was even advertised as "an exercise in poor taste." He cautions, however, "to understand bad taste one must have very good taste."

Other artists have tackled the topic as well. Pablo Picasso once said, "The chief enemy of creativity is 'good' taste." And the French surrealist Andre Breton asserted, "In the bad taste of my epoch, I strive to go farther than any other."

In Search of Answers

One wonders what Picasso and Breton would make of Los Angeles circa 1989: a town where a supposedly formal party can mean more bras on cars than on the women who drive them. But after asking L.A. professionals who work in a variety of fields to elaborate on their notions of bad taste, one can only draw a single conclusion: bad taste is merely a question of . . . taste. "De gustibus non est disputandum."

"It's a vast topic," giggles Jackie Collins, the British-born novelist whose best-selling books "Hollywood Wives" and "Hollywood Husbands" recount bad taste, L.A. style, in lip-smacking detail. "There's always been plenty of bad taste in L.A. Hollywood is more flashy than other American cities, except maybe Las Vegas; it has more glitz, more gossip, more hustlers."

"Bad taste results when people don't understand limit or dimension. Then, tackiness and pretense become emphasized," says restaurateur Piero Selvaggio, who has had a bird's-eye view of the behavior and misbehavior of the rich and famous at his restaurants Valentino and Primi.

Selvaggio is bemused rather than annoyed by the bumper crop of bad taste he sees in L.A.

"It is a growing, new city, with all the problems that go with that," he says. "Money has been pouring in so incredibly that suddenly people are rich and finding themselves behaving in the most pretentious manner. Isn't that all a part of a city with very little culture or diversification? Material things become a part of the status quo."

"Someone who in the fin-de-siecle of the 20th Century wants to live in an all-Chippendale room is exhibiting a lack of taste and a lack of judgment," says Charlie Scheips, formerly the associate publisher of ARTCOAST magazine and the current project manager for ART-LA89, the annual L.A. Contemporary Art Fair.

"Bad taste, to me, is the attempt to express style without humor or mystery," Scheips says, "and you can certainly see plenty of that in L.A. But there are really no external standards for taste, despite the fact that the whole camp and kitsch sensibilities are based on an understanding of bad taste."

Merchant Fred Hayman, who set the style in Beverly Hills first with Giorgio and now with his own eponymous shop on Rodeo Drive, thinks that taste in L.A. is improving, "but there's still lots of bad taste everywhere. It's part of L.A. being a much younger, much more fun city."

It's easier to stick to generalities when discussing bad taste; when it comes to specifics, there's a wide range of opinion. Certainly most people, for instance, would agree on the poor taste of something as ludicrous as a mink bikini. But what about that hotly debated symbol of conspicuous consumption, the fur coat?

Animal-rights activists might argue that merely owning one would be an act of the poorest taste imaginable, but others would qualify the coat by where and how it was worn: to a PTA meeting, for instance, or on the back of an Eskimo.

"Fur coats are in bad taste. Period," Collins says, while Scheips demurs, "I think some fur coats are beautiful. But they're more practical in colder climates. In Los Angeles, where no one really needs a fur coat it's a major issue (of taste)."

"I think they (fur coats) are more an example of poor judgment, not poor taste," says screenwriter/novelist Bruce Wagner . Wagner limned the vulgarities of the rich in his screenplay for the film "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills," which gleefully delved into a world where family wakes come with cocktail pianists and the rich seek diet quacks to lose weight. After a moment of reflection on the fur-coat issue, however, Wagner revises his opinion.

"No, I take that back. If I see them on those young actors who fancy themselves to be celebrity poets, those fur coats are in bad taste."

Others disagree. Longtime Beverly Hills socialite and charity worker Ellen Byrens says simply, "If you have 'em, you wear 'em. But I would not purchase the fur of a trapped animal."

Clothing, that ultimate personal expression of style, is particularly fraught with the potential for bad taste.

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