Tuesday, 12 January 2010

I Like It, So It Must Be Good

When did the change happen? I'm talking about the fundamental seismic shift that undermined centuries of critical certainty. I was asked this recently by someone who clearly felt it had all been downhill with the arts (including fashion) in the last few decades. It seems to me that it is part of the same broad theme as the journalists vs bloggers debate. Who is qualified to judge what?

In my opinion it was the sixties when the critical equation was permanently reversed. That decade changed the old mantra of the educated classes (as they were rather quaintly called then) from 'This is good, therefore I like it' to 'I like this, therefore it is good'.

Predictably, the new approach caught on. It opened the floodgates. Who was being let in? The young of course, who not having much education at that time and generally having far too much fun to be arsed with actually learning anything that might back up their view, took things into their own hands. Their parents and teachers stood aside, awed by the sheer energy and cheek of the new culture their children were forging with no reference to anybody, or thing, least of all from the past.

It's possible to see this (plenty of people do) as the end both of a long civilization and of the meaning of criticism. If everybody's critical voice is different but equal, regardless of their degree of expertise, how can there any longer be the sort of consensus achieved by a critical structure based on agreed rules, as in the past?

So, did the sixties herald the end of a creative world? In many ways, yes. But even though at this point much of what is being produced - certainly in fashion - is seen by many as inferior to what went before, we are living in fabulously vibrant creative times when everything is possible. A few amazing ideas are beginning to emerge. If that means we have to temporarily put up with ignorance and arrogance, it is a price we can pay. We may be walking through a blizzard – but that doesn't mean that we're walking off the edge of a cliff.

It is hard to see our way, clearly. It is uncomfortable and even dangerous. Many take comfort in inertia, while others make a great show of throwing a lot of intellectual snowballs around … and we all know how brief and insubstantial their lifespan is. Far too few creators and commentators in fashion, as in any other field, have the intellectual energy and creative rigour of a snowman or as much capacity for thought as the cheeky little robin perched on his head. But there is always a thaw. All periods of artistic unrest eventually clear, leaving the way ahead open.

We probably have another generation or two before all the dross is cleared away, but I am sure that when it is we will no longer need to look back for guidance to critical tenets that are already tired and irrelevant. Just because so much of the new is at this stage so bad doesn't mean that it will stay that way.


  1. You wrote:
    "If everybody's critical voice is different but equal, regardless of their degree of expertise, how can there any longer be the sort of consensus achieved by a critical structure based on agreed rules, as in the past?"

    I think you would enjoy an essay written by Paul Graham (a software guru) who posits that good design is not a matter of taste. Excerpt:

    "If you mention taste nowadays, a lot of people will tell you that 'taste is subjective.' They believe this because it really feels that way to them. When they like something, they have no idea why. It could be because it’s beautiful, or because their mother had one, or because they saw a movie star with one in a magazine, or because they know it’s expensive. Their thoughts are a tangle of unexamined impulses. Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it’s not true. You feel this when you start to design things.

    Good design is hard…Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do better. Football players like to win games. CEOs like to increase earnings. It’s a matter of pride, and a real pleasure, to get better at your job. But if your job is to design things, and there is no such thing as beauty, then there is no way to get better at your job. If taste is just personal preference, then everyone’s is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that’s it."

    More here: http://www.paulgraham.com/taste.html

    My take on his essay with respect to fashion is here:

  2. Dear Mr.McDowell,

    Ohhhhh I’m far to consumed in my dreadful accounts today to properly respond to this incredibly interesting post.

    But I can’t help but compare your thoughts on ‘entitlement of opinion’ to the concept of ‘democracy of fashion’ and ones ‘right’ to own luxury.

    When did we universally start believing we are entitled to it?

    As a consequence,‘luxury’ has also turned into a relative term…together with good taste, good design…etc, etc.

    It is a matter of opinion, and it makes me question the validity of democracy and what does the future hold when a society has been deprived of the tools (EDUCATION) required to choose wisely?

    Thank you again..I must return to reality...


  3. ‘This is good, therefore I like it' to 'I like this, therefore it is good'.
    That something is considered good by the vast majority does not mean it is actually good it only tells us it was accepted as such. But who initiated such acceptance? On what basis?
    Even an educated person can have bad taste, so being able to decide by ourselves what perfection of lines is on a personal level is the ultimate luxury even if quality wise we may be wrong.

  4. When I was interviewed for a job* as a journalist covering fashion, I was disappointed not to have been asked any technical questions (to even explain weft and warp, for example).
    I buy fashion magazines solely for the pictures, which is why I am very content buying Japanese magazines exclusively (though in that case I suspect the content is more valuable than it is in the English-language titles I am snubbing), because I have given up on receiving any valuable information from the so-called journalists. If one is selective, I must say, the web does present better opportunities for informed fashion discussion than print media does.

    *I did get the job.