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Good taste is bad news


You’re a creative. Your work, your life and your sense of self are linked, inalienably, with the act of creation, be that in the arts, the sciences, in politics or industry or any of the myriad other battlefields of innovation. You live at the edges, in the grey areas, beyond the well defined and clearly structured. You are an insurgent and the establishment doesn’t like you.

It’s a tough truth but you need to know it. Don’t expect anyone to thank you for what you do. If you’re lucky you’ll see some of your innovations stick. After many battles and many knock backs. The insults will outnumber the compliments. If they don’t that’s a red flag. Nothing really new ever got an easy in.

I think the much maligned Machiavelli said it best:

“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Culture, it seems, acts much like a living organism. It seeks to maintain a sort of homeostasis. Just as a human body tries to fight alien invaders, a culture fights radical ideas that invade it’s territory instinctively.

But culture also has an early warning system. Culture has become so good at defending the status quo it has developed a pre-emptive strike capability designed to shut down a new idea before it has even had a chance to be formed: good taste.

Good taste and it’s friends, etiquette and morality, are deadly for the creative process, especially to the early, fuzzy part where you need to be able to explore and challenge most. In the words of Salvador Dali: “It is good taste, and good taste alone, that possesses the power to sterilise and is always the first handicap to any creative functioning.”

Morality, etiquette and good taste are the guardians of the established. Creativity challenges them by nature. If you’re being creative then you are working in new territory. You will piss people off. You will tread on toes. You will fall foul of the dreaded “deep personal offence” taken by people who like things the way they are. And you need to learn how to deal with this.

Consider a recent example: Simon Amstell appeared on Radio 1 on the day of Nelson Mandela’s death or shortly thereafter, and made a quip about how very white the Radio 1 studio was compared to that of Radio 1Xtra. He commented that “Mandela would not approve of the situation at the BBC”. Immediately the host felt the need to apologise for any offence caused by the remark! A remark that Amstell insisted, rightly, wasn’t offensive in the least.

This is a deliberately trivial example because it demonstrates how swiftly and harshly “good taste” clamps down on any deviation from the norm. In the wake of a great man’s death all comments are supposed to be sombre and serious, no humour or wit or creativity allowed! Amstell, however, being of a creative bent, instinctively pushes at boundaries, freewheeling and exploring the edges of what is acceptable – the essence of creativity.

And so it came to pass. The media exploded with stories about the “offensive” joke and Amstell was forced to apologise. Brilliantly he later apologised to those offended or disappointed by his prior apology and thus succeeded in showing the whole thing to be an utter farce.

You, like Amstell, have to be ready to stand by what you say and do in the name of innovation in the face of people who will throw these normative missiles your way. That doesn’t mean you don’t recognise that people sometimes have legitimate reasons for opposing a new thing, whatever that thing may be. Your job isn’t to make everyone happy (hint: you don’t want that job anyway). Your job is to explore the new and handle the fact that this will mean upsetting people sometimes. And there’s a trick to doing that well, it’s called respect.

You might be surprised that I intend to finish my rant against normative pressure by encouraging more respect. You might even think that respect means not offending, not causing outrage and ignoring the bounds of good taste. For some that may be. But not for me and you. Respect in this instance means recognition and inclusion; not brushing past or glossing over but really recognising the cultural pressures. It does not, however, mean changing course.

If you’re engaged in a creative activity and someone has a legitimate concern based on good taste, morals and etiquette, you must respect it but, and this is important, don’t let it stop you. Recognise it and then continue anyway. This is an element of Parallel Thinking. Conflicts are part of the creative process but most systems of discourse are damaged by conflict – you end up going back and forth over a problem which may have no real answer or may not need to be resolved when the final course is chosen. This process of Parallel Thinking means accepting that, for now, a proposal or a direction of thought may be both acceptable and unacceptable and we don’t know which. We hold both these potential views as equally valid and then we seek to resolve the conflict later, but only if we need to.

If you stop blazing the trail every time someone has a hissy you’ll never get anywhere. Similarly, if you fail to respect people’s points of view, to recognise them as legitimate, your new thing, if it ever makes it to the end of the process, will be so despised the pitchfork wielding mob will kill it on sight. And here’s the thing, early objections based on normative arguments frequently turn out to be ill founded and irrelevant once you’re past the fuzzy front end.

To summarise:

  1. Being a creative means you will piss people off, especially in the early, creative destruction phase of the process
  2. Pissed off people will try to shut you down by accusing you of some terrible transgression, such as offending people (oh no!)
  3. The best way to handle this is to respect, recognise and then continue anyway because to creatives there are no sacred cows.

Remember, you’re a cultural frontiersman, an explorer. It’s a hard life for sure. Comforts are rare and lots of people think you’re crazy. But try living in the cultural suburbs for a while. It’s probably not for you.

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito” by Santi di Tito – Cropped and enhanced from a book cover found on Google Images. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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