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Nathalie Olah 3 cr. Sophie Davidson
Sophie Davidson

This new book dissects our obsession with taste and beauty

We speak to writer Nathalie Olah about the aesthetic codes set by the wealthy and powerful, to mark the release of her latest book Bad Taste

As a child in the 1990s, the writer Nathalie Olah saw an apparition: in the small, dark video store of Rubery High Street in South Birmingham, a cardboard cut-out of Pamela Anderson materialised by the counter. Clad in bodycon PVC and stilettos, the busty Anderson and her “big explosion of blonde hair” formed “a sort of void at the heart of the video store that people learned to step aside and avert their eyes from.”

But the movie star captivated the writer, representing a subversive aesthetic freedom she hadn’t previously seen. In Bad Taste: Or The Politics of Ugliness, Olah’s new book, Anderson serves as a kind of original image, an example of how tackiness can be used to reinforce misogynist, classist, racist and homophobic attitudes – but also how the same tackiness can be powerfully reclaimed as an identity. 

With its leopard print cover, Bad Taste challenges what society deems aesthetically pleasing. Inspired by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s 1979 Distinction, a book about the refinement and ‘cultural capital’ of the French bourgeoisie, Olah examines how taste (the good is silent) is used to reinforce social inequality and act as a foil for more nefarious behaviour. With chapters on tastemakers, homes, fashion, beauty, leisure and food, exploring topics such as Frasier, Axel Verdvoodt, normcore, Kinfolk and Tough Mudders, the book contrasts the blander aesthetic fixations of the ruling classes with case studies – from Anna Delvey to Pedro Almodóvar – which suggest hopeful alternatives.

Below, we chat to Olah about Barack Obama’s playlists, the spaghetti scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour, and what beauty means to her.

Your first book, Steal as Much as You Can, was focused on class and inequality. Why did you decide to write a book on taste? 

Nathalie Olah: This is also a book about class and inequality, it’s just that we have been schooled to think of class as distinct from the matter of cultural hegemony and white supremacy. Most people whose recent history includes migration will know intuitively that the class system in the UK, but also elsewhere in the western world where it shows up a bit differently, is often justified through the rationale of respectability politics and certain aesthetic codes. Anyone who has been forced to endure that system of assimilation will tell you how humiliating it can be, and how they are often forced to grieve on some level a cultural heritage that has been derided and considered deviant. For many reasons I see taste, if that’s how we want to characterise these aesthetic codes, as being the sort of soft-power arm of the class system.

The idea for the book was met with a variety of reactions. There were people who said taste was too hazy, too nebulous, too difficult to define and that I was biting off way more than I could chew. But it seemed to me like such a rich subject. I’d been interested in Pierre Bordieu and his 1979 book Distinction about the phenomenon of cultural capital, but also the Centre for Contemporary Cultural studies founded by Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall that was based in Birmingham that sadly no longer exists. There used to be a rich intellectual tradition devoted to this subject, and it was made unpopular through economic starvation and stigmatisation by conservative forces in academia. I’m angry about that, actually. I’m not saying I’m the missing link, but it is part of what’s missing in the discourse around class inequality. And people are scared about exploring it or talking about it because they worry that they’re feeding right-wing culture wars and distracting from material questions like housing, wealth and redistribution. 

You use a lot of metaphors for concealment in the book – from whitened skin to an aesthetic of rustic minimalism which obscures the conditions of its production. Was it your aim to bring to light the negative forces that go into producing ‘good taste’? 

Nathalie Olah: Yeah, I think so. One of the early examples I kept on going back to was Warren Buffet – who until very recently was the richest man in America – and the fact that he lives in a four- or five-bedroom, modestly sized house. Everyone knows that about him. But I was like, who cares? Who cares if this profiteer of extractive capital lives in a moderately sized house or a fucking mansion? I don’t care what he spends his money on. It’s the fact that he’s got that much money – that’s the problem. But this seems to be the defence of the centric contingent in political power – that as long as the good guys are getting rich as opposed to the bad guys then it’s okay. The ‘good guys’ are defined by their consumer and aesthetic choices but these can be used as a cover for terrible politics. The Democratic Party in America is responsible for heinous war crimes. But they present as a respectable face of Western imperialism because they know how to dress smart casual and conduct themselves in an affable way. 

Like Barack Obama curating his playlists. 

Nathalie Olah: Ah, why didn’t I write about the Obama playlists! 

“Capitalism is ugly [...] There is no beauty to be found in it. Beauty is to be found in the quiet, the off-kilter and the obscure” – Nathalie Olah

Well, that’s the thing I was thinking about this book, because as you say ‘taste’ is such a nebulous, slippery, pervasive subject that it must have been a minefield to pick what to write about because so many things come under the category of ‘taste’. So I wanted to ask about your methodology and how you selected what topics to write about. 

Nathalie Olah: I fundamentally believe you are not really in control of what you write. Of course you are in control, but what I mean is that whatever intrigues you is the thing you have to pursue. I had discussions with editors in the process and they were like ‘why don’t you write about that thing?’ and said no because I didn’t feel strongly about them. I put the episode of The Sopranos with the Murano glass in because it hasn’t left my mind about the moment I saw it. The same with Scarlett Johansson [in Under the Skin]. It’s quite obviously Scarlett Johansson but because she’s dressed differently and her hair is dyed no one in Glasgow realises they are dealing with Scarlett Johansson. Or the spaghetti scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour

I’m so glad you wrote about that scene. I’m so interested in Adèle Exarchopoulos, and how she’s become this darling of indie cinema, but she always plays more working-class characters and I’ve noticed she’s often shown eating. 

Nathalie Olah: It’s so interesting to think of her in the context of French cinema. Because if there’s an emphasis on respectability here, I would say it’s more pronounced in France. And it’s quite interesting to think about an actress like her doing that in the space of French cinema, because it has historically been very misogynistic as well. And women are commodified in French cinema but she’s really pushing against that. Even though it’s about a relationship, I like to think of Blue is the Warmest Colour as about one woman’s coming-of-age story. It’s a film about the process by which you become a capitalist subject. At the beginning she’s eating freely, with abandon. When we’re young we pursue pleasure and immerse ourselves in our own directions without worrying whether we look respectable or following the right social cues. 

I also just think spaghetti is so interesting as well. I was thinking how spaghetti is symbolic of transition into adulthood because it requires a degree of dexterity that you don’t have as a kid. You learn to twiddle pasta and eat it. My first dates when I was a teenager were in cheap Italian restaurants in Birmingham and it had this air of sophistication. But at the same time on nights when I boil a pot of spaghetti and tip a can of tomato sauce on it, it’s adjacent to fast food. It’s low in terms of sustenance. This is what this book is about: the projections we have onto objects. Depending on the context and phase of your life, one object can have completely different meanings. 

You also mention in the book how you are writing about topics that you would have felt maybe embarrassed about writing about previously – fashion, lifestyle and so on. And I appreciated that honesty as someone who writes about similar topics. I wondered if you could unpack those feelings of shame a bit more? 

Nathalie Olah: I think it is something I developed as someone who comes from a family that was poor and with recent experience of immigration. There was a real imperative to ‘get on’. Lots of sacrifices have been made for you to be here, and it’s important to go and do something that will be lucrative and will bring you financial stability and all of the rest of it. In another life, I would have loved to study fashion. Now at least I got to write about it.

There’s been a lot of discourse – on Instagram, for example – around things being ‘chic’ or ‘not chic’ recently, which is jokey, but also there’s a seriousness to it and the way it dictates a certain type of female behaviour, both moral and aesthetic. I wondered if you had any thoughts on this.

Nathalie Olah: One reason for wanting to write this book was how basically anyone under the age of 40 can’t access the wealth that is being hoarded by the older generations, but they can read social cues. But those social cues can’t be used in the same way they used to be to change a person’s material wealth or position – so basically all they have is their tastes. And their tastes become this kind of point of fixation.

I became interested in how taste distracts people from the question of inequality. Rather than focus on that, we become competitive over who is chic relative to another person or whatever. But that’s not important. It’s completely irrelevant. It does seem like there’s a generation of people who feel politically adrift, and because there’s no representation for them in parliamentary politics they could run the risk of just becoming completely obsessed by aesthetics instead. 

How do you think we preserve the beauty of things and experiences under capitalism?

Nathalie Olah: I believe that that comes from understanding that beauty isn’t just aesthetic. It is work that is created with a sense of purpose, duty to humanity and a love of life, which capitalism is the enemy of. At the moment there is very little in the ‘visual’ terrain that I think does this, so I’m more inclined to find ‘beauty’, or perhaps it is more accurate to describe it as a sense of awe and wonder, in work that seeks to undermine so much of what is considered ‘normal’ about modern life. For me, beauty lies in the work of an artist like Pilvi Takala who forces us to consider the social contracts on which the class system depends. Capitalism is ugly. It has corrupted this world and hollowed out our experience of it. There is no beauty to be found in it. Beauty is to be found in the quiet, the off-kilter and the obscure.

Bad Taste: Or The Politics of Ugliness is published by Dialogue Books and available now

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