Does “bad taste” (aesthetic confusion) lead to moral confusion?

English art critic John Ruskin forcefully planted this question 150 years ago in his horror at the flood of imitation art objects on view at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition.

Factory production had made members of the Victorian middle class eager patrons of “art” in its mass produced form. Ruskin worried that the common, innate gift to respond to beauty and so, as he saw it truth, was being blunted and perverted by machine-made fakery.


“That deserving is the quality which we call "loveliness"--(we ought to have an opposite word, hateliness, to be said of the things which deserve to be hated); and it is not an indifferent nor an optional thing whether we love this or that; but it is just the vital function of all our being. What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character.” John Ruskin

(From a lecture based on The Crown of Wild Olive, 1866, delivered before the Working Men's Institute, at Camberwell.)


In more recent times an alternate view to “the problem of taste” has been popularized by the revisionist writings of French sociologist Bourdieu. He shifted the issue from the traditional association between debased aesthetic and moral conscience to the function of “taste” as an instrument of power of one social class over another.


Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” Pierre Bourdieu

Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984)


Ruskin’s evangelical message to fight the spiritual degradation caused by mass-produced ugliness is echoed by contemporary writers, critics of suburban sprawl and most notably in a moral context by novelist and journalist James Howard Kunstler. His preoccupation goes beyond the standard concern with issues of land-waste and the erosion of public space, he sees the cost of sprawl in spiritual terms. Home From Nowhere his 1996 book is excerpted here in The Atlantic article from the same year.


“What zoning produces is suburban sprawl, which ...bankrupts families and townships. It disables whole classes of decent, normal citizens. It ruins the air we breathe. It corrupts

and deadens our spirit.”


Kunstler is also author of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscapes (1994)