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Recently, I hit a personal milestone in our neighbourhood. A combination of five years at my current address and London property prices means I am no longer considered a Yuppie incomer. Rather, I now belong to the next demographic group along — the creative classes who bought back when houses were still (relatively) cheap.
My area, which is known for its unusually wide range of Victorian architectural styles, is beginning to experience banker-style gentrification. This means the “improvements” people make to their properties have gone to the next level. Where once we saw modest kitchen extensions, now we have garden-gobbling goliaths that double the square footage of the ground floor at a stroke.
It is tempting to write this off as City types with more money than taste. But it poses an interesting question. These extensions are bigger, but are they really worse — and, more generally, do the rich have better or worse taste than the rest of us?
When it comes to home improvements, I suspect a big part of the answer is that rich people simply have the means to go large, regardless of taste. A middle-income person’s take on interior design may be every bit as ghastly as that of US socialite Jackie Siegel, whose Florida mega-mansion Versailles is slated to run to 90,000 sq ft. But because they don’t have $100m to drop on their dream home, they have to confine themselves to iffy makeovers that are unlikely to be the subject of award-winning documentaries.
While Versailles is undoubtedly naff, there are other less clear cut cases. I once interviewed a wealthy security consultant who told me about a kind of sitting room he’d worked on. Its centrepiece was a vintage Ferrari and the purpose of the space was to sit around admiring the car. At first this screamed bad taste. But the car was one of the rarest, most valuable Ferraris ever built. What else was the owner supposed to do with it?
Rich bad taste isn’t a modern thing either. It is part of a noble tradition. A few years ago, I visited Penrhyn Castle in north Wales. This is a Victorian country house built in the style of a Norman castle — which should set alarm bells ringing — with some of the most over-the-top interiors I have ever seen. One room, despite being vast, felt cramped and oppressive because of the use of tropical hardwoods on almost every surface. The effect was MTV Cribs, circa 1850. Honestly, I cannot recommend a visit highly enough.
But what about taste more generally? A sentiment I often hear from friends in art circles is that there has never been a better time to be an artist producing “Big Dumb Art” and that today’s rich just want to buy a brand everyone knows, like Banksy, regardless of merit. There is probably some truth to this but the symbiotic/toxic relationship between rich patrons and favoured artists is one that stretches back centuries. Oscar Wilde said: “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money.”
If we move on to music, we find some hard research. A 2015 University of British Columbia study, Class Position and Musical Tastes: A Sing-Off Between the Cultural Omnivorism and Bourdieusian Homology, looked at musical taste, wealth and education. It found poorer, less-educated people tended to like country, disco, easy listening, heavy metal and rap. By contrast, wealthier, better-educated people preferred classical, jazz, opera, pop, reggae and rock. Score one for the rich then, assuming you believe Beethoven is more tasteful than The Notorious B.I.G.
The other big element to the question of wealth and taste is restraint. We all know Donald Trump is rich with no taste because he constantly puts it on show, and we might question Larry Ellison’s taste less if he bought fewer superyachts. In her book Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence the sociologist Rachel Sherman suggests if you are extremely wealthy, restraint in spending is a way of showing you don’t take your good fortune for granted. Similarly, a 2014 Arizona State University study of Chinese chief executives and those who worked for them found “humble” bosses set a good example and had a positive effect on their business overall.
Well known examples of modest chief executives include Warren Buffett, who has lived in the same house (in un-blingy Omaha, Nebraska) since 1958 and Mark Zuckerberg, who wears hoodies and drives a Volkswagen Golf. This frugality has not gone unnoticed and, in recent years, we have seen the rise of “modesty porn”, where the media celebrate “inspirational” rich people who don’t live like rich people.
Of course, restraint is not quite the same as good taste. But at least if you live modestly, people will usually assume you have good taste. If you live ostentatiously, they will know you don’t.
Rhymer is reading . . .
Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World, the story of the 1815 eruption, the largest in recorded history, of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, causing summer snow and famines around the world. It is thought to have influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and JMW Turner’s sunsets.
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