Tom Sutcliffe: A makeover that's far from majestic

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The Independent Online

Something interesting happens to bad taste as it ages. Its power to affront steadily diminishes, like the falling radioactivity of certain substances, and its curiosity value rises in compensation. And it's not that kitsch will simply ripen into something better given enough time. More often than not you can see that an object is in bad taste but you don't any longer feel implicated by your own failure to judge it.

There is a bit of relativism going on here, of course. Walk round any historic building and you'll be confronted by serial offences against a modern sense of what is seemly that in their own day would have been regarded as concrete proof of a refined sensibility. Tastes do change, after all. But even when that's not the case – when it's hard to imagine that anyone would have regarded the original object as having aesthetic value – we're able to let it pass. That's just what they were like, you think, perhaps a little condescendingly. Introduce something that is an example of our own bad taste, however, and the effect is as jarring as a silver foil on a filling. This concerns you.

It was a little shock I got quite a few times as I walked round the newly refurbished Kensington Palace the other day, which re-opened this week after a £12m makeover and a complete rethink of how the historic rooms are presented to the public. And I should make it clear right at the beginning that some of those shocks were salutary. They came about because the presentation of historic narrative here is calculatedly at odds with the heritage conventions we've been used to. A typical example: as you enter the room in which Queen Victoria held her very first Privy Council – a teenage girl confronted by a roomful of elderly men – you find that such explanatory text as there is has been printed on to the carpet itself or on to the top of the large table in the room. There is a glass case (containing the dress Victoria wore on that occasion) but it's faced, on the opposite side of the room, by a rack of ceremonial frock coats that visitors can try on.

The novelty doesn't really fade as you walk on. Compared with an old-fashioned National Trust display, these rooms are strikingly uncluttered and, in one sense, impure. They readily mix contemporary commissions with historic artefacts, and they rely on the visitor doing a bit of work to piece together the meaning of these things (though the guards have been trained as "explainers" and there are booklets of detailed captions available). What's more, these real spaces have been theatricalised. A room devoted to the Great Exhibition includes a large perspectival representation of the Crystal Palace on suspended sheets of etched glass while Albert's death is marked by a sudden drop in the light levels. The decoration is governed less by the fetish of scholarship that used to hold sway in such spaces than by a sense of narrative impressionism.

In the Victoria section it mostly works, I think, but this approach puts a very high premium on the judgement of when enough is enough. And in some other areas of the palace it's hard to avoid the feeling that there's way too much. You encounter the most egregious example in the Cupola Room in the King's Gallery, where a large piece of Georgian horological bling shares the space with several objects that look as if were left over from Harvey Nichols' Christmas window display. Four large mannequin sculptures dangle from the room's chandeliers, rotated gently by electric motors and successfully obscuring any sense of how the room must have appeared to George I's visitors.

In other rooms, you can at least rationalise the intrusions; a flight of suspended blue and white birds in the Queen's Gallery alludes to the porcelain collected by Queen Mary. But the reason for adding these bits of contemporary bric-à-brac to the Cupola Room is utterly opaque.

They're an eyesore to be blunt. And though they could certainly claim that they're not alone, the vintage eyesores around them all carry the protection of history. However ghastly, they are haloed by authenticity, which retains its power to deflect judgement. The worst of the modern interventions, on the other hand, are vulnerable precisely because of their inauthenticity. What's been done at Kensington Palace is genuinely interesting. But don't wait too long to see it as it is now. I have a feeling that our bad taste won't last nearly as long as that of George I or Victoria.

Does literary fortune really favour the brave?

"Clever, entertaining, brave," writes Roddy Doyle on the back cover of Greg Baxter's first novel, The Apartment, an enigmatic account of an American at large in an unspecified European city. That triad of adjectives fits the rhythmic convention for back page puffs (another praiser offers "beautifully constructed, elegantly written and deeply felt") but when I read it I couldn't help but feel that one of the words stood out a little. "Clever" and "entertaining" are relatively uncomplicated in their approbation. But "brave" is a slightly different matter. If The Apartment was a novel that took liberties with the life of Mohammed – or which tried to argue that our demonisation of paedophiles might be counterproductive (as Russell Banks's latest does) then "brave" would be a straightforward acknowledgement of social nerve. But it doesn't do any such thing. "Brave" here, I'm guessing, means what it often does in this context, which is something like, "not easy to like, but admirable anyway". What's being braved isn't a fatwa or public fury, but the possibility that readers will find the book a bit unconventional and difficult to get on with. It may even be a kind of implicit consolation prize offered against the possibility of modest sales. Of course it didn't make the best-seller lists. It was "brave", and most people aren't.

Exercise your artistic receptors

I love it when psychologists do research on cultural responses, because the results are such a rich source of unintentional comedy. Take the experiment recently reported on by The British Psychological Society, for example, in which participants were tested to see how a variety of pre-emptive conditionings altered their responses to four abstract paintings by El Lissitzky. Some of the group watched a 14-second clip of a horror movie, while others saw 14 seconds of happy images. Others were made to do 30 or 15 jumping jacks (notionally corresponding to a high and moderate state of physiological arousal). And another group got no aesthetic pre-loading of any kind. They were then invited to rate their emotional responses to the painting. Those who'd seen the scary video clip were more likely to rate the art works as "sublime" – used here, it seems, in the specific sense that Edmund Burke proposed, as provocative of philosophical reverie. Before Tate Modern rush to install videos of Paranormal Activity at the entrance to every gallery, a word of caution. The physical joggling also seemed to work at a lower level. And the authors say that further research is needed to "explore the aesthetic effects of other emotions". Until their work is concluded, though, you won't go far wrong if you just do 30 vigorous press ups before leaving the Turbine Hall.