Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate

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As well as incorporating the remnants of a religious festival and a kind of month-long consumerist riot, the Christmas season is also a time for the reckoning up of that tantalising abstract, the public taste.

How many millions of TV viewers tuned in to Mrs Brown’s Boys or, as it may be, Strictly Come Dancing? (In fact, the figures were 7.61 million and 6.98 million respectively.) How many hundreds of thousands of iTunes subscribers opted for a particular festive download? Which celebrity memoirs danced most energetically off the Waterstones shelves? (Very few, if recent sales figures are to be believed, as the market for ghost-written tat is supposed to have collapsed.) What was the most popular toy?

Rudimentary yardsticks, of course, and yet the eagerness with which they are seized on suggests such things matter, and that the collective spirit they may be supposed to reflect is still worth attending to, however fragmented the cultural backdrop that surrounds it.

If questions of “taste” – so avidly canvassed by the opinion-formers of the Victorian age – have less resonance in the early 21st century, then this is because taste itself is a much less homogeneous entity than it was 150 years ago. There is the passive and essentially reactive taste of the thousands of people who buy a book or watch a film because they notice that thousands of other people are doing so, and there is the much more aggressive and crusading taste of small minorities with points to prove.

In 1977, Morecambe and Wise were watched by 28m (BBC)

There is the ever more differentiated taste of consumers so relentlessly bombarded by the modern media howitzer barrage that no real choice about their consumption is ever made, to the point where the old dictionary definition of “the mental perception of quality” no longer applies. Am I “perceiving quality” when I switch on Miranda on Christmas night? No, I am just watching some TV show that the newspapers have puffed to the skies.

Taste, in other words, is not what it was. Even the mainstream public taste, once a relentless behemoth, mowing down the left-field competition that got in its way like a lawn-mower going through a field of daisies, effortlessly recreating the TV schedules in its own image, or thereby being recreated is merely a shadow of itself.

In 1977, 28 million people were estimated to have watched The Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show, whereas no contemporary comedian, put on terrestrial television on Christmas Day, would get a third of this audience here in an age of cultural atomisation. But then taste, a little historical research insists, has had difficulty in exerting much of a grip, in promulgating generally accepted standards, in convincing the wider audience to agree with its decisions, in laying down the law about art, since about the middle of the 19th century.

The obstructions which have flung themselves across the path of “taste” since the days of Lord Macaulay and Matthew Arnold are especially noticeable in the world of literature. The early-Victorian reading public was so tiny that the sales of even bestselling books struggled to reach five figures (the number of copies of Vanity Fair sold in Thackeray’s lifetime was put at something over 10,000). But then came the mass literacy of the Victorian educational reforms and the revolution in publishing technology which produced, by the 1890s, dozens of mass-circulation periodicals devoted to gossip and entertainment rather than the high-minded discussion of serious issues that had been such a staple of the early Victorian quarterly. At the risk of being absurdly reductive, the culture wars of the 1920s, in which vers libre poets fought critics who believed that verse ought to rhyme and scan through the pages of the weekly magazines, had their origins in the fears of an elite who believed that “culture” was no longer within their ability to control.

Miranda-watchers were drawn less by taste than hype (BBC)

Similar battles were fought in the world of music (in particular, over jazz) and in cinema, but the end result was always the same: the collapse of something that had once been broadly cohesive into something a great deal more anarchic. In the 1840s – a few complaints about his “vulgarity” excepted – most readers had thought Charles Dickens a great writer. Eighty years later, the status of James Joyce and T S Eliot was that much more contested, for the intellectual level at which they wrote seemed expressly designed to deter large percentages of the reading public bred up in Dickens’s shadow from understanding their intentions.

And if “taste” seemed to be splitting up into a dozen different compartments, then another feature of its 20th-century manifestations is the tendency of popular taste to lag several decades behind the artefacts that are made much of in the media. The 1920s might now appear to be the era of The Waste Land and Ulysses, but the books the majority of people read at the time tended to be dug from an entirely different literary field; Everyman’s Library, for example, was still bringing out extraordinary pieces of antiquated lumber from the Victorian vault. The same point is true of the 1950s, when the evidence of the Mass Observation diarists suggests that ordinary readers were still catching up with The Forsyte Saga rather than experimenting with such new-fangled enfants terribles as Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch.

It is even more flagrant in the field of popular music, where the gap between what the public is supposed to admire and what the public really wants to listen to frequently widens into a chasm. Thirty-six years ago this week, I would have been sitting down to appraise The John Peel Festive 50, the top records of 1978 as selected by his listeners. This was, of course, the age of punk rock, by this point incrementally shading into what was known as post-punk. Naturally, the list comes crammed with items by the Sex Pistols, The Jam and The Clash, but it also harbours Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla” and waxings by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and The Who – all acts supposedly kicked off stage by the taste police as the bondage-trouser-clad hordes surged forward.

Punk-era listeners to John Peel voted Sixties’ songs into his festive 50 (BBC)

All this gestures at another key element in the historical transition of cultural preference, which is the way in which sophisticated taste always crowds out its populist cousin when the textbooks come to be written. The fact that Eliot’s poems sold not the merest fraction of the sales totals chalked up by, say, J B Priestley means nothing to the average literary historian, for whom “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” is axiomatically of greater interest than Angel Pavement.

To go back to pop, the 1960s, as any social historian will tell you, are the age of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and yet the bestselling LP of the decade was the soundtrack to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. As for the counter-cultural tide that supposedly swept through the country in the latter part of the decade, I was fascinated to learn from Marcus O’Dair’s biography of the former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt that any long-hair hippie band which ventured from its London fastness into the provinces was liable to have things thrown at it.

To the literary or musical sophisticate, this means that if you hang in there long enough, your brand of taste is bound to win in the end. On the other hand, the fact that seven million viewers watched Bruce Forsyth strut his stuff on Christmas night seems quite as important as the much smaller number of people who shelled out for this year’s Booker winner. You don’t have to be a paid-up Marxist to believe that “culture” is ordinary.