Playboy Enterprises recently announced that, beginning in March 2016, Playboy magazine will no longer feature nude photographs.
With increasing access to free online pornography, the received wisdom on this decision is that this brings the Playboy brand into the twenty-first century. At first sight, it looks like a tasteful, even an ethical, move to make. Chief content officer of Playboy magazine, Cory Jones, said: “Twelve-year-old me is very disappointed in current me. But it’s the right thing to do.”
However, I don’t think that this decision is about Playboy magazine becoming more discriminating or more ethical about the representation of women in the mass media.
It is about how Playboy Enterprises used to invest in the cultivation of our taste, and now it no longer does.
In 1953, when it was first published, Playboy was one of the first mainstream magazines to display nude women. But it also began to show these images alongside short stories by well-known writers, from P. G. Wodehouse to Margaret Atwood, and interviews with politicians and intellectuals, spanning stories on Martin Luther King, to Malcolm X.
Art critic Dave Hickey argued that when it began, Playboy was an example of the American mass media functioning in loco parentis, ‘doing the jobs that mom and dad would have done if they weren’t back in Kansas and so relentlessly old-fashioned’.
In the case of Playboy, Hickey thinks that the parenting was done by an imaginary projection of Hugh Hefner he calls ‘Uncle Reggie’, who ‘brought his sensibility into the neighbourhood’ by ‘granting you permission to gawk at the boobs you had been gawking at anyway, but not like an animal, not like a redneck, like a cosmopolitan man of the world’.
We can find this statement offensive, but that’s missing the crucial point. On the narrow precipice of taste, even the miserable post-adolescent fantasy of gawking at boobs like a cosmopolitan man of the world, depends on deriving happiness from the freedom this brings us, within the inferno of commercialism.
None of us thinks that we were born with a sense of taste and discrimination. But we do tend to believe that we have acquired a sense of taste by learning how to negotiate the world of capitalism on our own terms, rather than on the terms dictated to us by Ikea, Apple or Farrow & Ball.
Taste has made a virtue out of the necessity of living within the world of goods. It allows us to live within commercial society while trusting ourselves before we trust the brands, products and services that surround us.
As we wander through the supermarket, we can’t pretend that our happiness does not depend in some way on the products that surround us. We are not monks in a monastery or gurus on a mountain in Tibet. On the other hand, we don’t want our happiness to rely on these objects.
So how do we walk this tightrope?
The answer is that we choose objects, that say something good about us – namely that we have taste.
In this way, taste and discrimination make us the guarantors of our own happiness. This view of taste as our personal vantage point in the world, has been supported by mass media, liberal governments, art schools and universities as long as the narrow gap between the museum and the gift shop, between the editorial and the advertorial, could be kept open.
However, that gap is shrinking and as it shrinks, the social infrastructure that has supported our individual sense of taste is more clearly revealed.
If Uncle Reggie is no longer there to encourage us to ogle naked women in a tasteful way, then his job is simply to promote the perfumes, body sprays and watch straps that are marketed under the Playboy brand.
In the space between the Playboy brand and the ocean of internet pornography, now there is nothing at all.
Playboy Enterprises have decided that there is no profit in placing discreetly revealed nipples alongside interviews with politicians and intellectuals; they have disinvested in the cultivation of taste. This gives us a warning.
If we are faced with fewer opportunities for the cultivation of a sense of taste, the fragile ideal of walking through the seven circles of commercial hell while living in our own private Eden becomes more difficult to sustain.
Younger consumers may begin to reject taste as a route to personal autonomy and virtue.
The increasing redefinition of culture as a path to wellbeing is also inimical to taste, because if culture is prescribed it cannot be chosen and if it cannot be chosen, there will be no taste.
It may now be time to consider a definition of civilization that does not include taste.
Malcolm Quinn, Professor of Cultural and Political History Associate Dean of Research and Director of Graduate School.