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Flying ducks

May 19th, 2006

From Rachel Aspden’s New Statesman review of Alain de Botton’s latest (which I saw republished in the ReView section of the Fin)

None of this [pretentiousess] would matter so much were de Botton not selling the promise of taste. The Architecture of Happiness is being advertised on the Tube with a poster of flying-duck plaques – middle-class shorthand for “naff” – asking: “Is this your idea of good taste?” … If this is happiness, I’ll take the flying ducks any time.

Reading this in the kitchen, I naturally glanced up at the wall, which is adorned by a classic flight of flying ducks. I acquired them in my youth in a spirit of irony, but that has long since transmuted into genuine affection (if indeed, the irony was ever genuine). They used to be accompanied by a koala, masked and caped as a flying supermarsupial, but the wall wasn’t a safe place for such a unique item, and we’ve never found another.

So is it OK to like flying ducks? Or is this the crime against the holy spirit of Good Taste that can never be forgiven?

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  1. jason potts
    May 19th, 2006 at 18:04 | #1

    De gustibus non est disputandum john.

  2. May 19th, 2006 at 18:11 | #2

    PrQ,
    Perhaps if you had a little one of those statues of a person with a shotgun and a pointer (or a spaniel) under the ducks it may be considered to be in good taste. Of course, that means you need to have a small plant for them to hide behind. Add in an easy chair, pipe and slippers next to the fireplace and … you have my grandparent’s place, all ready to go.
    They voted Labor too.

  3. Dogz
    May 19th, 2006 at 18:40 | #3

    Each to their own…

  4. Pingu the penguin
    May 19th, 2006 at 19:11 | #4

    It might be forgivable if they were flying penguins…playing poker

  5. May 19th, 2006 at 19:13 | #5

    Prof Q
    I cannot see how liking flying ducks could be considered a bad taste crime. However, a penchant for fluffy white dice hanging from the rear vision mirror of a puple valiant would be another matter.

  6. CJS
    May 19th, 2006 at 19:38 | #6

    If I paused whenever I was likely to offend the arbiters of taste and style, I’d be paralytic. Believe yourself to be truly ungroovy and you will achieve enlightenment. It’s better than a new dance step.

  7. SJ
    May 19th, 2006 at 20:25 | #7

    These things follow a very predictable pattern.

    - Thing “X” suddenly becomes fashionable, and everyone has to have it.

    - There’s a violent backlash, and thing “X” becomes most definitely unfashionable.

    - A few years later, no-one cares whether you’ve still got thing “X”. It’s not a fashion statement one way or the other.

  8. StephenL
    May 19th, 2006 at 21:54 | #8

    I once attended the house of a very famous person. One of the lesser reasons for his fame is his involvement (I think he’s actually patron) in the anti-duck shooting campaign.

    He had the flying ducks on the wall. I’m not sure if you’ld call it irony, but I thought it delightful.

    I guess I’d have to say that in other circumstances I would tend to regard the ducks as a sign of bad taste, but considering my wardrobe I tend to take the view that those in glasshouses…

  9. Ray Trewin
    May 19th, 2006 at 21:55 | #9

    John, Came across this searching for an item on Howard and Canadian protestors. Was not using Google. I got into the author’s books after reading a review of Status Anxiety. They have just had a TV program on the architecture book on the BBC which I enjoyed but also nticed the add with the ducks. We too have some nostalgic ducks on our wall. Best regards, Ray.

  10. James Farrell
    May 19th, 2006 at 21:58 | #10

    In our Budapest flat we have a few individual tiles with wonderful paintings of Aussie wildlife — a green frog in the shower, a cockatoo over the basin, more frogs in the toilet, and a glorious Ulysses butterfly in the kitchen. A liitle bit of tropical North Queensland on the frozen steppes. You can get the tiles in the souvenir shop at the Kuranda skyway.

  11. May 19th, 2006 at 22:01 | #11

    I like the Sound of Music – the movie. Partly because of associations with my Austrian Dad who could have been one of the kids (his half sister looks AMAZINGLY like Maria von Trapp). But it’s also a damn good movie. Good story, well paced, well shot, good songs, well sung. The woiks. My twelve year old daughter is just figuring out that sentimentality is uncool and thinks I don’t ‘get it’. I do get it. It’s a sentimental movie. It’s also an excellent one.

  12. May 19th, 2006 at 22:14 | #12

    I put in a comment praising ‘The Sound of Music’ and it’s awaiting moderation. I wonder where I went wrong?

  13. jason potts
    May 19th, 2006 at 23:30 | #13

    Freud might say that these ducks of youthful irony are like the quacks of youthful socialism. But what becomes of them, then, with age and wisdom?

    Answer: some fall off the wall and some, occasionally, become questionable. But surely, and to have an Alain de Botton moment, that is the architecture of the flying duck metaphysic. Flying ducks were originally ceramic craft, then collectors art, and then later iconic and ironic art. Now they are nostalgic philosophic art. And that is good, perhaps even its highest form.

    But inquiry into subjective taste is an impossible analytic proposition. Proust’s impressions of humanity were from a cork-lined room: imagine if there had been flying-ducks!

  14. May 20th, 2006 at 07:49 | #14

    If you’re a blogger, it might be more appropriate to have sitting ducks.

  15. May 20th, 2006 at 11:24 | #15

    Typing at my laptop in the kitchen/dining room I can see our exquisitely tastful flying pigs climbing toward the roof.

    What better thing for the wall than flying pigs??? Perhaps it should be standard issue for polititians office walls.

  16. Jim Birch
    May 20th, 2006 at 12:20 | #16

    Thanks to AR for reminding us that flying ducks can only really be understood as a link to left-wing politics. Illuminating.

  17. May 20th, 2006 at 16:38 | #17

    I read something once about flying duck wall-thingies, which opened my eyes on them as being 2D plays on 3D perspective (viz going from large to small, or vv). Previously, I had just thought of them as pure kitsch, as if they had had such an aesthetic built into them since manufacture.

    Now though, I tend to think that a perspectivist, mass-produced (but not ridiculously so) art, which was briefly popular among a demographic that today might be termed “aspirational� is quite intriguing. My take is that new homes built in the 1950s were actually quite small (due to materials constraints, yada yada), and that having perspectivist art one one’s walls was actually a reasonably sophisticated way of coming to terms with living in a sub-optimal amount, and/or arrangement, of space.

    Accordingly, flying ducks would have become kitsch through the actual fact of homes becoming larger and/or more open-plan from the 1960s on.

    More generally, I find Alain de Botton’s musings on taste painful and vapid. But that’s what you get when you commission a straight man to do a gay man’s job, I guess.

  18. Katz
    May 20th, 2006 at 16:53 | #18

    “So is it OK to like flying ducks? Or is this the crime against the holy spirit of Good Taste that can never be forgiven?”

    Fallacy of the excluded middle.

    Liking flying ducks may well be a forgivable sin.

  19. jquiggin
    May 20th, 2006 at 16:57 | #19

    Some nice points, Paul. Would you be able to find a link on the 2D/3D stuff?

  20. Katz
    May 20th, 2006 at 17:25 | #20

    “My take is that new homes built in the 1950s were actually quite small (due to materials constraints, yada yada), and that having perspectivist art one one’s walls was actually a reasonably sophisticated way of coming to terms with living in a sub-optimal amount, and/or arrangement, of space.”

    1950s houses were certainly smaller than their 1960s and later successors but the people who lived in these 1950s houses often grew up in still more cramped terrace houses. From their persepective 1950s houses looked big and airy.

    Thus it may equally be argued that flying ducks represented the new sense of space and airiness that signified the outer suburbs of the 1950s in the popular mind.

    In shours, flying ducks weren’t compensation for lack of space, but rather celebration of an abundance of space.

  21. chris shannon
    May 20th, 2006 at 19:24 | #21

    I agree that houses have been getting progressively larger rather than smaller. I live in a 1920′s workers cottage, along with my wife and 2 kids. No room to swing a cat here. My father lives in a post war house which I suppose is similar to those Paul is referring to. He could conceivably swing a cat without disturbing the ducks. Now there are replica Queenslanders popping up everywhere which are bigger still but built on subdivided blocks. More room for ducks inside but no room for chook pens out.

  22. May 20th, 2006 at 22:19 | #22

    I have no decorations in my apartment at all. Is that considered to be in bad taste, a sign of spiritual poverty according to Padre De Botton or tasteful minimalism?

  23. May 20th, 2006 at 22:49 | #23

    Bet you leave the computer on.

    Whether you are spiritually poor depends on whether the room is white, full of cool lambent light straight off the ocean. Or perhaps empty but with the perfect proportions of a genuine Georgian room. If you spend your abundant wealth like this, you are also spiritually rich.

    If, however, your walls are covered with several different kinds of flock wallpaper, kickmarks and the fuzzy circle made by missing the previous resident’s dartboard, you are either a tasteless owner or the victim of your landlord’s oppression.

    Maybe you just live in a splendid world inside the computer.

  24. Jonno
    May 20th, 2006 at 23:21 | #24

    Yes flying ducks are nice, I enjoy the Sound of Music (even if the picture it presents of the time doesn’t quite match the reality). We have not one but two chandeliers in our 60s home and I like them.

    BUT will those cutesy 70s stylised drawings of people and children (hard to describe – the ones with the small bodies and large heads drawn with rounded sharpish lines – almost always with schmalzy captions) become OK?

    My theory is that not all kitsch becomes nice with the passage of time.

  25. May 21st, 2006 at 12:01 | #25

    John, I did earlier Google to see if I could find a relevant URL for (“flying ducks” optical perspective), but no joy.

    Re houses getting ever-bigger, so that even 1950s houses would have seemed relatively spacious for their (pre-boomer-born, anyway) occupants. Looked at by floor area (rather than volumetrically), this is probably true.

    However, cultural factors are also important here. I don’t think that the concept of an “aspirational” class can have any meaningful, broad application pre-WWII. This is because the master/servant dichotomy was quite prevalent until then, and optical-illusion art plainly suits/suited neither masters’ tastes nor servants’ means.

  26. Katz
    May 21st, 2006 at 16:33 | #26

    Flying ducks were first mass produced by Staffordshire potter Beswick in 1938. Many other manufacturers produced copies. Beswick had long manufactured gee-gaws for the English masses. Ducks were a relatively late addition to their catalogue, but became among Beswick’s most popular items.

    There is a vast literature on English wage earners who aspired to set themselves apart from their less respectable neighbours by accumulating and displaying items like those manufactured by Beswick. George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is a satire upon this world.

    So unless pre-WWII English respectable wage earners can be said to have a far more acute sensitivity to optical illusion art than their Australian contemporaries, then PW’s imaginative thesis loses persuasiveness.

    Australian “aspirationals” have a long pedigree. The Australian Natives Association was a particularly potent example originating in the 1870s:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Natives_Association

  27. Gaby
    May 22nd, 2006 at 10:50 | #27

    John, do their eyes follow you around the room (pace Pete ‘n’ Dud…

  28. Vivi
    September 16th, 2006 at 02:45 | #28

    Has anyone ever heard the term “three ducks up the wallish”? I heard it when I was hitch hiking in England in 1976. It was my first backpacking trip in the UK and I was talking with an English girl at a youth hostel. She described my desire to buy some bone china tea cups (I was going to take them home and live a sophisticated life as the returned world traveller, of course) as so “three ducks up the wallish”. At first I didn’t think she was speaking english. She explained that english working class people hang ceramic ducks up on their wall, in threes. We don’t do that in the United States.
    I understood the implications about the folly of the working class and us colonials in having aspirations to what we call in America “rising above your raising”. What could I say? She was right. I was a hick. I never forgot that girl, and me being “three ducks up the wallish”.
    So it’s 30 years later and I’ve collected more than a dozen sets of these ducks and they are all up my wallish, flying in flocks of geese, mallards, terns, and sea gulls. I am writing an illustrated memoir and I’m doing these ducks and I wanted to research the ducks/wall aesthetic. I’ve enjoyed reading this discussion — so the ducks fly Down Under too?
    I’d love to hear from anyone who has ever heard or been accused of being, you know, so many ducks up the wallish.
    Hope I’m not too late in asking.

  29. Juju
    January 26th, 2008 at 09:42 | #29

    My mother has a set of 5 flying ducks, they belonged to my grandmother. Anyone wish to buy them?
    Juju

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