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Does artistic chic lead to political cheekiness?

THERE used to be an obligatory scene midway through every love story. It occurred after the first quarrel. Just as he, let us say, was storming out the door, she would shout after him: ``I should have known about you from the start. I could never love a man who frames Norman Rockwell calendars on his walls, reads James Michener novels, and listens to Peter Duchin records.'' The topper of the argument is not: The man has a mean heart. But rather: The man has bad taste.

Something like this indictment of character on the grounds of aesthetics lies at the center of a brilliant but erratic new study by a young cultural historian from UCLA, Debora Silverman. Her title almost constitutes a book in itself -- ``Selling Culture: Bloomingdale's, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristrocracy of Taste in Reagan's America.''

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Silverman emphatically does not like the Reagan administration, finding it imperialistic abroad and lacking in compassion at home. But, being in the business she is, she takes the clincher of the case against the administration's public policy to be the administration's public taste. Picking up on Diana Vreeland's haute-couture exhibits of French and Chinese art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early '80s, she declares this to be Reaganism made visual, indulging ``luxury,'' ``opulence of design,'' and a reactionary sense of the feminine -- ``woman as a decorative object.''

All the glitzy pieces fall in place so neatly that Silverman cannot believe she is dealing with ``an isolated or an accidental phenomenon.'' If this homogeneity of public policy and public taste is not a conspiracy to create a second Gilded Age, it comes suspiciously close: ``The affiliates of the aristocratic movement span the worlds of politics, the media, fashion design, the department store, and the museum,'' she notes.

Silverman documents her thesis meticulously and argues it rigorously, but holes keep opening up, even though they are elegant holes. For instance, that use of the word ``aristocratic.'' The President -- watching TV police drama, eating plain American chow, itching on every occasion to get back to the ranch, his horse, and his ax -- seems a country mile away from French or Chinese court-styling.

It could be claimed that the Kennedy administration, marked by Jackie's embrace of The Arts, expressed a more calculated snobbery than the rather guileless munificence of Nancy, her famous china set, and her wardrobe -- an ideal which seems to hark back less to France or China than to Hollywood stage sets of the '40s.

Furthermore, in all this ``trendiness,'' it is possible to see the White House and even the Metropolitan Museum as the manipulated rather than the manipulators -- consumers jerked about by fads as much as the least of us.

But the real problem here may lie in that fundamental assumption that taste and virtue are related. A number of the more decadent Roman emperors had exquisite aesthetic values to go with their unexcelled depravity. The same goes for the Borgias. Certain Nazis, we are told, manned the concentration camps by day and played Bach at night.

If correlations are what one is after, one could build a more convincing parallel between sport and public policy. It is not the American, charmed by French and Chinese opulence at the Met, or even at Bloomingdale's, who makes you think of military aggression abroad and lack of compassion at home. It is the American sitting with his six-pack before a weekend of football on TV.

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Almost a century and a half before Silverman there lived a cultural historian named Andrew Jackson Downing who worried what it said about America's leaders that they all wanted to live in pseudo-Italian villas or, worse, ``tasteless temples'' of the Greek revival. He also feared a sinister signifcance if there were no frills at all. ``So long as men are forced to dwell in log huts,'' he wrote, ``we must not be surprised at lynch law.''

With cultural historians, you can't win -- you're bound to turn out either a decadent or a barbarian.

Caught between the native extremes -- puritanism and conspicuous consumption -- Downing rather desperately concluded that any house ceased to be beautiful if inhabited by a dishonest man.

Of course the corollary to this is that, if you are an honest man, your house, your wardrobe -- your tastes -- are not going to corrupt you.

Do we make too much of symbolism? Are style and substance as mystically integrated as it is our intellectual delight to argue?

Whether they are or not, when it comes to lovers and leaders we had best judge them on their behavior first, and worry about their atrocious wallpaper and gaudy neckties afterwards.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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