A Question of Taste

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by Nigel Beale

In 1913 Igor Stravinsky’s composition The Rite of Spring got the same kind of reception I suspect Mats Sundin might get today at an Ottawa Senators’ weenie roast. There were riots.

Science journalist Johan Lehrer blames the debacle on brain chemicals, stating in Proust Was A Neuroscientist that our brains are specifically designed to sort unfamiliar sounds into patterns. When they succeed we’re rewarded with a pleasing shot of dopamine. When they don’t, when noise doesn’t yield pattern, the dopamine shots keep coming, rendering us disoriented and ornery. But neurons do learn, and after repeated exposure order does prevail. The unfamiliar submits and “noise” again becomes “music,” which, according to Lehrer, explains why a mere year after its chair-throwing Parisian debut The Rite of Spring returned to the stage in front of large cheering crowds. Indeed, by 1940 the score was certifiably mainstream and featured prominently in the Disney animation Fantasia.

Globe and Mail music critic Carl Wilson thinks this repeated exposure business is nonsense, at least when it comes to explaining the one year turn around. In Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the end of Taste (a clever examination of his hatred of Celine Dion), Wilson says that the rioters would hardly have returned again so soon to see a performance they hated; rather it’s the hipsters of the day who would have attended, lured by success de scandale, eager to be shocked. Lehrer’s neurochemical picture is fuzzy, says Wilson, because it doesn’t consider the effects of received concepts and social identifications on “private” neuro-auditory processes.

I cite the Lehrer-Wilson stand-off because in it we have all that’s required to understand the maddeningly contradictory factors that influence and determine aesthetic valuation: the subjective, objective and societal requisites needed to cultivate a personal conception of “good” taste; the police blockade that keeps us from wearing skinny ties and fluorescent hot pants.

Like the CBC, aesthetic judgment has long been yoked with conflicting mandates: to establish a stable, objective foundation against which to evaluate merit through time (in other words, a standard of excellence that can be used to measure new artistry), while simultaneously responding to personal, subjective, fugitive likes and dislikes, specific to locale and period. These opposing forces in the struggle to define good taste have tugged one another back and forth over the ages, gaining and losing muddy yardage on the strength of their respective champions.

During the past several decades, objective, stable foundations have been sliding very much on their bottoms, losing ground to the idea that beauty is held in the subjective eye of the beholder. But can a middle ground be found? Can the thoughtful observer draw upon both intellect and intuition to arrive at something collectively acknowledged as “good taste”? To find out, let’s begin at the beginning.

TASTE THROUGH TIME

As a concept linked to aesthetic preference, taste hit the radar early in the 18th Century. If the old way of thinking asked what made a work of art beautiful, new ways asked not what constituted beauty but rather what qualities of mind made an object seem beautiful, what “pleasures of the imagination,” as Joseph Addison put it in 1712.

But a problem arose: if beauty exists only known in the mind as a feeling, then anything that triggers this feeling can also be called beautiful and everyone would have their own unique measure. Without some common concept of the aesthetic, outside of private experience, discussion of relative value would be
impossible.

Attempts to reconcile personal, emotional biochemical response with accepted, rationally determined criteria, continued throughout the 1700s. Writers such as Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, for example, suggested that if human minds were structurally the same, and if everyone perceived the same things in largely the same way—through the physical senses of sight and sound, for example—surely the same should hold for a “sense” of the beautiful.

Then, in 1790, Emanuel Kant went upstairs, arguing for the existence of a universal faculty of “judgment.” The tastes legislated by this faculty, if properly reflected upon, would be evident to everyone, he said. Beauty transcends the self; it is universal. In The Critique of Judgment, he argued that emotions don’t belong at all to beauty and that the beautiful must be admired in and of itself.

The trouble with Kant’s “subjective universality” lies in its susceptibility to abuse; to its being usurped, determined and preached by ruling power, similar to how religious leaders pontificate on known unknowns. Kant’s objective truths about beauty, despite widespread acceptance, got non-believers legitimately asking, “Sez who?”

Two centuries later, Pierre Bourdieu published his own critique of judgment contradicting Kant’s notion of a disinterested aesthetic, arguing that taste is decidedly interested; self-interested and social. As Carl Wilson puts it: “if you flinch seeing a copy of [Celine Dion's] Let’s Talk about Love or The DaVinci Code on a friend’s shelves, what you are trying to shake off is the stain of the déclassé, the threat of social inferiority.”

In this view, good taste is informed by economic and educational background and is largely a quest for social status as symbolic power; a way to distinguish oneself from others, to establish superiority over those who rank beneath us. “As with money,” Wilson says, “cultural and social capital’s value depends on scarcity, on knowing what others don’t.”

Similarly, Bourdieu saw taste as distaste, or “disgusts provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the taste of others.” You want your tastes affirmed by your peers, and, just as vitally, dissed by those you disdain. Good taste means pleasing your peers, bad taste means offending them. The ultimate objective is to be “cool.” The attendees at Stravinsky’s return performance in 1914 were cool.

ENTHUSIASMS AND DISAPPOINTMENTS

Perception and opinion, unlike a timeless canon, is malleable. The space you grow up in and the genes you wear determine in good part the impact that art has on you. Getting context and “meaning” can influence and change initial responses. So can persuasive teachers and critics who offer points of reference.

For example, without agreed upon aesthetic measurement, War and Peace cannot objectively be valued higher on a literary scale than, say, Peyton Place. But even if beauty of language, profundity of intellectual discussion and emotional connection are accepted as legitimate measures and Tolstoy is deemed the better, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to value him over, say, Dostoevsky or Stendhal.

Similarly, lacking a yardstick we cannot say that your experience of Picasso’s Guernica is more profound than mine is of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World. Who’s to judge one experience more valuable than the next? Only where evaluative systems are agreed upon, where talk is heard, can stimulating conversation and enlightening insight occur.

When seen as a harmony between standard values and undisputable personal likes and dislikes, taste seems, to literary critic Brian Phillips, less a problem to be solved than a capability to not only distinguish between the good and the bad in aesthetics, but to sustain a flexible notion of what the good and the bad can be. As Phillips notes in an essay in Poetry magazine, “An audience with a strong capability of taste, drawing from its sense of beauty as objective, can softly enforce a realm in which real discussion is possible, in which a common scale of value licenses the sharing of enthusiasms and disappointments.”

So let us conclude this: If any useful discussion of taste is to be had at all, there must be a willingness to address merit, to explain pleasure and displeasure beyond “I know what I like.” Just as the best criticism clearly and persuasively explains and argues relative merit, so good taste is developed through the study and articulation of likes and dislikes.

Fortunately, such study is not as difficult as it might sound. Here then, we modestly offer the reader a methodology for the development of his or her own good taste.

Step 1) Take each art form that enchants you. Expose yourself to as much of it as local bylaws permit. Write down a list of the works you admire. Detail your response to them: use those words that best describe your feelings, the qualities that make you feel the way you feel, what you like, what you dislike. For example, isolate those passages in literature that give you the greatest pleasure, that teach you the most profound lessons. This is the benchmark against which to judge everything else. You have formulated your own canon. It contains only the very best and everything must now bow to and be measured by it.

Step 2) Painting appeals to sight, music to hearing, sculpture to sight and touch, fiction to all senses through the imagination. Each has its own aesthetic vocabulary. Learn the lingo. It’ll help you to understand and evaluate your feelings. Equally important, each art form is rooted in a discipline of craft. Learning these disciplines and knowing what techniques are used teaches purpose, structure, observation, selective criteria and judgment of execution. It also provides objective evaluative tools which can be used to assess quality of process and the ultimate value of finished work.

Step 3) Read the critics, past and present; those generally revered, those whose opinions you respect; those whose you vehemently reject. Identify what they look for. Compare your criteria to theirs’. Perhaps they use a measure that you don’t. Add it to your tool bag if it fits. There’s nothing so fine as meeting a critic who expresses exactly what you feel, who shares the same enthusiasms that live in your heart.

Step 4) To stay cool, do what Carl Wilson did: purposefully seek out the new and address what you hate. Look for those who think what you like sucks and learn their systems of taste. Try to understand them. By so doing you’re guaranteed not to stagnate. Your taste will evolve while staying honest and coherent. You’ll be able to talk intelligently and contribute to the great conversation with more than the famed Chris Farley-to-Paul McCartney Saturday Night Live declaration: “That was awesome.”

Finally, a general rule: be gentle. Instead of bashing away with Kant to get everyone to adopt your preferences, relish the plenitudes of tastes out there. Rather than shitting on what others prefer, consider a dialogue: “Here’s what it feels like to enjoy the music I like. What does it feel like for you to enjoy yours?”

After all, how critical is good taste to long-term fulfillment in life? One of the best passages in Wilson’s book has him experiencing a kind of taste shock after meeting a Celine superfan named Sophoan Sorn. “His taste world is coherent and an enormous pleasure to him,” writes Wilson. “Not only does it seem as valid as my own utterly incompatible tastes, I like him so much that for a long moment his taste seems superior. What was the point again of all that nasty life-negating crap I like?”

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