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As a little boy in the 1950s, I remember visiting my great-grandmother in Jersey City. She had a darkened living room, with great stuffy chairs, a mantel clock surrounded by tchotchkes, floor-length curtains over the windows, and the back of every chair featured a lacy antimacassar. There were cut-glass bowls on the animal-claw end-tables, one of which was filled with hard candy, from which we children were offered “one.” 

It was for my tiny little brain, simply what old people lived in, so unlike the split-level suburban home where I grew up. There was the smell of oldness, the wool of oldness, the dark mahogany of oldness. Above all, everything seemed upholstered and dark. Later, when I was an adult, I recognized the style as Victorian. 

As in Norse mythology, there were three separate worlds — the world I knew, with my schoolmates; the world of my parents, with its privileges and authorities; and the distant and rarefied world of the ancients. These were not simply different houses, but completely different universes. 

Each of these reflected the “taste” of its generation. Victorian; Mid-Century Modern; now Postmodern. 

They were three different “tastes.” And taste rules so much of what we like, what we choose, and who we think we are. It is the way we groom our hair, the clothes we wear, the car we drive — we don’t choose a BMW over a Honda because it gets us to our destination any faster, but because it presents to the world the person we think we are — or want to be. The same with a Volvo or a Ford truck. Taste is a powerful driving force in our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. But sometimes, it must be transcended. 

When I made my living as an art critic, I had to put aside my individual tastes and attempt to judge art by more impersonal standards. For instance, I have never responded to what are called the Mexican muralists — the Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, José Orozco paintings and their peasant-proletarian mythologizing. It shared too much with socialist realism and was, to me, rather drab in its muddy earth colors. Nevertheless, I had to acknowledge the importance, art historically, of their work, and to be able to distinguish between the best of Mexican muralism and the lesser, more humdrum examples. To be able to distinguish and understand was more important than my “taste.” 

This problem has cropped up again recently when a friend and former colleague posted a series of videos on YouTube cataloguing the biblical paintings of Marc Chagall, accompanied by ironic and meaningful music by Tori Amos, John Lennon, Mix Master Mike and others. He asked for my opinion. I watched all nine short videos (watch the first one here) and was impressed by his graphic and editing skills, but had a hard time otherwise. I simply don’t much like Chagall’s painting. Never have. 

I recognize his significance in art history, and there are things of his I respond to — a few paintings, such as 

I and the Village (1911); View of Paris from My Window (1913); Cubist Landscape (1919)

his stained glass at Reims Cathedral; 

and the ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris. But the general run of Chagall has always struck me not as childlike, but childish. And he produced way too much with too little editing, leaving dozens and dozens of images virtually identical except for their finish — a blue coat here, turned red coat there, or left as a scribble. This was especially true of the biblical images, of which there seemed to be hundreds. 

My friend had collected them all and divided them into the familiar episodes or stories of the Bible, adding the music and sometimes his own commentary to them. I dutifully sat through all nine chapters of the video, but in the end did not come away with any higher opinion of the artist — indeed, the need for editing seemed all the more imperative. 

I don’t fault anyone for their taste. I recognize it as an individual thing. My taste is not better than anyone else’s, it is just mine. If I respond to Mahler more than I do to Max Reger, well, then, that’s me. If I would rather re-read Milton than James Dickey, so be it. Would travel across the country to see a Pollock retrospective but wouldn’t cross the street for Frank Stella, that’s just the way it is. (This may have something to do with a sense that the world is not tidy and organized, but chaotic and spontaneous. I share Pollock’s sense and not Stella’s). 

Yet…

Yet, there is that passage in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria where he makes the distinction between gustibus and gustus. Plural and singular. We all know the Latin phrase, “de gustibus non est desputandum,” but, Coleridge says, “gustibus” is what I have been talking about so far — personal preference. We like some things more than others. Any argument is silly: “I like pickles.” “No, you’re wrong, I don’t like pickles.” 

But “gustus,” he says is different. It is the ability to differentiate between value and trash. Tastes are personal, but taste is about discernment. It is what allows us to know that Marc Chagall — no matter what I personally think about him — has value that, say, Thomas Kinkade does not. That James Dickey wrote poetry and that Rod McKuen wrote whatever you want to call it, but not really poetry. 

Gustibus allows us to enjoy even trash. It is OK to like Kinkade’s brand of nostalgic goo, but it should never confuse it with quality. 

John Waters is the master of bad taste, but he has taste. The interior of Elvis Presley’s Graceland is also in bad taste, but there is no evidence of actual taste involved. Hence the word “tasteless.” 

The distinction to be made is one of awareness. Taste comes from engagement, from paying attention. Lack of taste comes from acceptance of the conventional, of the expression of sentimentality, or the dependence on what someone else says is good. 

Much has been made of taste as a class distinction. But that is not what I am talking about here. Artist Jenny Holzer has famously said that “Money creates taste,” but it doesn’t. Money creates fashion and fashions change. Taste is a way of experiencing the world; it is not a hemline or this year’s color pairing. British aristocracy includes some of the world’s most tasteless people. 

Here in Asheville, N.C., there is a mansion called the Biltmore House, which is one of the most tasteless, garish pieces of architecture I know. Money creates smugness, not taste. Think of all the money Donald Trump has. 

Taste in the sense I mean it is at its foundation an engagement with the world, with all of it. It is the attempt to see things as they are and appreciate them for their worth.  

There is a problem. It is so easy for gustibus to blind us to gustus. We easily take our tastes as taste and assume that things we like are therefore universally good. It takes some doing to divorce one from the other. We assume we like something because it is good and therefore, everyone should agree with us. I like pickles and if you don’t, you must be a Communist. 

It’s a trap we all fall into at times. Myself certainly included. But I’ve seen many things I initially didn’t appreciate later come to be favorites. Did Bruckner suddenly become better than he used to be? I wrote a whole piece about how my mind changed on the paintings of Joseph (not Frank) Stella (here). The acquisition of taste is an ongoing process and requires constant engagement and re-engagement. Make up your mind too soon and you miss a lot. 

In short, our tastes close us off, while fostering your taste opens you up. Tastes are our hidey-hole, where we burrow in and stave off the parts of the world that make us uncomfortable. Tastes are lazy; taste is adventurous. 

The cultivation of taste is a question of experience. The more we become familiar with, the better our choices will be. 

I remember when the film critic at The Arizona Republic was brand new. Bill Muller had been a political reporter, and when the previous critic left the paper, the feeling was he had been too “arty.” And so, they wanted an “ordinary Joe” to speak for the ordinary moviegoer. Muller seemed the perfect choice. He knew nothing about film (which he readily admitted to. Muller was a very smart guy and honest). 

And so, for his first year as a critic, he loved movies where things “blowed up real good.” He was the demotic critic the company hoped for. The problem was, once you’ve seen 20 or 30 movies where “things blowed up real good,” you begin to be able to distinguish between those films done well and those done poorly. And so, Muller began to give negative reviews to sloppy and cliched movies. His taste grew. 

When he was first hired, Muller often shuffled off art and foreign films to me to review. It was a great gift to me. I loved those films. But as Muller’s taste grew, he began to appreciate the finer points of filmmaking and — as I said, he was a hugely intelligent man — he began to keep the art films for himself. He became a cultured critic. He never lost his common touch and became an Andrew Sarris, for instance, but I watched him with great interest as his taste level rose with his exposure. 

I don’t mean that Muller became a stodgy old pedant like me. He still loved popular movies — if they were good — but popular wasn’t enough. It had to be popular and good. His tastes were always different from mine, but his taste became more and more discerning. 

Taste requires exposure and it grows unbidden. There are no rules for it, as Susan Sontag wrote, “Taste has no system and no proofs.” But you miss it when it’s absent.

We were invited to dinner with one of Carole’s fellow art teachers. They lived in a fairly new housing development, where all the houses were cookie cutter matches, up and down the streets, with the streets lined up-and-down the newly developed Arizona desert. Urbanization was filling up the outskirts of Phoenix like water filling up a pot. 

Our hosts were a very nice young couple with two kids; Carole and Margaret were friends over years of teaching in the sprawling Peoria Unified School District and we both knew Margaret and Curt well. But this was the first time we had come to their house. It was a shock. 

Through the whole house, there was not a single picture on the walls. Not a clock, nor children’s painting on the fridge, nor framed Bible verse — not even an Olan Mills family photograph with the stiff smiles and Sunday dress-up clothing. Nothing. An empty room is spooky.

I don’t think I’d ever seen a house so blank. It was as if they had just moved in and packing boxes were stacked in the corner, except there were no boxes and they’d lived in the house for years. There was a full set of furniture and curtains on the windows, but no art. All the more surprising since Margaret was an art teacher. 

Even cheap motels put decorations on the walls. 

This is not to complain about Margaret and Curt. The dinner was fine and we had a great night together. But the house haunted me afterwards. A house with blank walls is a house without a soul. You feel it in the gut. A void, an emptiness. 

Something on the wall seems almost instinctual, from the cave walls of Altamira to the poster of Farrah Fawcett taped up in the dorm room. If nature abhors a vacuum, house cannot abide a blank expanse of plasterboard. Something — please, something. A framed halftone image from Target of a tree or a cliched Parisian street scene. Something.

In Medieval Jewish folklore, a golem is a clay statue that comes to life when a magic incantation is inserted into its mouth. And so a home becomes alive when a painting or photograph is hung above the sofa or piano. 

When I moved into my first rented house, after leaving the college dorm, I hung photographs on the wall and a color-field painting made by Doug Feeney, a fellow collegian. I even put a frame around the wall phone, as if it were a Duchampian ready-made. Wasn’t I clever. 

Later, in another house, I filled the entire dining room wall, from top to bottom, with photos I made of all our friends. There must have been 30 or 40 pictures there. I couldn’t afford matting and frames, so they were all scattered across the wall, held up with masking tape. They kept us company. Because I was a photographer, most of the art in the houses I have lived in were decorated with my own work. But a good deal of the work that hung was traded for with other artists. This is a great thing about having artist friends and about making art. We mix and match. I now have enough art to fill a gallery. 

I most value art made by my brother, who is a working artist, and by my late wife, Carole, who was a visionary. She made a painting of the tree at night that grew outside our Phoenix house; it is surrounded by stars and the bluest dark sky I’ve ever seen. It now resides over our dining table, sharing the wall with an embroidered copy of a detail of the Unicorn Tapestries from the Museum of Medieval Art in Paris. 

The tree painting is not only a fragment of Carole’s soul remaining with me after her death, it is a window into the larger world she had access to. 

And that is one of the functions of art in the home. For many, it is a photograph of the family or of the parents or grandparents. It is a reminder of our unbreakable bond with the past — both our growing up and our ancestors. 

In old British manor houses, the walls are covered with the stiff, starchy paintings of lineage going back centuries. “That was the third Marquis of Snotsbury. He was hanged as a horsethief.” Thieves are hanged; artwork is hung. 

Sometimes the art is a souvenir of someplace that was meaningful to us: that trip to London or the landscape or our childhood. Sometimes, it is just a pretty picture. For my religious grandmother, it was praying hands and scriptural verses. We find meaning and display it. 

Unfortunately, the art in the house is often just a pro forma accessory, something perhaps picked out by an interior designer. Such art usually offers no emotional connection, just the fulfillment of a middle class expectation. The decor in such cases is usually not more than tchotchkes — something merely to fill the vacuum. Very tasteful — but soulless. 

(I remember that time in college when I painted a large abstract canvas in reds and ochers and gave it to my parents to hang over their sofa. It stayed there perhaps a year. But then, my mother asked me if I could do another one to replace it, one in blues and greens that would better match the room’s decor. I did it for them, after all, they were my parents. But I was miffed. I have rebelled against anything “matching” ever since.)

The interior design impulse means that for some, a concatenation of artwork, collected from various sources over years, is simply not unified enough. It really helps such an impulse if you are an artist yourself and can fill the house with your own artwork. Then it all hangs together. 

And, as I said, most of the art in my house is by me, but there is no unity at all. That is not a quality I admire. I love diversity — a kind of Postmodern mix of everything. I have Hopi pottery, African Tsi-Waras, a Ganesh of sandalwood and a bronze Shiva Nataraja. 

There is some Blue Willow crockery and a gorgeous giant etching made by Carole’s childhood friend, Ruth Haggerty. 

A snow scene by Georgia artist James Lyle. A vintage cookie jar in the rotund shape of a G.I., that we named “Urnie.” And a life-size copy of the Venus of Willendorf made by Tempe artist and friend Bill Tonnesen. 

In the bedroom is a gigantic painting of an abstract nude by Virginia painter Steve Wolf. 

And over my computer is a framed drawing of me made by my granddaughter Carol Lily Cloos when she was 8 or 9. 

And next to my computer, at eye level so I can look at it every day, is a pencil drawing that Carole made of a dead starling. It is resonant in ways that make me weep. 

Over the piano is a large painting by my brother, Craig, that is one of his typical flying antelopes, and in the bathroom there is his “portrait” of our late lamented cat, Ruthie, complete with spaying scar on belly. There is also a Japanese Ukiyo-e print of two graceful women in the snow, under an umbrella. So, there is no order or reason, just a collection of things I love. 

I have several dozen of my own photographs that I framed and showed at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, and now I have them stored away, but I retrieve a group and I switch them out occasionally on the walls. Currently, most of them hanging in the hall, office and bedrooms are images of Monet’s gardens at Giverny. 

All of them give character to the house, and more to the point, to life lived in the house. The house isn’t just a group of walls, doors and windows, but a personality.