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, 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.