Reflections on Taste

Article excerpt

Not long ago, I enjoyed a spirited conversation with a highly perceptive and well-informed observer of our contemporary cultural landscape--a conversation mostly concerned with the quality of art criticism as practiced today in the principal forums of informed opinion: university lecture halls and scholarly journals. My friend and I readily agreed that the cultural terrain we surveyed was disappointing, to say the least: a barren and monochrome landscape, We thus echoed a familiar lament, repeated often over the years, he, in far more articulate terms than I.

As I later reconsidered some of the points we discussed, it occurred to me that a contributing factor to the ills that we were so strenuously deploring was the absence, in contemporary criticism, of one important ingredient. Simply put, it seemed that the role of taste--yes, taste--had so dramatically diminished in the dialogue on art that it had virtually disappeared. Taste no longer an ingredient of art criticism? ... Impossible. Surely my memory was again playing tricks on me. How could taste not be accounted for in any serious discourse dealing with artistic expression? And yet, try as I might, only irrelevant recent references came to mind: the oddly titled exhibition A Taste of Angels, Gerald Reitlinger's rather too venal Economics of Taste, and the impossibly snobbish display of Princely Taste. No doubt about it; taste was no longer common currency in today's cultural bazaar. Undeterred, I continued my search.

It was like trying to locate an old and trusted friend and suddenly realizing he had dropped from sight: no address, no telephone listing, not even a mention in the school alumni register. Since I had always regarded taste as an indispensable companion in my encounters with art, this disappearance represented a substantial loss. Relying on taste as a companion made these encounters--superficial as they may have been--certainly more enjoyable and, to some extent, a great deal easier. Did something on a gallery wall not agree with me? ... I could blame my trusty guide--taste--or a momentary desertion thereof. Just like a powerful serum, taste provided immunity against the unwelcome onslaughts of the ever more aggressive viruses circulating in the contemporary art world. Taste was also a vanity that allowed me to feel superior, yet, at the same time, provided a shield behind which to hide my considerable ignorance. Its absence, now, posed a real problem for anyone like me, whose early art-awareness had been nurtured in the mid-twentieth century by a combination of family tradition and academic training.

How, then, can taste be defined in this context? In its simplest terms, I would compare it to an indicating arrow. The magnetic fields to which this arrow responds are constituted by accretions of heredity, experience, tutoring and, occasionally, enlightened awareness. Taste, therefore, possesses no true-north, as in a compass, but it most emphatically does have direction--better yet, directions. And these directions are the vectors of our aesthetic inclinations; they condition our preferences and responses. Without this essential GPS, significant dialogue in matters of art cannot continue. Or so I thought. Yet there was no denying that, yes indeed, taste was no longer an issue. Definitely gone. Perhaps forgotten? Replaced? No, much worse ... irreparably unfashionable ... its passing unmourned.

The reasons for this demise are not difficult to enumerate. Principal among them are the connotations associated with the word itself. Taste, after all, implies that the preferences and responses prompted by one person's aesthetic inclinations may well be different from another's. The directional arrows of which I spoke may, indeed, legitimately point to opposite poles, and yet these poles may be perfectly equidistant and equivalent. That's fine; different tastes, same values. But, then again, they might not. If so, could not one direction be truer than another? …