Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Taste

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Taste

Article excerpt

Taste in a physical sense has been in English since C13, though its earliest meaning was wider than tasting with the mouth and aver to the modern touch or feel. It came from fw taster, oF, tostare, IT-feel, handle, touch. A predominant association with the mouth was evident from C14, but the more general meaning survived, for a time as itself but mainly by metaphorical extension. "Good toast" in the sense of good understanding is recorded from 1425 The word became significant and difficult ... in Cub, when it was capitalized as a general quality: "the correcting of their Taste, or Relish in the concerns of Life" (Shaftesbury).... The became equivalent to discrimination: 'the word Taste ... means that quick discerning faculty or power of the mind by which we accurately distinguish the good, bad, or indifferent (Barry, 1784).

Raymond Williams, Keywords

Not surprisingly, Raymond William, has little use for the eighteenth-century sense of taste as discrimination, a mental faculty that can (and should) be trained by education and example. The Den tells us-in a definition Williams omits-that taste was originally equivalent to test "a trial, test, examination;' as in Lear's speech (1.2.47), "I hope for my brother's justification he wrote this but as an essay, or taste of my Virtue." The notion that taste is a kind of test of one's ability to make judgments was bound to become a bugbear for a Marxist critic like Williams, for whom the very notion that "correct" taste can be acquired by the right kind of training represents nothing but the imposition of class privilege. "The idea of taste," writes Williams, "cannot now be separated from the idea of the CONSUMER ... exercising and subsequently showing his taste" (315).

Indeed, late twentieth -century theory has witnessed a wholesale deconstruction of the notion of good taste. For Marxist critics like Janet Wolff and Terry Eagleton, taste is no more than "the power of certain classes and nations to select cultural artifacts for special attention and to denigrate as base or savage the artifacts both of popular, nonelite provenance and of alien cultures."' And Pierre Bourdieu offers a devastating critique of taste in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984). As a practical sociologist, Bourdieu was able to demonstrate in this study and elsewhere that taste is never "natural"; it is always socially produced. What e call good taste in an, fashion or food is only that which is preferred by the dominant social classes. Enjoyment of classical music, by this account, is no different from the taste for fine wines or cuisine-a marker of a cultural elite. Accordingly, discussions of taste must shift from statements like "John has no taste when it comes to modern painting "to the analysis of the actual social, national, and gender determinants of taste in a given time and place. In the modern world, Bourdieu argues, systems of domination find expression in virtually all areas of cultural practice, including preferences in dress, sports, food, and music, as well as literature. "Taste," Bourdieu concludes, "classifies and it classifies the classifier" (Johnson 1-2).

As a demonstration of who likes what art or who listens to what music and why, Bourdieu's account is largely convincing. But its implication that there is therefore nothing inherently artistic, nothing that makes one work of art more successful than another flies in the face of simple common sense. For, like it or not, there is simply no way of talking about poetry or painting, architecture or fashion design without resorting to expressions of taste and the making of judgments. And even if cultural conditioning does play a major role in the creation of taste, those so conditioned continue to want to debate the virtues and shortcomings of this or that artwork and by no means agree even when they do belong to the same class and have undergone the same education. Deviance, it seems, is more interesting to most of us than group identification: one wants to know, for example, why John Ashbery prefers the Thomas Lovell Beddoes of Death's Jest Book to Byron or Shelley, or why William Carlos Williams never quite caught on in England. …

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