Popular Culture and the Death of "Good Taste"

By Rollin, Roger B. | National Forum, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Popular Culture and the Death of "Good Taste"


Rollin, Roger B., National Forum


"The enemy of art is what passes for good taste." --Walter Hill

When people learn that I teach a college course in popular culture, their responses often go something like this: "What in the world is an English professor doing teaching Batman [or Schwarzenegger movies or Stephen King novels or rap]?"

Behind such questions lie several assumptions. One is that English professors are supposed to teach "the good stuff" (that is, the stuff all of us were forced to read in school) and not the stuff with which we regularly entertain ourselves. Related assumptions are that there are "high culture" and "low culture," "art" and "trash," and that the standards for these are fixed, clear, and knowable--at least to "experts" like English professors. Finally, such questions assume that college courses should be devoted solely to what that high priest of Good Taste, Matthew Arnold, referred to as "the best that has been thought and said"--and not to what is listed in the entertainment section.

A strong argument can be made for the serious study of popular culture, and that argument is explicitly or implicitly made in every article in this issue of National Forum. Here, however, shall focus on a single aspect of that argument, albeit a fundamental one: that our tendency to rank cultural artifacts on the basis of their supposed artistic quality (as determined by those possesssing Good Taste) is philosophically unsound and educationally counterproductive; consequently, condemnations of popular culture and its study on the basis of aesthetic evaluation--"You mean you actually study that junk?"--are misguided. My title, therefore, introduces, not a eulogy, but a polemic, for I come, not to praise Good Taste, but. to bury it. Specifically, I shall argue that Good Taste is an idea whose time has passed, that whatever limited usefulness it may have had in the past has long since been outlived. Moreover, I shall argue that Good Taste is an idea that probably has done more harm than good, and that, as a philosophical and aesthetic concept, it deserves to be mercifully interred.

Such claims quite naturally will meet with resistance on the part of those who believe that good taste, like God, is eternal. For evidence of my argument's perversity they can call upon the common wisdom (which may be no wiser for being common, however) that some individuals obviously possess good taste and others just as obviously lack it. Implicit in this popular view of good taste is the idea that it is some kind of universal phenomenon, that somehow, in the beginning God made good taste and saw that it was, indeed, good.

The History of Good Taste

In fact, as a formal concept good taste is of relatively recent origin, no more than a few hundred years old. The Oxford English Dictionary implies a notion of "good taste" in its definition of "taste:" "the sense of what is appropriate, harmonious, or beautiful; [especially] discernment and appreciation of what is beautiful in nature or art; [specifically] the faculty of perceiving and applying what is excellent in art, literature, and the like." The earliest use "taste" in this sense appears in 1671, in John Milton's Paradise Regained. In the latter part of this "brief epic," the Son of God, after rejecting Satan's temptation of the glory that was Greek literature, gives a better review to Hebrew poetry, "Siloa's songs, to all true tasts excelling." The OED cites a less decorous use of the word twenty-three years later, in William Congreve's comedy The Double-Dealer: "No, no, hang him, he has no Taste."

Some evidence exists that the idea of good taste as the capacity for making approved aesthetic judgments had been evolving in Britain somewhat earlier, even though the term itself was not so employed. For example, England's preeminent man of letters in the earlier seventeenth century, Ben Jonson, had complained, "Nothing in our age..is more preposterous than the running judgments upon poetry and poets; when we shall hear those things commended. …

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