in Opinion | 01 OCT 06
Featured in
Issue 102

Le Goût des Autres

Since the 17th century, taste has been integral to the discourse surrounding aesthetics, class, culture, gender and sexuality. Has it become an anachronism?

in Opinion | 01 OCT 06

I’m not saying that popular taste is bad so that what’s left over from the bad taste is good: I’m saying that what’s left over is probably bad, but if you can take it and make it good or at least interesting, then you’re not wasting as much as you would otherwise.
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1975)

I like: trains, bicycles, pears, coffee (though not cappuccino), Gertrude Stein, Ben Marcus, Marie Darrieussecq, tarte tatin, propelling pencils, the Dewey Decimal Classification, The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Katharine Hepburn, Joan Didion, Maeve Brennan, Roxy Music, Althea & Donna, Matmos, The Sugababes, Monotype Perpetua, Ian Penman, nostalgic ex-smokers, John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essais (1603), bobbed hair, Zugzwang (almost complete) (2006) by Jeremy Millar, ‘surd’, ‘parse’, ‘finagle’, cocktails at l’Archiduc, Christmas, John Donne, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Nina Katchadourian’s Accent Elimination (2005), the old bank building at Passaic in New Jersey, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975), Frankie Howerd, Germaine Greer in D.A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall (1979), cinnamon-flavoured anything, the London Library, RB par RB, early winter evenings in Dublin, hats on women etc.

Could there be a critical trope less tolerated, now, than the unadorned litany of tastes and distastes? The dumb list smacks too easily of the ins and outs of style-mag trend-scouring, or recalls too readily the fine distinctions conjured by Nancy Mitford’s essay ‘The English Aristocracy’ (1954), with its anatomizing of social discourse into ‘U’ and ‘non-U’. The list may be a reminder of a certain critical responsibility: the duty to judge that I feel I ought to live up to, and can never quite fulfil. But it is at the same time so banal, so unsophisticated a form (an obtuse sort of syntax: one damn thing after another) that I resist it with every sinew of what I suppose I must call, begging the question, my sensibility.
Here is a botched snapshot of my taste; already, it looks all wrong, as if I’ve cropped all the subjects’ heads and left in only crumpled party clothes and bad props. How embarrassing is the list? It could be worse: I could have tried harder, or not at all, to impress. The first list is a compromise between this week’s obsessions and a few long-standing loves. The second, the list of my current dislikes, will be harder to compose: I can forgive myself an ordinary enthusiasm but not, perhaps, a predictable animus. (‘Taste’, wrote Paul Valéry, ‘is made of a thousand distastes’.)

The ‘man of taste’ is an invention of the 17th century. His quest, so the earliest theorists seem to agree, is for an aesthetic mean: a fine line between nature and artifice. Jean de La Bruyère, in his Characters (1688), writes that ‘there is in art a point of perfection, as there is in Nature one of goodness and completeness. Anyone who feels this and loves it possesses a perfect taste; but he who is not sensible of it, and loves what is short of that point or beyond it, is wanting in taste.’ The Earl of Shaftesbury, in 1712, refines the point: taste subsists between crudeness and pedantry, naivety and self-consciousness. Our untutored affects must be worked up into mature judgements: ‘the great business in this is to correct our taste. For whither will not taste lead us?’ But excessive learning is perhaps the true enemy of good taste: an ‘artificial, witty, far-fetched, refined, hypercritical taste […] is the worst in the world’.
Almost immediately the logic of taste becomes worryingly involuted: how to maintain an unselfconscious sensibility except by constant vigilance? How to ensure the rigour of one’s standards except by allowing them to lapse on occasion? Good taste starts to look like a matter of knowing when to embrace bad taste.

For the 18th century the discourse of taste is subject to some debilitating contradictions. David Hume expresses the problem (confidently at first) in his essay ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ (1757): ‘the sentiments of men often differ with regard to beauty and deformity of all kinds, even while their general discourse is the same.’ The language of admiration and revulsion seems irrevocably sundered. But it’s not merely a matter of usage: most of us, says Hume, possess ‘organs of internal sensation’ that are so defective or vitiated that we judge without sensitivity or distinction. We must trust instead to those of strong sense and delicate sentiment, whose judgments are leavened by experience. It seems we have to develop a taste in critics; but how to spot these paragons of sensibility? Hume’s argument unravels into paradox: becomes, he freely allows, ‘embarrassing’. The idea of taste seems condemned to a circular logic: even in its most sophisticated philosophical formulations its proponents end up arguing, despite themselves, that you either have it or you don’t. Taste, as Shaftesbury had already admitted, reluctantly resorting to French, is a sort of je ne sais quoi: ‘though this not in our language: nor I hope ever will’. (At every stage the developing discourse on taste mirrors the rise of European nationalism.)

Ghosting the entire aesthetics of taste for three centuries is the unacknowledged subject of class. If taste, as Roland Barthes writes, is a question of declaring ‘that my body is not the same as yours’, what is lost at that moment is all sense of the body as labouring or luxuriating, aristocratic or proletarian. Taste is posited as a mere fact of (human) nature. To which the naive question ‘who decides?’ is the traditional response. Who are any of us to dictate what is beautiful, what not? (Here too is the crude formulation of the intimate relationship between taste and democracy: the whole politico-aesthetic problematic of the sensus communis.) Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), by far the most thorough reflection on taste in a century that mostly scorned the term, is not an answer to this innocent question but a demonstration that the rules and hierarchies we inhabit or rail against are all systemic, not down to some lofty pronouncements by selected aesthetic gatekeepers: ‘whereas the ideology of charisma regards taste in legitimate culture as a gift of nature, scientific observation shows that cultural needs are the result of upbringing and education.’
Is there a cultural realm where this insight is not now accepted as a given? Not only is it pretty much impossible to use the word ‘taste’ without bringing to mind Bourdieu’s study (a volume, by the way, that deploys throughout a distinction, at least verbally, between popular and ‘legitimate’ culture that now seems unthinkable), but the assumption that all critical judgements – private, institutional, academic, journalistic – come freighted with political interest, is the starting-point for every consideration of art and culture today, up to and including the pronouncements of publicists and politicians. (The pronouncement, as if we need to remind ourselves, is the guarantee of not having to do anything about the politics.) But to say that taste is always politics disguised is not to say that it is always and only politics disguised: despite the pressing knowledge that my taste is ideologically implicated (always this language of guilt), my unperverted sentiments, as Hume would put it, must have gone somewhere. Where, as they say, is the love?

If taste appears to vanish, in the 20th century, as a reputable aesthetic category, in fact it returns, inverted. In 1671 Mme de Sévigné had written of her shameful attraction to a trashy new genre, the novel; in A Season in Hell (1873) Arthur Rimbaud declared his love of cheap prints, old operas and grandmother’s novels. In the last century such knowing acquires a name – camp – and a programmatic formulation in Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Notes on Camp’ (1964): ‘camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism […] Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character”.’ In some sense camp is also the last twitch of the idea of taste, the final flourishing of a frank aesthetic of distinction, even as it affects to undo any such hierarchy. The problem, four decades on from Sontag’s essay, is that camp, under the lucrative rubric of an ill-defined ‘irony’, is so generalized as to be meaningless.
Take the notion of ‘guilty pleasures’: the veneration of ‘bad’ musical taste as cultural value, first the localized preserve of a few clubs and blogs, now so diffused as to warrant a cover story from a determinedly mainstream British music magazine such as Q. It’s clear in the last context that an ironic enthusiasm for Supertramp, ELO, Meatloaf et al. is talked up only to ensure that we don’t notice the unalloyed, screaming kitsch of the ‘real’ music therein: Muse, Pearl Jam, Arctic Monkeys. But this enfeebled version of camp also ensures its proponents no longer have to risk actually loving or despising anything at all. In this they resemble the militant-geek advocates of Wyatting: the practice (named after Robert Wyatt’s 1991 album Dondestan) of booby-trapping a public juke-box with ‘unlistenable’ music. Wyatting, as Simon Reynolds has put it, is ‘a burgeoning cruel sport among hipsters – squarebaiting – or perhaps, in a more charitable reading, a desperate intifada-like resistance to the tyranny of Pop and/or Indie Middlebrow’. But the Wyatters, in their Modernist zeal, seem to have forgotten just how conflicted the two sides of their fancied aesthetic divide actually are: ‘Pop’ in fact a repository of unwarranted interference, ‘Noise’ itself a consoling (in the end, nostalgic) retreat for the listener too out of touch to risk succumbing to the wrong Pop seduction. In such an etiolated aesthetic scene the only tasteful thing left to do is to love Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music with all the passing lightness one usually reserves for a killer Sugababes track.

What becomes of taste at the extremity of its historical relevance? Is speaking of ‘my taste’ a mere embarrassment: an unthinking appeal to covert élitisms, best left to the lifestyle pages of broadsheet newspapers? Or worse: a studied anachronism designed to affront the kind of criticism that recoils before such uninflected, unreflective language? (If declaring my taste is just a provocation, then I’m mired in all the old antinomies again.)
I want to hang onto the word at least – this without, I now realize, even addressing the precise sensual, culinary analogy that’s been at work all along. (A project that would require us to read the 400-odd pages of Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste of 1825 and start truly paying attention to how we feel before a work of art: dry-mouthed or drooling, shaken or stirred.) I want to keep the sense of what Thomas Docherty, in his recent book Aesthetic Democracy (2006), has called ‘spirited occasionalism’: the ‘primacy of an aesthetic experience […] a non-quantifiable, non-computable (untheorized) sensibility’. I want (or maybe I’d just like) an expression of taste – and therefore, a style of criticism – that is sober, wry, inventive and lyrical about the moment I start loving or hating the object in front of me.
This dreamed (impossible, no doubt) taste would be something like a rigorous susceptibility, a giving in – to experience, languor, shock, provocation – that would somehow be shadowed, and not undone, tempered or even intensified, by thought. A way of saying (however discreetly or violently it might need to be said: no holding back rhetorically or intellectually) just exactly how different my body is from yours. The danger, of course, is that in my body’s haste or lassitude, my tractable, stubborn or naive nature, I just end up writing another list.

I don’t like: cars, buses, peaches, prawns, tea (except, maybe, bubble tea), bank holidays, ballpoint pens, D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Martin Amis (why always, in my mind, these three together? Writers overestimated by the English …), the Library of Congress Classification, Fight Club (1999), Audrey Hepburn, Hunter S. Thompson, The Beatles, Radiohead, Arctic Monkeys, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Martin Parr, interactive anything, zealous ex-smokers, zeal in general, the British Library, John Carey, The Today Programme, Michel Houellebecq, heights (or rather, edges), hats on men etc.

Brian Dillon’s memoir, In The Dark Room, won the Irish Book Awards non-fiction prize 2006.