There is an old Latin saying that goes “de gustibus non est disputandum”. Its meaning would be rendered in English by “there is no arguing about taste.” It is not a descriptive statement about the way people behave. If it were it would be palpable nonsense. People argue about taste all the time:
“You put ketchup on your toast?”
“How can you stand listening to that kind of music?”
”She has horrible taste in men!”
You hear variations of these questions and statements every day. Taste is one of the things people are most likely to disagree about and argue over.
The purpose of the Latin saying, is not to deny this reality but to declare that arguments of this nature are pointless. Taste is personal and subjective. People like what they like and dislike what they dislike and you are not going to argue them into changing their likes and dislikes.
The saying and the perspective on taste which it expresses have been around for quite some time. We do not know who coined the Latin expression although it is usually believed to date back to the late Middle Ages.
Is the saying true?
It is more important today than ever before that we ask that question. For the idea that everything in the realm of taste lies beyond the realm of that which can be legitimately judged and criticized by others has come to be a very powerful idea. As that notion has become more widely accepted, more and more elements of our everyday existence, particularly those which are considered to belong to “culture”, have been relegated to the realm of taste.
The first step in determining whether or not it is in fact true that taste is entirely subjective and not a matter for legitimate criticism is to distinguish between the different ways in which we speak of taste. We will consider three basic senses to the word taste, the first two of which are closely related to each other and could be spoken of as “literal” taste, the third of which is a metaphorical extension of the meaning of the second.
In the first and most basic sense we use the word taste to refer to a physical sense in which information is collected by the body and carried to the brain. This is the taste which is akin to sight, hearing, smell and touch. Located in the tongue it tells the brain whether food is sweet or salty, spicy or bland, sour or bitter.
After this information passes from the tongue to the brain, our mind processes it and passes judgement on whether or not we like the food. As we experience different flavours, patterns form in how we evaluate them. We develop preferences for foods which taste a certain way and aversions to others. These patterns of preferences we also refer to as tastes.
It is not only the information that we receive from our taste buds that we evaluate and form likes and dislikes over. We do the same with information we receive from our eyes and ears. We look to the east as the sun is setting, see the various shades of red, yellow, and orange that form in the sky, and liking what we see, we call it beautiful. Conversely, we walk along the sidewalk and all of a sudden a car comes racing down the street at highway speeds, swerves out of control and hits a hydro pole, and the driver is propelled through the windshield. The sight of his mangled, bloody, carcass repels us, and we use words like ugly, gruesome, and hideous to describe it. We like the sound of the birds singing in the tree outside our window. We dislike the sound of fingernails drawn across a chalkboard.
While we generally don’t think of our reaction to those types of sights and sounds as tastes we do consider our evaluation of sights and sounds which are the products of human creativity to be tastes. We look at Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, the Reims Cathedral and the Venus de Milo and, taken away by their beauty, we pronounce them to be among the greatest achievements of man’s creativity in the history of the world. Or we listen to J. S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”, W. A. Mozart’s Mass No. 17 in C-Minor, “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” from Joseph Haydn’s The Creation, and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria and make a similar evaluation of the acoustical beauty of these masterpieces.
Then again we might look at Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista and be sickened, be angered by the emptiness of the void which is John Cage’s 4’33", or be absolutely appalled at the way self-indulgent, self-destructive hedonism is celebrated in lyrics sung to computer-generated formulaic tunes in the latest hits by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga or Ke$ha.
All of these are tastes.
This final, extended sense of the word taste is quite broad and covers more than just the way we think about visual art and music. It also includes our likes and dislikes when it comes to literature and theatre, and more recently television and the movies.
It is important that we recognize that these different meanings of the word taste are related to each other. Why do we describe our likes and dislikes with regards to movies, music, and books as “tastes”? We do so because they are judgements which are of a similar nature to those we form about our food. Some people develop a preference for sweet flavours over salty ones, others develop the opposite preference. Similarly some people prefer romantic comedies over spy thrillers while it is the other way around for others. The concept of taste in matters of culture is derived from the concept of taste with regards to food.
What does this tell us about the question of the subjectivity of taste?
Note that while our tastes in food are undoubtedly subjective they are based upon an objective element. When one person says “I like roast chicken with mashed potatoes” and another person responds with “I prefer fried chicken and potato salad” both statements are subjective judgements. When, however, someone says “honey is sweet” and another person says “olives are salty” they are making statements which are objective.
Both sets of statements express something about taste. What makes the one set objective and the other subjective?
An objective statement attributes a quality to something which can be verified or falsified by other people. “Sugar is sweet” says something about sugar which we can all experience for ourselves by tasting it. Everybody experiences the taste of sugar as sweet unless there is something wrong with their taste buds.
A subjective statement, on the other hand, is a statement about how you experience something which other people cannot enter into, although they might have their own similar experiences. When you say “I like Brussels sprouts” no other person can test the truth of the statement because while someone else might eat Brussels sprouts to determine whether or not he likes them, he cannot enter into your experience of Brussels sprouts to determine whether or not you like them. Now you might grimace while eating Brussels sprouts giving us cause to doubt and question the veracity of what you say. In that case, however, we doubt because your testimony contradicts itself. Your facial expressions and your words are saying two different things. Your actual experience of Brussels sprouts we cannot directly evaluate – only your testimony as to that experience.
The cause of objective tastes – the salty taste of potato chips or the sweet taste in ice cream – is found in the foods themselves, which is why if our senses of taste are all functioning normally, we agree as to what those tastes are. The causes of subjective tastes – whether we like or dislike bologna sandwiches or whether we like them more or less than we like peanut butter sandwiches – are found within us. This is why taste in the sense of our hierarchy of likes and dislikes differs from person to person. People are different and their differences affect and are reflected in what they like and dislike.
Now if you like hot dogs loaded with sauerkraut, pickles, and hot peppers you are going to think other people should like them too. That is the very nature of liking something. When you say “I like spaghetti and meatballs” what you are saying is you have judged the experience of eating spaghetti and meatballs to be an agreeable experience. Ordinarily, when people find an experience to be agreeable they wish others to share it as well, and when they find an experience to be disagreeable they wish others to avoid it. It is true that we often hear people say “Ew, this is disgusting, here try it” but when people say this they are looking for confirmation of their own evaluation and expect the other person to agree with them.
There is nothing wrong with thinking that what you like other people ought to like as well and that what you dislike should be disliked by others. If we did not think this way, if our lists of what we like and dislike were completely separated from our judgements of what other people ought to like and dislike, we would be completely isolated from others. Communication and sharing, which are fundamental elements of the cooperation between human beings necessary for us to live together in communities and societies, would be virtually impossible if we did not have an expectation that other people would like the same things we like.
There are different ways in which we can draw expectations from our own tastes as to how other people will like or dislike certain things. Lets say that you really like banana milkshakes. From this you can conclude that other people will like them as well. You might, however, draw the conclusion that everybody will like them. The first conclusion is entirely reasonable and appropriate. The second conclusion is less justifiable because it cannot be drawn without losing sight of the fact that people differ from each other.
There is also the possibility of a third conclusion. The third conclusion is that because you like banana milkshakes other people ought to like them as well. If you draw this conclusion you do not make the same mistake as someone who would draw the second conclusion. You recognize that people are different and that not all people will like the same things. Your conclusion, however, is radically different from the first two conclusions because it is a judgement about what other people ought to like rather than whether or not they will like it.
If you draw the first and most reasonable conclusion you might be inspired to act upon it in a number of ways. You might go around telling your family and friends how good banana milkshakes are because you do not wish them to miss out on something you have enjoyed and which they might potentially enjoy as well. Or you might open a banana milkshake shop in the hopes of turning your conviction that others will also like what you enjoy yourself into a profitable venture. There is nothing wrong with behaving in either of these ways.
If you draw the third conclusion, however, you might decide to try and make people like what you think they ought to like. You would not succeed. The most you could accomplish by, for example, telling people that they must like banana milkshakes or you will club them over the head, is getting them to all say they like banana milkshakes when in your presence. That does not mean that they will actually like them and more likely than not your acting in this way will in fact turn people off of banana milkshakes.
It is unlikely that you would go to the extreme of using coercive force to try and make people like banana milkshakes. People form likes and dislikes, however, about a wide spectrum of different things and when their likes and dislikes clash with another person’s there is potential for disagreement to escalate into violence. It is for this reason that we encourage the quality of civility among people. Part of that quality, involves reflecting upon the fact that no two persons are exactly alike and that if members of a community are going to live together in peace, harmony, and cooperation they will have to allow each other to differ from themselves. Out of this, the idea enshrined in the Latin expression we have been considering, arose.
Just as, however, the reasonable expectation that others will like what I like can be taken to the unhealthy extreme of “others must like what I like”, so we can take the idea that taste is subjective too far. We can say that taste is entirely subjective and does not contain an objective element. We can say that the concepts of “should” or “ought” ought never to be applied to taste. In both cases we have taken the subjectivity of taste too far.
If taste were entirely subjective then the statement “vanilla ice cream may be sweet to you but to me it salty and spicy” would be a valid statement instead of blithering nonsense. “I like vanilla ice cream” is a subjective statement. “Vanilla ice cream is sweet” is not.
Now someone might say “yes, that is true of taste concerning food, but taste concerning art, literature, or music is different”.
That, however, is manifestly not true.
There are statements about our artistic and cultural tastes which are clearly subjective. One person might say “I like Paolo Uccello’s triptych on The Battle of San Romano” to which another person might respond “Well, I prefer Pablo Picasso’s Guernica”. Or someone might express admiration for Titian’s Venus of Urbino to another person who replies by stating his preference for Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. I like Caravaggio’s The Card Sharps. You, on the other hand, might like C. M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker series. These are all subjective statements because no matter who is making them, or which painting is preferred, they are all “I like” statements which are statements about the person doing the liking and not about the painting which is liked.
Yet these are obviously not the only kinds of statements which can be made about art. We can also objectively discuss the works of art themselves. Pages upon pages have been written about each of the paintings mentioned above which do just that. Nor, are the two kinds of statements unconnected with each other. If I say “I like strawberries” I am saying something about myself and if I say “strawberries are sweet” I am saying something about strawberries, but what I say about myself is partially derived from what I say about the strawberries, because the sweetness of the strawberries is one reason why I like them. Similarly, when I praise the religious theme, the use of colour, and the craftsmanship in the Ghent altarpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck these form part of the reason why I like the piece.
Just as it is not true that there is no objective element to artistic and cultural taste neither is it the case that we should never speak of tastes in terms of “ought” or “should”. While taste should not be enforced with coercion it is proper for us to speak of things we ought to like and things we ought to dislike. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it is better for us to like certain things than to like other things.
Consider our tastes in food. One person prefers meals which are home-cooked and nutritionally balanced. Another person prefers to eat in the kind of restaurant where you sit down and wait while your meal is cooked and a server brings it to you. A third person gets most of his meals from burger joints, pizza parlours, fried chicken places and other fast food restaurants. Finally, a fourth person seems to survive entirely on a diet of potato chips, soda pop, and chocolate bars.
Can we say that each of these preferences is equal to the others and that none of them is a better taste than any of the others?
Of course not. The first person’s taste is the best and the second person’s taste is second best. While the third person’s taste is bad the fourth person’s is even worse.
What is the basis of this judgement?
A number of factors contribute to it. The quality of the food and the method of preparation is one factor. Fast food and junk food are mass produced to be sold cheaply in large quantities. Quality is always sacrificed when things are produced in this manner. The nutritional value and effects upon health are other factors. The flavour of the food is also a factor. While some might argue that this is part of the subjective element of taste the flavour of a home cooked meal tends to be far superior to that of junk food which relies upon sugar, salt, and various chemicals to produce its very limited range of flavours.
This does not mean that we should only ever eat home cooked meals or that we should pass a law saying that people must only ever eat home cooked meals. It means that the person who shows a persistent preference for home cooking has good taste while the person who shows a persistent preference for junk food has bad taste.
The same thing is true of cultural tastes. There is good taste and there is bad taste. Or, more accurately, there are various degrees of better and worse tastes.
What is it we are judging to be good or bad, or better or worse, when we classify tastes in this way?
It is our ability to properly distinguish between the good and the bad, or between the better and the worse. Our discernment in other words. It can also be the extent to which our personal likes and dislikes reflect our discernment.
Good taste in food is the ability to distinguish between food which is nutritious, delicious, fresh, and well prepared and food which is unhealthy, mass produced, and quickly prepared and to identify the former as being better than the latter. It is also a preference for the former over the latter. Bad taste in food can refer either to a lack of discernment about which foods are better than others or a pattern of preferring the worse foods over the better.
Good taste in culture is both the ability to rightly distinguish between what is good and bad in culture and a preference for the good over the bad.
Can good and bad, or better and worse, be distinguished in literature, music, and art?
Of course they can. Natural talent is not equally distributed among artists. Some artists are tremendously talented others have only a little talent. All other considerations being equal, the works of artists with more talent will be superior to the works of artists with less talent. But other considerations are not equal. Training also contributes to the quality of art. Some artists are apprenticed, others are trained in schools, and others are self-taught. These things make a difference. So does the amount of effort an artist puts into his work. One artist may painstakingly labour over every detail of his work while another slaps his paint onto the canvas with only a minimal attention to detail. All of these factors together contribute to the quality of art.
These are not the only criteria by which we can distinguish the good and the bad in culture. Just as some foods promote good health while others tend to be unhealthy so culture can have a good or a bad effect on us. Some literature, music, and art encourages us to worship our Creator and be thankful for His many blessings, inspires feelings of piety towards God, our family, and our country, and promotes virtuous behavior. Other literature, music, and art does the exact opposite of all of this.
Culture can be good in one sense and bad in the other. Literature and music can have an entirely wholesome message yet be uninspired, dull, and boring. Or it can be original and exciting and at the same time subversive and evil.
Culture can also be good in both senses. The masters of the High Renaissance – Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael – possessed inspiration and genius on top of talent, and constructed their masterpieces with precise attention to details, striving for perfection. Their works – such as The Creation of Adam, The Last Supper and The Transfiguration – are spiritually and morally uplifting.
Then there is culture which is bad in both senses. Examples include Robert Mapplethorpe's pornographic photographs, Andres Serrano’s P*** Christ, and Damien Hirst’s pickled animals. These works are not aesthetically pleasing, they display neither talent nor genius, and they are spiritually and morally subversive.
There are, of course, many other distinctions which can be made between different works of music, literature, and art which are not matters of good or bad, or better or worse. This has to be kept in mind as does the fact that when we read a book, listen to a song, or look at a painting and decide “I like this” or “I don’t like this”, these decisions are about us as well as about the works of art themselves. The ability to distinguish between differences in art which can be expressed in terms of degrees of quality and differences which should not be expressed this way and to recognize the difference between an objective evaluation of art on the one hand and your subjective response to art on the other is itself an indication of good taste – the ability to distinguish and discriminate properly.
Good taste is not something we are born with but rather something we acquire. What kind of foods do children generally prefer? Cake, cookies, candy, ice cream, soda pop, potato chips, chocolate bars, hot dogs, hamburgers, and basically everything loaded with sugar or salt. What kind of foods are children most likely to squinch up their face and say “Ew, gross” over? Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and vegetables in general, especially the green ones. It is natural for children to have these preferences. There is something seriously wrong, however, with an adult whose tastes have not matured, who has not developed an appreciation for better foods than these, and who opts to make “fun” foods the staples of his diet.
Likewise, our capacity for appreciating the better elements of our culture is more limited when we are children and must grow and develop. We begin with nonsense rhymes and as we mature develop an appreciation for the sonnets of Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the epics of Homer, Virgil, and Milton. The music we like as children consists of songs with fun lyrics. As we mature we learn to like songs with more serious lyrics and instrumental pieces. Our attention span is quite short when we are children but it gets longer as we grow older allowing us to learn to appreciate longer music works like Mahler’s 8th or the operas in Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen.
The way in which our tastes change, expand, and hopefully improve as we get older is a vital part of the process of maturation, of growing up. The idea that taste is entirely subjective is no friend to this process and can be a hindrance to it. If one taste is just as good as another why should we learn to restrain our impulsive desire to eat nothing but cake and ice cream and learn to like those icky vegetables? If tastes are entirely subjective who are you to say that I should move on from Sesame Street to Shakespeare? If we stop distinguishing between the good and bad, or the better and the worse, we will have no conceptual framework within which to strive to improve ourselves and our tastes.
If our tastes fail to mature – if their growth is stunted somehow – then we will fail to develop good taste. There is also the possibility that our tastes will develop but in the wrong way. We may come to develop a preference for bad things over good things. Instead of learning to love Brahms’ concertos or Elgar’s marches we might develop a love for death metal or, perish the thought, gangsta rap. We might reject King Lear and Othello in favour of slasher films or “reality” TV. Of course these two ways in which taste can become bad – failing to mature or developing in the wrong way are not entirely distinct from each other. One of the most notable characteristics of contemporary North American pop culture – the very epitome of bad taste – is its immaturity. Not only is most of it now produced with a teenage target audience in mind, even that which is ostensibly produced for adults is primarily distinguished from the rest by obscenity, gratuitous violence, and profanity – all of which scream adolescence rather than maturity.
There is one final question that we need to consider. If everything I have argued above is true, if art, literature, music and other cultural works can be objectively evaluated and a hierarchy of better, good, bad, worse identified, and if our taste itself can be judged to be good or bad on the basis of our ability to properly discern the better and the worst in culture, why do so many people think otherwise?
The answer is that we live in an era in which people have become increasingly hostile to the idea that they should be held accountable to external standards. A cult has formed around the self which identifies self expression, self-discovery, self-esteem and self-worth as all-important positive values that we need to strive for. Restraint upon the self – such as that represented by external standards – is naturally rejected by this cult. This is all the more the case when the standards are applied to something like taste which does include a strong personal and subjective element.
This exaltation of self is an unhealthy development which has caused a reasonable principle to be taken too far. We should not judge a person’s “I like X” statements in the same way that we judge his “X is better than Y” statements. The two kinds of statements are completely different and are not subject to the same standards of right and wrong. If a person cannot properly distinguish between which is better, X or Y, this can reveal itself as a pattern in that person’s “I like X” statements, however. This is where the distinction between good and bad taste comes in. It cannot and should not be rejected in favour of pure subjectivity.
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