One of the main features of aesthetic taste is that beauty does not belong to things in themselves, but that taste expresses the reaction of the mind to things. This means that as people and cultures change and develop, tastes can change as well. We are all born with taste preferences in our mouths, but we are not born with a sense of beauty or the ugly. These only come later, but at an early stage I quickly knew what I liked and disliked. My visual taste developed much later, at the age of three or four! I recognize that my artistic father’s insistence on what was “good taste” visually was basic to my development.
Erwin Blumenfeld greatly appreciated the golden rule, the wonders of nature, Greco-Roman sculpture, Gothic architecture, the great Renaissance artists, as well as much of the art of his time ranging from Van Gogh to Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Coco Channel, that great French luxury liner, the Normandy… the list could go on for pages, but it was focused on what he thought was pure, well-designed and crafted, visually arousing, and “beautiful.” To this day I find his constellation of associated beauties closely match those of mine now, but in some ways my taste has changed: I no longer admire Renoir as I did in childhood and I find Louise Nevelson more appealing than I did as an adolescent.
As human beings we rarely make mistakes of judgment in taste regarding food, drink or smells. As the great English thinker Edmund Burke seriously asserted in his treatise regarding the beautiful and sublime, that only a fool could fail to distinguish between the ugly and the beautiful, the right and the wrong. Men possessed a sense of good taste expressed in both his choices and his instincts. These judgments were as self-evident to Burke as the taste of salt and sugar. However, one could not legitimately formulate any maxims, rules, or laws regarding taste.1
The ancient saying that it is useless to dispute matters of taste originally meant that as taste was self-evident and shared by all, it was quite unnecessary to argue about it or reflect upon it conceptually. The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment (1790) denied any standard of ‘a good taste’ as this was an aesthetic judgment based on subjective feeling. Kant stressed that our preferences on matters like beauty could not be empirically identified so their validity could not be established. Good taste could not be found in any standards or generalizations. He posited that every judgment of taste presumed the existence of a consensus established by a somewhat conceptual and commonly held understanding. A taste judgment does not assume that everyone agrees with it, but proposes that those involved share the experience. Every time we express such a judgment we are presuming that a basic communality exists.
Kant’s formulation excluded fashion because it was not concerned with a conceptual ideal, but with “blind” imitation of the material. For Kant, fashion stemmed only from vanity and social competition and its arbitrary nature had nothing to do with genuine judgments about “good taste.” Following Kant, the German sociologist George Simmel (1858-1918) examined the commonality of taste in the changing patterns of fashion. He saw fashion as a tool of individuation and social distinction which was a vehicle for strengthening the standing of social classes. Members of the upper class tended, at the end of the 19th century, to signal their superiority by acting as the initiators of new trends. Upper class taste was soon imitated by the middle classes. As these high class status markers became more popular they lost their function to differentiate, and the upper classes then had to adopt ever more stylistic innovations. Simmel argued that any step that elevated fashion into the higher and more synthetic social values also led to higher aesthetic values.
The economist Thorsten Veblen (1857-1929) further analyzed the particulars of class tastes. As people valued wealth and money, he concluded that the more expensive an object was, the more desirable and beautiful it became. In terms of taste and modern consumption, this meant that taste could form through a process of emulation. Veblen contended that because the masses wanted to copy the “leisure class,” the demand for luxury goods arose because these were the taste of the rich. Fashion was based on the preferences of individual taste and yet it formed a socially binding standard of conduct. Instead of arguing for a natural human sense of taste, sociologists began to presume that it was socially determined.
The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) asserted in La Distinction (1979) that the tastes of social classes were in large measure structured on the basis of their economic constraints and possibilities. Those with a high volume of cultural capital, such as education and sophisticated parental backgrounds, were the most likely to determine what constitutes taste within a society. Upper class tastes of the French in the 1960s were characterized by the subtle and refined distinctions which placed intrinsic value on aesthetic experience. As the middle and working classes increasingly adopted the tastes of the upper class, the rich dropped some of their preferences for new ones. The “good tastes” of yesteryear were swiftly forgotten. With the new millennium and the global expansion of the internet, the sense of taste began to lose its exalted position in aesthetic discourse. Critical concerns are arising that the uniformity of consumerist taste does not fill people with aesthetic satisfaction.2
What new direction does this indicate for the continuing evolution of taste? When taste changes its function in a global consumer society, the standards by which people will judge it will also change. Identity is becoming a matter of the personal selection of one’s image and of taste. Increasingly internet users must choose between goods to express their social identity and to distinguish the self from others in a planet in which traditional social bonds and class affiliations are weakening. As formal aesthetic education is fading it is being replaced at a mass level by frivolous forms of social interaction in which consumers circulate in an unreal world of comfort, pleasure and distraction: hedonism. Fashion has succeeded in turning superficial consumerism into a way of life and as well as into an instrument of salvation according to the French Marxist philosopher, Gilles Lipovetsky. After all, the narcissistic culture of the self-indulgent personality focuses on being admired and liked.
La Rochefoucauld, in his Maxims (1665) wrote with French foresight that, “There is such a thing as a general revolution which changes the taste of men as it changes the fortunes of the world.” The internet is such a revolution in which money and novelty rule supreme. Taste on the internet is no longer dependent on one’s social standing or clothes as described in previous cultures. The undeveloped tastes of the 10 year old are as relevant as those of a grown up. It is hard to predict how this will affect the social community in advancing any particular taste. No one could have predicted how the world wide web would affect our attitudes regarding sexuality.
It seems obvious that the visual tastes of the younger generation are being diminished by the thousands of images they see every day on their hand-held screens. To become iconic, millions of viewers have to experience a particular image hundreds if not thousands of times in ways which would not have been conceivable 30 years ago. The stellar careers of models are dependent not only on a good face and body but on vital statistics: super-model Kate Moss has 27 million Instagram followers. The tastes of digitally engaged young viewers are no longer affected by class or social standing. Sex, glamour and money still matter, but soullessness is drawing the new generation into the metaphysical challenge of the unknown.
1Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium: Optimistic Visions for Change, pp. 470-487, (1997)
2Jukka Gronow, The Sociology of Taste, (1997)