78. What Direction for Taste Now?

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)

77. Personal Tastes

I have no desire to become a life-coach on matters of taste. Taste is all about discernment, about the exercise of mental vision. Alas, “tastelessness” is gaining global status not only in the art world but also in the media. It is fair to say that the masses have little discernment. They are ruled by money, evanescent fashions, personalities and, on the internet, in the mass-instinct for joining the most popular sites. The primary focus on cost, value and the monetary relationship to objects exposes a crucial lack of discernment in regard to taste. The overpowering force of money, greed and “the market” have all worked against taste in the Arts. The inflated auction values of works of visual art have not exercised a positive impact here. A glaring disconnect between taste and economics has arisen.

Even in these difficult economic times, perceptive critics could be influential in creating new closures, appetites and tastes. As Oscar Wilde declared back in 1891: “Without the critical faculty, there is no creation at all, worthy of the name.” What critic today is questioning taste in art? Who is the critic who points out that the emperor (Hirst?) has no clothes? Where now are the successors of such critics of the last century as Lawrence Alloway, John Canaday, Ernst Cassirer, Clement Greenberg, Robert Hughes, Max Kozloff, Hilton Kramer, Rosalind Krauss, or Harold Rosenberg? Altogether this galaxy catered to the finer susceptibilities of their readers. They furthered the development of critical taste by weighing the balance between taste and the intellect. Alas, the role of the art critic has diminished as print advertising has contracted. With less space for them in which to publish, the cultural level of their prose has fallen. Wrote Wilde: “Mediocrity weighing mediocrity in the balance, and incompetence applauding its brother, that is the spectacle which the artistic activity affords us…”1 What I suggest is that actively nurturing and promoting our critical faculties could be a boost to artistic taste in the 21st century.

In my role as a critic, I make no apologies for considering the drawings of Egon Schiele, George Grosz, Sonia Delaunay and Avigdor Arikha as inspiring and wonderful. On the other hand, I find that the so-called art of Tracey Emin , Sarah Lucas and Jean-Michel Basquiat to be a form of emetic for my eyes. I accept the view that Tracey Emin’s bed is no longer a matter of taste or art. But why then should an object of sociological interest be placed on view in a Museum devoted to art? This bed and its unclean contents are all about disorder, despair, confusion and a tastelessness on the part of the creator which I find pathetic. Emin’s sexual needs and frustrations may arouse the emotions of many women, but evoked no positive response from me. Some viewers may find unlaundered sheets provocative, but what is the connection to “art?” There is no trace of individual skill, craftsmanship, talent, development or even imagination. Semen stains may be emotional markers, as Bill Clinton demonstrated, but have little to do with genuine taste.

Emin and Sarah Lucas in many ways exemplify what could be called anti-art. Sarah’s giant inflated penises and artificial plastic vaginas pouting burnt out cigarettes currently being shown at the Venice Biennale may be more creative than Emin’s bed, but I find these void of any sense of appreciation for taste. Shock, surprise, amusement are the principal responses of the viewers. Much of Lucas’s effort seems simple, naïve to the point of childishness. None of it can be described as elevating, spiritual, or even contemplative. The matter of taste seems irrelevant. Once such offerings are appreciated merely for their novelty and the surprise reactions these may elicit, the objects become difficult to describe as art.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s enraged and frantically created graffiti-like works also smack of the destructively infantile. This African-American rebel died from a drug over-dose at the age of 28 in 1988 and many of his scrawled paintings included skulls and skeletons. Often the writings on them were crossed out as he was obsessed with deconstructing the two-dimensional broomstick figures of his own torn and fragmented soul. The drawings and canvasses screamed: “I may exist but no one is here!” Such negative creativity was totally unconcerned with any kind of “taste.” Today, thanks to the clever and daring tactics of a small group of a well-funded ring of international dealers, Basquiat’s strokes of protest against African-American discrimination, which he expressed on stretched canvas, raise millions for investors and auction houses. It is the art world run amok much as poor Basquiat once did.

Much of our contemporary creation is focused on novelty, provocation and vulgarity. Some 200 years ago the English political writer William Cobbett described the commonness of vulgarity as being clumsy, dull and “torpid inanity,” that is, a lack of taste. Mark Akenside also asked:

What then is taste? A discerning sense
Of decent and sublime, with quick disgust
From things deformed, disarranged, or gross.2

The Victorian artist/writer John Ruskin posited that “Simple and innocent vulgarity is merely an untrained and undeveloped bluntness of body and mind; but in true, inbred vulgarity there is a dreadful callousness.”3

When I now appreciate a classic Van Gogh or Vermeer, there is an instant and almost instinctive sense of ‘yes’ which affirms my sense of taste and which may transport me, increase my heart beat, and open up my mind to the positive. I may be seized by the immediate and intuitive awareness of the soul of the painter as it was being created. I also am likely to be most impressed by the skill with which it was painted, but am unlikely to consider any metaphysical or other worldly reality. The blackbirds filling up the sky of Van Gogh’s closing days naturally bring up enormous and highly emotive symbolic associations. The painting is beyond any question of good or bad taste . It is a total experience.


1Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, (1891)
2Mark Akenside The Pleasures of the Imagination III, (1744)
3John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, 1865