Although the Oxford English Dictionary lists more than eight definitions of taste, the word is usually talked about in relation to physical and aesthetic perception. We talk about people either having good taste or bad taste when we look at the personal media choices that they make. Many times it is visual. Are their clothes fashionable? Is their house nicely decorated? But we also make judgments based on their consumption of more traditional media as well. Do they read books from the canon of dead white men? Are they conversant in independent film directors? Taste is usually described as a binary opposition between “good” and “bad,” and it is nearly impossible to agree on a suitable definition for either.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the aesthetic view as “mental perception of quality; judgment, discriminative faculty.”[1] Perhaps because of its subjective nature, many philosophers and thinkers have taken up the question of what taste entails, and whether or not we can come to an objective agreement on the judgment of it. Older philosophical works tend to focus on the moral and ethical foundations that lead to good taste, while more modern art theory seems to rely on a solid education in the history of aestheticism, as well as familiarity with the mediums of form, color, line, style, and musicality. But it is important to remember that taste is primarily one of the five bodily senses, and its use as a term for aesthetic judgment is a metaphor. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as, “The act of tasting, or perceiving the flavour of a thing with the organ of taste.” [2] Quantity and quality of food has always been a signifier of wealth, and so the opportunity for experiencing good taste has always been associated with prosperity.

David Hume’s essay on art, “Of the Standard of Taste” [3] outlines his views. Pronoucments of taste are, on the whole, sentimental, which means that they lack truth value. But he does attempt to construct a definition, saying it is the joint opinion of true critics. By true critics he means people who are well versed in the history and ideas of whatever they are choosing to pass judgment on, so he makes clear that there must be different sets of critics who have different areas of expertise. Therefore, one man cannot be educated enough to have good taste in all matters. Art should be evaluated on whether or not it fufills its purpose; for example, poetry should please the imagination. There is no “art for art’s sake.” According to Hume, there are two mediating factors for the qualified critic: their character and moral differences. Moral judgment cannot be seperated from aesthetic judgment. If a work of art is representing human action, the critic must evaluate the morality of the action that is being depicted. He allows for cultural differences, saying that we are more likely to appreciate that which we are used to, but the true critic must rise above that, a difficult task.

Edmund Burke also takes up the question in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, his 1757 treatise on aesthetics. [4] According to Burke, the Beautiful [link] is aesthetically pleasing and nicely formed, and the Sublime is so compelling that it has the power to destroy us. But Burke’s view of beauty is not broken down into traditional forms of proportion, fitness or perfection, but rather by their causal structures. According to Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, causation can be divided into formal, material, efficient, and final causes (which may complicate the idea, rather than illuminate it). The formal cause of beauty is love; the material cause is a pleasing sensation of an object such as delicacy or softness; the efficient cause is whether the object fulfills its usefulness, and the final cause is divine providence.

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment [5] is one of the most prominent discussions of taste and lays the foundations of modern aesthetics. In it, Kant makes the claim that there are four possible aesthetic judgments: the agreeable, the good, the sublime, and the beautiful. Kant has an absolute notion of what is the good because it is what is ethical, which for him is fixed in moral law, meaning that there is no judgment involved. The agreeable is purely a sensory judgment, such as “I am comfortable.” The last two are “subjective universal” judgments, meaning that they are made with the belief that other people ought to agree with the judgment. This sense of “ought to” comes from his belief in a “sensus communis,” which is a community of taste. This refers to the term Aristotle had for the part of the psyche that combined all the sensory perceptions into a coherent whole.

Kant explains that something should be considered beautiful if it has the form of finality, meaning that it is apparent that it has been designed with a purpose, although he does not mean that it should have a practical function. The aesthetics of something that is sublime however, inspire fear because it is beyond human comprehension. The sublime has a quality of transcendent greatness because nothing else can be compared to it. The aesthetic branch of philosophy owes much to Kant, not only for his ideas, but for making aesthetic debate valid and for providing the framework for it.

The debate over aesthetic theory and taste is closely tied to the philosophy of art, and art critics have had much sway in defining and shaping art trends, and have also grounded the debate in secular terms. Clement Greenberg’s canonical essay, “Avant Garde and Kitsch” [6] defined the role of high culture in society and the qualifications needed to possess good artistic taste. “Taste” for him here seems to be defined as the “style or manner exhibiting aesthetic discernment; the style or manner favored in any age or country” [7]. He defines the avant-garde as the historical agency which functions to keep culture alive in the face of capitalism, celebrating artists such as Braque and Pollock for their role in taking art beyond mere representation. “The true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to experiment, but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence” [8]. Greenberg shares Kant’s “form of finality” theory, saying that for an object to have aesthetic validity, it cannot be arbitrary but must “stem from some worthy constraint or original” [9].

Subject matter and content in art suddenly became very kitsch. Kitsch, a word Greenberg appropriated from the Germans, was his term for the second new cultural phenomenon to appear in the industrial West. This is the popular, commercial art that was seen on magazine covers, movie posters, and advertisements. Greenberg writes, “Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy” [10]. As peasants left the countryside, they left behind folk art as well, and a new market was created for a new commodity. This new culture, according to Greenberg is mechanical, relying on formulas and accumulated experience, rather than innovation. It is fake experience and sensation. Greenberg clearly shares Hume’s view that only the educated few are able to cultivate good taste. It is important to note however, that Greenberg did not hold the masses accountable for their affinity for kitsch. To appreciate high culture, one had to be very educated and have a fair amount of leisure time, luxuries that the working class was not afforded.

In “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” [11] Greenberg writes what he calls a “historical apology for abstract art,” [12] and suggests that certain media are superior art forms. The ultimate and purest form of art is music, and that other art better achieves its goals when it strives to imitate the ideals of music. “Because of its absolute nature, its remoteness from imitation, its almost complete absorption in the very physical quality of its medium…music had come to replace poetry as the paragon art” [13]. As proof that the art of forms is superior to representative art, he points to Oriental and children’s art, which conforms to his ideal of purity. Greenberg expected that his standard of taste was valid only in his historical context and that it would be replaced in the future by other standards.

This turned out to be the case, as subsequent art movements, especially Pop Art, purposely turned much of this argument on its head. The avant-garde artist Andy Warhol started to create mass-produced art from mass-produced items. He appropriated “lower” forms of art, such as advertisements and Hollywood images and presented them in the form of high art. Warhol declared that he wanted to “be a machine,” [14] which removed his artistic authority as a taste-maker in creating art. “I want everybody to think alike.” [15]

But everybody thinking alike creates problems, as people in power want to differentiate their aesthetic views from the masses. So writes Pierre Bourdieu, in his 1979 work, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. [16] In it, he claims that only those in power can define the concept of taste. The working class aesthetic is a “dominated” aesthetic, meaning that it can only define itself in relation to the dominant aesthetics of those in power. If those two aesthetics become too similar, the upper class will work to disassociate itself. This can be seen most clearly in mass media. For example, if a critically acclaimed movie becomes hugely popular in mass culture, critics (even those who gave the movie a favorable review) will tend to form a derisive opinion of the movie as a way to distinguish themselves and prove that their taste functions on a higher level. With Bourdieu’s argument, taste is not an organic judgment, but is almost entirely socially produced.

It is here worthwhile to return to the primary definition of taste as one of the five senses and the ability to detect flavor in food. The fact that this became a metaphor for aesthetic judgment is indicative of our inclination to conflate consumption with positive mental associations. Names of affection in the English language are often based on baked goods, while classic taste sensations have come to describe personality types (sweet, bitter). Perhaps it speaks to a collective oral fixation, but it is also the only physical sense that invites much debate. Sight, sound, feeling, and hearing are objective to a degree, but the palette of the mouth invites exploration and innovation. It is also of interest that Royals used to employ tasters, to make sure that their food was not poisoned; literal bad taste can be deadly, and metaphoric bad taste is deadly for culture.

It is also crucial to state that these theories of taste take a “rational” view and don’t content with the “instinctual” judgments of taste, because one cannot create a reasoned theory about an instinct. Thus, it is necessarily from an incomplete set of data that this enquiry into aesthetic proceeds. Presumably, Kant, Hume, Burke, and Greenberg would argue that snap judgments are actually well reasoned if they are made by a person who is well versed in whatever he or she is judging, because experience has trained them to recognize quality. Bourdieu would argue that it is not instinctual at all, but merely a response to a social environment that has trained the viewer to respond to a certain aesthetic.

Judgment of aesthetic value has many facets, but the thread holding the many taste theories together seems to be an insistence on careful thought. The intellectual and interpretive ability is highly valued by philosophers and art critics, as is knowledge of history and one’s own historical context. Because these criteria are usually unattainable for the working class, taste is certainly subject to social pressures, and perhaps most importantly, functions to create a cultural hierarchy.

Alexandra Squiteri
Winter 2007