[T]he great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. . . A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, “is a completely fashioned will”.
William James, The Laws of Habit
“Taste” is a word and an idea that comes from another time. But I think it’s loss is a big deal. First there’s some good news about its demise. The idea of taste was freighted with class superiority. Good taste is typically taken to be associated with the upper and upper-middle classes. There’s also the idea of taste as setting some bounds on public discussion – which doesn’t have much going for it. So in some ways we’re good to be rid of it. But the upside of taste – the thing we’ve lost – is the idea of a desire that’s not a simple ‘preference’ but somehow an enlightened preference – and one that’s typically acquired. It’s an ability to see a little beyond simple appearances, to allow experience to speak of something deeper than appearances. An object in bad taste typically appeals to the untutored. Before megalomania overcame her, before she became a mega-star, Edna Everage’s schtick involved satirising bad taste by referring to the art-work she liked to have around. Ducks flying across the wall, a picture of Chinese girl with a beautiful green face. She would demonstrate her sense of taste by advising her audience “You can always tell an original. The eyes follow you all around the room”.
And here’s the thing. The death of taste as a cultural resource is killing us. Fast food tastes yummy. It’s scientifically optimised to allow you to mainline unmediated yumminess. When I was a kid and first encountered Kentucky Fried Chicken and then saw McDonalds restaurants I remember thinking that McDonalds would never beat Kentucky because Kentucky was so, so yummy – so rich as all that salt, sugar and oil and those secret herbs and spices made the chicken taste unbelievably good. My fish and chip shop just wasn’t close. Anyway, I was wrong. McDonalds, slightly less in-your-face yummy to my juvenile palate seems to have won that battle. Perhaps Maccas were optimising for my adult palate. Today I find the oiliness of KFC off-putting but I do wolf down a very occasional Maccas hamburger when travelling. I enjoy the utter accessibility of Macca’s scientifically optimised yumminess. It’s not hard to see how I could crave them – well I do crave them actually – but only very rarely.
The moderation of my craving for Maccas is a result of my having an acquired taste for better food (even if I like staying in touch with my ‘roots’ as it were – in my unacquired tastes). This has been a process of acculturation including quite self-conscious self-directed acculturation and habituation. Thus for instance when I was in my twenties I decided I’d like to drink tea without sugar. It took about three weeks and having acquired my taste for sugarless tea I now enjoy tea more – I can taste so much more – and I find sugar in tea disgusting. I did the same for cappuccinos several decades later (though I still think the chocolate topping is an improvement on latte). I’m not really a health nut. But just as I try to get good value rather than bad value when shopping, I just try to steer myself towards tastes that I think might improve my life in some way whether that’s through feeling better, better health, and/or just greater enjoyment once certain tastes have been acquired.
Somehow as capitalism has munched its way through our civilisation, the core of the culture has bailed out on taste. We’re all consumers now and consumers have a human right to consume Whatever they Goddamn Please. And advertisers have a right to advertise and sponsor their little wallets off and entice our kids to go with their unacquired tastes. And of course it’s not just food. Our taste in culture and politics is the same. In each case with disastrous consequences. Not only is there now a huge industry in sugar hit ‘Upworthy’ linkbait journalism but political journalism is being hollowed out. This is partly because of the lack of resources, but mostly because cheap engagement – shock jock alarums and excursions and Gotcha – are profit maximising (input minimising and audience maximising) strategies.
In this fascinating study, James Cutting:
varied the quality of art that the participants were exposed to. Half the treatment group of undergraduate students were repeatedly exposed to the critically respected work of John Everett Millais over a seven week lecture course and half to Thomas Kinkade, who is a good deal less respected, although much more popular.
They compared the opinions of this treatment group to a control group who had no repeated exposure. You can see from the graph below that there was a significant decline in participants’ opinions of the work of Thomas Kinkade the more they saw the pieces, while the opposite holds true for John Everett Millais. The exposure effect only held true for the “good” art.
This seems like pure Aristotle (as far as I understand it anyway) and the core of lots of other philosophies of life. Happiness is the true destiny of humanity, but is possible only through discovering and aspiring to The Good – a process in which character emerges from the habitual reinforcement of good, rather than bad choices leading to the acquisition of higher tastes – in the place of lower ones. One can see it in the lives of many older people who’ve more or less entirely jettisoned any taste they might once have had for frippery.
Of course, as one would expect, if taste has anything to recommend it, it should also be a hugely useful thing. As W. I. B. Beveridge (a person I’d never heard of until I read this post a few months back) noted in 1957:
The elegance and aptness of the English which is produced largely automatically is a function of the taste we have acquired by training in choice and arrangement of words. In research, taste plays an important part in choosing profitable subjects for investigation, in recognising promising clues, in intuition, in deciding on a course of action where there are few facts with which to reason, in discarding hypotheses that require too many modifications and in forming an opinion on new discoveries before the evidence is decisive.
Indeed, I’d argue that modern academia has almost entirely lost this sensibility and instead focuses on objective yardsticks of intelligence qua cleverness. Certainly that’s been the undoing of modern economics which drowns in the utter senselessness of extremely clever individuals capable of persevering in lines of argument that don’t pass the laugh test – not only that by they win Nobel Prizes for it.
It would be easy to argue that the old class based code remains. Those at the top of our society moderate their taste for fast food at least of the physical kind. Virtually no-one with aspirations to lead or even be in the middle, let alone the upper middle class smokes (smoking is an acquired addiction, so it’s a bit different, but we’ll just press on and pretend no-one noticed) and there’s never been so much obsession with body weight and health. Still the fulcrum of our culture is freedom – of consumption and of production. Today taste is outsourced to global brands. And many (of course by no means all) of the most expensive brands do have taste – but kind of by definition, if you need to buy the brand to show the taste, you’re lacking in that commodity yourself. And brands used to be by definition bad taste. You couldn’t wear them on centre court at Wimbledon and even today the highest levels of taste in clothing cannot be worn adorned with brand names – at least not explicitly. The point of such taboos is to insist that taste cannot be bought. Indeed it cannot be conveyed like property, or even properly by simple lessons – it must be acquired. A century ago, the architecture of great public buildings was invariably an expression of the higher achievements of our civilisation – and that was sending a subtle signal of our expectations of the great institutions that inhabited them. In this sense the development of a person’s character – associated with their acquiring taste – was conjoint with the core of the culture, the core of the civilisation.
Somehow that’s not true any more.