Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tastin' good

The following excerpts are taken from a series of posts written by Laurie Fendrich for the Chronicle of Higher Education blog, regarding aesthetic taste. I found her articles quite interesting and I also share her views on this delicate matter. I'm quoting here several paragraphs just to give you a good idea of the content of each article on this series. Hope I'm not breaching any rule by quoting too much, but I strongly suggest that you visit her blog to read the whole articles.

About the Author:

Laurie Fendrich, a painter who lives and works in New York, is a professor of fine arts and the director of the Comparative Arts and Culture Graduate Program at Hofstra University. Her writing has focused on the place of art and artists in society and the education of young artists, but she has also written essays questioning the viability of beauty in a post-Darwin era, the meaning of abstract painting, and the tyranny of outcomes assessment. She blogs about university life, the arts. and culture.

The aesthetic taste of college students derives from what their homes look like and their high school experience. High-school taste fuses together the sights of the mall, TV, the movies, and the Internet. No matter their socio-economic background, gender, ethnicity, or race, without active intervention on the part of college teachers or enlightened peers, it’s unlikely that students will change their taste during college.

But it’s not just college students who often have narrow or bad taste (these differ, I admit, but they frequently overlap). I’ve known many powerhouse intellectuals, academics, bankers, doctors, and lawyers whose taste was execrable, or just plain ordinary, or who were completely oblivious to taste.

Ah, that nasty word elitism. But like Jon Stewart said, in mocking the flurry of commentators who charged Barack Obama with “elitism” : - don’t we want leaders in democracies who are “better than us”? - When it comes to art, the questions really are, Why are college art professors so afraid to convey to their students that they have superior taste?, and, Why are they afraid to teach that taste to their students?

Aesthetic taste, in reflecting the sensitivities peculiar to the organ of sight—the eye (working in conjunction with the brain, obviously, since the eye is passive)—derives from a number of things, beginning (although by no means ending) with the biology of the viewer possessing the taste.

It should be obvious (although somehow it isn’t) that having good or bad taste—in anything—has utterly no connection to whether one is morally good or bad, and startlingly less correspondence with intelligence or level of education than one might think. Life mixes morals, intelligence, education and taste in individuals into various stews. Aesthetic taste changes drastically from culture to culture (some cultures, for instance, like lots of clutter, while other cultures like things visually sparse), which makes cross-cultural comparisons risky. And within individuals, it changes as they mature. In their twenties, thirties and forties, people’s tastes often change rapidly and frequently. By fifty, however, most people’s tastes are usually pretty much set in stone.

In his absolutely essential essay, “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757), David Hume acknowledges that the several qualities someone with good taste must have—“a strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison and cleared of all prejudice” —are impossible to identify in any given person.

Children neither see nor think about the taste in their homes, which are simply backdrops to their lives, not aesthetic zones. Whatever taste is expressed in the home is simply the way things are — like the forces of nature — and it’s almost impossible for children to step back and think about their parents’ taste.

Good taste requires, for starters, that the whole prevail over the parts. Few of us have either the money or the aesthetic focus to construct our interiors following this principle. Instead, most of us acquire our aesthetic objects — i.e., those things in plain view in our homes that we like to look at — rather serendipitously, over time, the same way my parents did. Good taste necessitates a certain mercilessness — a cool determination to cull sentimentally valued individual objects out of the herd of one’s visible possessions for the sake of the aesthetic whole.

We lost something when we permitted the intellectual elite to knock bourgeois culture down so that masscult could then trample it to death.

She told me that she thinks that people getting so worked up about taste is something that could only happen in a democracy. She says that Tocqueville’s book is about how people in a democracy love equality more than anything else. Even though they say they love freedom, when push comes to shove, they’ll take equality over freedom any day.

I think this is still true today. The mere thought that some people might have better taste than other people seems to make a lot of people go bonkers. (It’s funny, though, how they accept the fact that some people are just plain better at sports than other people, or that some people have better singing voices than others do. Even if you’re born with sports talent or musical ability, you have to work hard to improve them, and people accept that. But they don’t like the idea that the same things might apply to taste.)

Students arrive at college assuming, much like everybody else, that taste is simply a natural expression of personality, and that it’s subjective and not worth arguing about. (“De gustibus non est disputandum,” as those who know their Latin like to say.) Good taste requires that a lot of things come together — a brain that is capable of acute visual discrimination, a broad range of experience in looking at visual things (coupled with a concentration in looking at the best visual things), thinking about what objects look like, abstracted from their utility, having an open mind when encountering new visual stimuli, possessing a willingness to weigh the relative visual merits of the objects we look at, and — it should be unnecessary to add, but it’s important — being in a generally sound mental and physical state when looking, thinking, and weighing.

When I make a critical comment about a compositional or color problem in a painting-in-progress by a beginning student, it’s not uncommon for that student to say, “But I wanted it that way.” A student’s defending a work by retreating into radical subjectivity (i.e., intention is all that counts, and all intentions are immune from judgment) is an understandable emotional reaction. It takes time for a student to learn to separate his or personality from its accompanying taste. If students keep up that kind of defensive attitude (a few do — but most have at least an inkling that it obviates the whole point of taking a painting class), they’ll never progress much.

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