What is Taste? A Cultural Analysis

Kant philosophy

One of the hardest words in the English language to define is taste.  The definition has been wrestled with and torn apart for centuries but still nobody knows what it means.  There are two schools on the idea of taste.  The first believes that taste can be standardized and objectified.  The second believes that taste is not something that can be measured or standardized by any means and that it is completely in the eye of the beholder.  I say that taste has taken on new definitions and implications in the 21st century and that has changed the definition of taste 180 degrees from the philosophies of Kant and Bourdieu.

The late philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to answer the question of taste in his essay The Critique of Judgment.  I think that Kant’s ideas sound good in theory but are impossible in practice.  One of Kant’s major topics is that taste must be separate from all personal bias.  In order to achieve a “pure judgment of taste” the critic must be impartial to emotions and purpose of the work, in other words, disinterested.    A piece of government propaganda cannot be aesthetically beautiful because it was born with the purpose to persuade.  Pure art should have no purpose; it should simply be.  I disagree with Kant on this point.  I believe that the purpose of art is to convey an emotion in the mind of the beholder.  If a piece of art fails to do this then why even create it?  The purpose of art is to be enjoyed and savored, not robotically examined.

There are many things that are considered pleasurable.  Musical notes, the color green, flowers, all are pleasing to the senses but, according to Kant, they are not beautiful in themselves.  Kant proposes that it is not the individual parts that make something beautiful, but the “delineation” or form of the individual components.  In the words of Kant, “ a pure judgment of taste has for its determining ground neither charm nor emotion-in a word, no sensation as the material of aesthetic judgment.”  One must put all charms aside and look only at the form in order to recognize pure beauty.  Although his first point is almost irreconcilable to me, I do believe with Kant on this point.  The form of a piece of art is more important than the individual pieces because we perceive art as a whole entity, not a random assortment of parts.

In the late 20th century, a man named Pierre Boudieu conducted a large-scale study on the link between taste and social class. Between the years of 1963 and 1968 Bourdieu surveyed a group of 1,217 people who he divided into groups based on their economic and cultural backgrounds.  Bourdieu found very strong similarities within the groups and this led him to believe that taste is a learned element of culture, not an inherent quality that people are born with.  He divides taste into three categories: low brow, middle brow and high brow.  A person who has grown up around money and a culturally rich lifestyle will be more apt to like a “legitimate” work such as the song “Well-Tempered Clavier” than a person who was raised around “popular” works such as “insert popular work here.”

I strongly disagree with Bourdieu for many reasons.  His assumptions of what is legitimate and what is not are completely biased on social class.  According to Bourdieu, a large percentage of the population is automatically doomed to lowbrow taste with no consideration of the individual.  These assumptions are just as bad if not worse than racism.  Social class does not make one more tasteful than another.  Simply listening to a particular song or viewing a piece of art does not mean that one fully grasps its aesthetic essence.  Furthermore I believe that Bourdieu’s theory has become obsolete with the rise and widespread use of the Internet.  We are now in a new age, the information age in which cultural and social boundaries have become blurred and the standard of taste is eroding.

Before the invention and widespread use of the Internet there were indeed societal barriers to entry to “highbrow” art.  If one wanted to hear the latest piece by the symphony or view the most esteemed art of the time, a monetary payment was necessary.  Today a bum on the streets of New York can walk into a public library, access the internet, put on headphones and enjoy the Sydney Opera just as much or more than a person who is actually there.  In the past information and art was shared physically but today a song, dance, or piece of art can be sent to the farthest reaches of the globe in milliseconds.