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.

Everyone knows that in our world there is a gigantic variety of tastes to be found. Whether it’s in food, music, movies, or anything that can be judged, all people have a great difference in their personal judgment of material things. Great thinkers and philosophers, particularly Hume, Kant, and Bourdieu have attempted to answer the detailed and complex question of whether taste is something that can be judged, instead of it being a concept that is
completely relative to an individual. When David Hume wrote his On the Standard of Taste, he set out to prove that there are absolute standards of taste (as opposed to it being completely conditional to each human), and that some people have finer tuned and more exquisite preferences than others. He opens the paper by saying that “it is obvious” that there is a gargantuan diversity of tastes between people and stresses how this variety is even “greater in reality than in appearance.” Hume then strategically talks about the opposing position to his view, telling us that some thinkers would believe that taste is something that could never be judged, because at its core level taste relies on each persons preferences.

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.

We all like good things, but what can a person do to recognize pure aesthetic beauty from artistic garbage?  David Hume attempts to answer this puzzle in On the Standards of Taste. Hume opens his essay by showing the reader the wide varieties of taste and the difficulty of having people agree on what constitutes good taste.  Most people firmly believe that it is impossible to achieve a universal standard for what is good or the “Catholic and universal beauty.”  Although, according to Hume, if an ancient work of art is still popular, it must be inherently good because it has withstood the tests of time and human judgment.  Therefore, there must be a standard of taste.  In order to effectively judge whether a piece of art is good, one must start with the “organs” that relay senses to the brain.  As evident in the Don Quixote example, some people possess finer-tuned senses than others.   In order to properly critique a piece of art, one must develop a full understanding of the genre; listening to more classical music and studying its components will make you a more worthy critic of it.  The biggest mistake in judging is in not taking the time to look at the full picture or “perusing.”  Hume says that the standard of taste can be seen only by fully analyzing every part of each piece being compared.  According to Hume, a critic must be able to identify each individual component of a work of art.  The next step is to compare the piece in question to similar pieces.  The final component in the quest for the standard is a non-biased judgment.  Hume states that the only mind that can properly discern good taste from bad taste is “a mind free from prejudice.”   In conclusion, Hume has not explicitly told us what is tasteful and what is not, but he has given us deliberate instructions so that we can do it ourselves.

Around the same time that Hume was searching for the standard of taste, a man named Immanuel Kant wrote an essay that also deals with standardizing taste.  The difference is that Kant focuses on the specific characteristics that make a work beautiful.  The Critique of Judgment spells out guidelines for determining whether or not an object is aesthetically beautiful.  Similar to Hume, 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.  There are many things that are considered pleasurable.  Musical notes, the color green, flowers, all are pleasing to the senses but 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 components.  Aesthetic judgment must therefore be based in logic and not in the senses.  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.  By following these guidelines one can recognize which works of art have legitimate beauty and those that are merely charms.

While Hume and Kant discuss the standardization of taste and teach the reader how to recognize true beauty in art, Pierre Bourdieu seeks to draw connections between taste and social standing.  Although very different from the essays by Hume and Kant, one can assume that Bourdieu has derived some of his understanding of taste from their works.   The Aristocracy of Culture asserts that there are strong correlations that show that taste is influenced by socio-economic factors.  Taste is a taboo subject in the world of sociology and has been further mystified by people who argue that taste is something that should be unspoken; if you do not know what it is you do not have it.  Bourdieu attempts to dispel the mist that surrounds taste with a scientific approach rather than a psychological approach.  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 ric 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.  People of low cultural and economic statures have a limited exposure to legitimate, tasteful works and therefore have low brow taste.  Thus, having so-called “good-taste” is reserved for the social elites who have grown up surrounded by sophisticated works of art and the rest of us are left enjoying what everybody else is enjoying.