On Taste

Gustibus non est disputandum; chacun á son goût: there are a great many ways to say it, but they all point to the same general trend--the desire of one group to feel in some way superior to another by the great refinement of their taste.  The truth of the matter is that the elitism of refined taste opens the door to sadness and dissatisfaction.  When we "develop our taste" we are developing our ability to not enjoy certain real and substantial goods.

Too often refined taste is an exclusive doorway, you pass through and, by the rules of taste, you are prohibited from enjoying certain good things that you once did.  Taste moves us from a genuine enjoyment of Thomas Kinkade to a simulated enjoyment of Kandinsky, Rothko, or worse (or better--depending on how your taste is defined).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying things of exquisite beauty and goodness, however one might define those.  And really there is nothing fundamentally wrong about choosing not to enjoy certain things that do not rise (or sink) to the same level.  But when I look back over my own life at those things I chose to segregate myself from as being "beneath" me, all I see is a landscape of lost opportunity--lost opportunity for enjoyment, appreciation, and edification.

If great art is greatly edifying, it could be said that almost any work of art that adheres to the central principles of truth, beauty, and goodness, is edifying: from Spongebob Squarepants and lessons about what it is to be a good friend, to Krysztof Penderecki and lessons about what it is to be a believing and feeling person.  From Brahams to Brad Paisley, and from Monet to Modigliani.

That is not to say that we won't like some things better than others from the get-go--that some things will be harder to access, appreciate and regard in the light of potential enjoyment and enlightenment.  It is not to say that we will ever appreciate everything.  I suspect that much of the world of Rap Music is forever beyond my pale--which is to imply nothing about its overall worthiness.

In my life I have chosen foolish reasons to wall myself off from tremendous beauty and value.  I have erected false barriers in the way of appreciation of so much that is good. I have grown tired of conforming to what those I respect tell me is good and worthwhile.  While I will continue to respect them, pace Harold Bloom, I will also continue to read Poe and Lovecraft and Heinlein and Silverberg, I will continue to admire Monet, Renoir, Dali, Miro, I will continue to listen to Enya and Brahms and Lady Gaga and Debussy.  I will continue now to try to enjoy what was so long inaccessible to me.  In the last couple of years I opened the door to Shirley Bassey and Ella Fitzgerald and Brad Paisley and Josh Turner and Johannes Brahms and other artists too numerous to name.  I've not yet scaled the wall of appreciation for Miles Davis and John Coltrane at their extreme ends, nor Keith Jarrett nor Rap and Metal groups the names of which I do not even know.  But I now refuse to be regulated by taste, by the opinions of others, by words like "low-brow" "middle-brow" and "high-brow,"  by artificial fences that have too long walled me off from worlds of enjoyable and edifying material.  I will never like everything or embrace all.  I might never cotton to the idea of wearing meat dresses or Thomas Kinkade; however, I will do my best not to scorn those who do.  I might, as I often do at work, rib those who are ardent fans, just to get a rise.  But I have learned the long and hard lesson of self-imposed isolationism. And I encourage all persons "of taste" to do likewise.  There is too much to be lost by walling oneself off with that barrier.  Instead, choose to like what you do whether it represents "refinement" or not and make no excuses for it.  I may not agree with your evaluation--but that doesn't make your enjoyment any less.


  1. Yes. I like what you say. Very much so!

    I don't know, and don't care, how far outside the precincts of coolness I am when I admit to an admiration for Marilyn McCoo or Karen Carpenter. (Or anyone else who can sing!) Or, in poetry, Countee Cullen -- whose Keatsian loveliness isn't perhaps fashionable in more radical quarters. I am told by some that Cummings is overrated, that Dylan Thomas is minor, etc. I really don't care.

    I would rather watch an episode of General Hospital than see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (GH can be quite funny!) I think that Norman Rockwell is worthier of veneration than Willem de Kooning. And although John Ashbery is sporadically amusing, he is the Great Satan of American poetry.

    Bob Dylan -- no. Eminem -- no. Forgotten '60s bands like the Honeycombs -- yes! My mom likes Celtic Thunder, and I have to admit, I like their version of the Proclaimers' "I'm Gonnna Be (500 Miles)". And of course, I like the Proclaimers.

    I like some performers who have appeared on American Idol, which I will watch from time to time, not "religiously." And I loved the country group I saw a month ago this very weekend, the Kelly Parker Band.

    I even liked Barbra Streisand once upon a time.

    I'd rather see Pillow Talk than Sid & Nancy, The Grass Is Greener instead of The Cook, the Thief .... And so on!

    But really, bravo for this wonderful blogpost!

  2. I don't have a problem with "elitism." They are no different than I am--we both make choices for there is not an infinite number of hours or days or years in one lifetime. One must choose somehow.

    What I do have a problem with are those who go around knocking other's favorites or preferences as a way of defending their own.

  3. Dear Fred,

    Isn't that what "elitism" by definition is about? I do have a problem with elitism as a result, but no problem with personal discrimination as to what will take up your time. We all make choices--I just don't care for those who spend their time looking down on the choices of others in matters, that, let's face it--are not really life and death or eternal issues. No one is going to heaven (or hell) for reading or not reading Jane Austen.



  4. Steven,

    No, that isn't elitism. Perhaps in an ideal world, that's what elitism is (someone who looks down upon others' choices as inferior), but in the world I live in, I'm an elitist. I know because I've been called that because I
    enjoy reading Jane Austen or that I prefer listening to classical music or jazz or
    go to an art museum or prefer books with words rather than pictures or watch films without Sylvester Stallone or a car crash or exploding buildings, or worst of all, I read poetry.

    Do you think someone who listens solely to rap music and puts down other forms of music, reads only comic books (graphic novels) and denigrates books with print only, and sneers at poetry will ever be called an elitist?

    Not where I come from. . .

    Where I come from, one's preferences defines one as an elitist and those preferences are the classics in whatever area one considers. That's an elitist where I come from--not somebody who merely thinks his preferences are better than those who prefer different sorts of things. After all, everybody does that.

  5. Dear Fred,

    I guess we'll just have to disagree. I see elitism as any group's attempt to better themselves by denigrating the taste or enjoyment or others. That means that if comic book readers or rappers are busy criticizing another's taste or pursuits in music or literature in order to support their own, they are, in fact, being elitist. It may be a disguise for any number of other things, but raising yourself over others by denigrating them is my definition of elitism and it can occur with any genre, form, taste, or style. In all cases it is deplorable.

    And I would beg to differ with you about your "elitism" one who reads Philip K. Dick and H. P. Lovecraft along with Jane Austen, etc. is anything but elitist.



  6. Steven,

    I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. I agree that elitism should be what you say, but it is really applied only to those who prefer the classics in literature, film, music etc.

    What's bad about negative commentary such as this is that it tends to flavor the art form that's being lauded. The negative comments can unfairly become attached to them and not the one making the comment.

  7. Dear Fred,

    I see now better what the objection is: we are using two different definitions. Yours is closer to "advocacy of control by, or privileges for, an elite," and mine is closer to "the fact of sensing or believing that one is a member of an elite." The latter can apply to anyone who goes out of their way to make themselves part of the elite, but the former indeed implies the privilege implicit in the ability to partake of classics in literature, film, and music.

    I suppose I want to broaden the definition to understand it as anyone who attempts to erect an elite based on negative commentary on the opinions and taste of others.

    On the other hand, I do agree entirely with your final comment. People tend not to like classical music (if they do not) not based on the music, but based on the people who like it. I was the same way for a long time about St. Therese of Lisieux. I thought I didn't care for her, but it turns out, I didn't care for the attitudes and statements of many of her admirers. (Ditto St. Francis).



  8. Steven,

    Yes, exactly. I also think that the term elite should include all who denigrate works they don't care for. Perhaps some day it will.


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