why taste matters (a draft manifesto)
When I think of “taste,” two things come to mind. First is the taste that is physically sensory: the job that your tongue’s receptor buds do in order to tell you if something in your mouth is salty, sour, bitter, sweet or savory. It’s value-free (upon sampling the cake, you and I sense there is flavor) prior to personal judgment (you may not like it, but I may). It is also personal in that the experience is isolated: your taste does not impact my experience at the table with you. And it only matters to the extent that you or I value the experience of good flavor—you can live your life without cake, although such an empty existence would mystify me (at the same time that I celebrate the fact that your abstinence from cake means: more cake for me).
Then there’s the other kind of taste: the one over which philosophers have been spilling ink for centuries, the one that is allied with aesthetic judgment. In my world of buildings, art, clothes and shoes, this is largely a visual issue. This is the taste that is oftentimes divided between high/low, elite/common, with neither end of the continuum assumed as the most valuable, per se. It certainly overlaps with the subject of aesthetics, but is not identical, as the realm of aesthetics is a rarified place for critical reflection and philosophical debate, all of which is wonderful, but not necessarily the point here. “Taste” is the boots-on-the-ground aesthetics in motion; matters of taste aren’t just matter of opinion, and they don’t exist in isolation. When they are exercised in private, my aesthetic choices are simply the preferences that register in my mind. When they are exercised in public, they have become matters of taste: taste is aesthetic judgments made in a social setting. Thus, expressions of taste have social implications: the color I paint my house or the design of your t-shirt can be unifying, but they also can be divisive; they may keep us from ever sitting at the table together to share that cake to begin with.
So, whose taste matters? My first reaction is to say well, that would be mine, since this is my blog. At the same time, I recognize that is too simple and easy and dumb an answer; the goal here is to put observations out there in the hopes that others can chime in, add to the conversation, or at least be prompted to think about something tasty for a few minutes (as am I when taking the time to formalize my observations in a way that is hopefully fit for public consumption). Ideally, we both can come closer to understanding what makes us each respond as we do to visual stimuli, not all of which, I believe, is created equal (likewise for cakes). Although I support freedom of expression, I also defend the public square from infractions of taste, from egocentric art and thoughtless architecture to foul music and naked feet—and the commonalities between what I see as “bad” and what [a] “community” sees as “bad” is also worth consideration. And while the balancing of personal taste against public perception is delicate, and perhaps judged inconsistently (or unfairly) by this writer from time to time, the purpose of Matters of Taste is to support a forum for humane interchange and communication on grand and less-grand subjects, from marble domes to plastic flip-flops. It’s also a place to explore achievements in the first kind of taste, since the eudaimonia or “human flourishing” that is ideally aroused by visually tasteful things can also be stimulated by really good food, and I can’t imagine why a person would ignore any kind of enrichment—the personal kind that you can get from sensory-flavor, or the public kind we can enjoy together in the midst of art. The latter is especially important as a means of communication of some sort, and as such, deserves attention in a democracy. Expressions of artistic judgment are relevant; taste matters.