It's a matter of taste, we say, as though there is no way reconciling aesthetic differences.

So, taste does not feature today in academic discussions of art. Critics and art historians alike skirt it or eschew it altogether; not all but good many of them do. This is curious since at one time, notably in the eighteenth century, artistic judgment was inseparable from cultivation of taste.

Taste, of course, is one of the five senses. In everyday usage, it refers most often to its gustatory sense -- at the table or in the kitchen. Some food tastes good; others don't.

In a more elevated sense, taste refers to personal predilection in aesthetic matters. You like this? I don't. You don't like that. I do. A matter of taste. That's that. There is not much point talking about our personal differences. Taste is beyond debate. De gustibus non est disputandem.

But we also speak of good taste and bad taste, and refer to someone as a person of taste and someone else as a person without taste. Taste, in this usage, is related to the perception of quality and the judgment built on it. But we speak, furthermore, of acquired taste, the assumption being that we can learn to like something we don't like at this time by sharpening the ability to distinguish excellence. Taste can be developed and expanded. Taste, in this sense, is more like knowledge in the realm of perception than a mere personal preference.

It is certainly true that taste is personal. It is an expression of one's like and dislike. Democratically, it warrants your right to like what you like, to choose what to like. But it is not entirely independent of the value of things. When you like something, that something gives you pleasure, and pleasure is a value. In fact, the word "to like" originally meant "to please," and in some languages the Shakespearean expression, it likes me, is still in currency:

Me gusta.

Mi piace.

Es gefällt mir.

Il me plaît (as in S'il vous plaît).

So, when something pleaseth you, you consider it of value to you and find value in the thing that pleased you.

The next question, then, is whether the pleasure derived from what you like is up to you or to the thing that pleases you. The answer may seem obvious. That which gives pleasure does not necessarily please everyone. As the rhyme goes, some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it in the pot nine days old. Some things please only a few, while there are things that please a whole lot of people. So, some things are apparently more successful in providing pleasure than some other things. Taste depends on the thing liked or disliked; or does it?

We understand the matter of taste a little better, if we turn the question around. If someone doesn't like something, where does the fault lie -- in the thing or in the person? Is the thing faulty for not pleasing you, or are you in fault for not liking it? If it doesn't please you but pleases others, it is more likely that the fault lies in the person failing to see the thing's capacity to please. So, like and dislike may be personal but it is linked to the value regardless whether the judgment of value is ascribed to one person, a few, or perhaps many.

In casual conversation, you say you like something to mean that you think it is good.

"So, you painted this picture? Wow, I like it. I really like it."

"Well, thank you."

Thanking in such a conversation makes it evident that liking is understood as a statement that the picture is good, for there is no reason to thank if liking is understood to be merely a matter of personal taste and not shared more widely, unless, naturally, the reason for thanking is attributed to the comment understood as mere flattery.

"Oh, well, thank you for saying so. You are too kind."

Then, to clarify your point, you might be compelled to explain:

"Sure, but I really like it. It's good, really good. Oh, well, pretty good."

Or, you keep your mum if you were only complimenting to be nice. We do sometimes say we like it when we are shown a barely competent painting by an acquaintance and don't want to say outright that it's pretty bad; so, as a way of subterfuge, we say noncommittally we like the work. Conversely, we also understand exactly what is meant when we show our effort for evaluation and are told:

"Hmm, very interesting."

"So you don't think it's good, huh?"

This is a judgment of value disguised as a compliment. In other words, everyone knows the difference between the statement of taste understood as personal predilection and the statement of taste understood as value judgment. In saying that I like the work or that it's interesting, I may be merely saying that I can, even gladly, bring myself to like it though I may harbor doubts whether it is really any good. But, alternatively, I may be asserting, when I say I like it, that I mean it is good because, "as you know, I know a thing or two about art."

It is evident, then, that there is, on the one hand, a personal taste, but, on the other, quite independent of it, a discriminating taste, which knows what is good and what is not so good. Thus, the statement, I like it or I don't like it, is not merely a statement of personal taste or of an individual right to choose what to like, nor a judgement of value, to you personally or more universally to most or all, but also, very importantly, a statement of aesthetic knowledge.

Taste is perhaps best defined as a gentle way of admitting one's limitation. Not liking what is supposed to please is failing to recognize a thing of value. When I say I don't like it, I am really suggesting that I fail to see the value or quality the thing is offering me for its appreciation. When I say I like it, I may be saying that, aside from its quality about which I cannot claim to know enough, I am willing to commit saying that it pleases me, or, otherwise, in my considered opinion, it is very good.

Some say boldly:

"I don't care what all the experts say; I just don't like it, period."

Interestingly, the statement recognizes unabashedly that there is knowledge to be had which the speaker willfully ignores. Better expressed, it says:

"Sorry, I don't get it. I don't know enough about it to say whether I like it or not."

To dismiss something you don't like as a matter of taste is therefore to confess ignorance. Similarly, to dismiss someone else for not liking something as a matter of taste beyond debate is to dissimulate the person's lack of taste -- his or her lack of required knowledge and the consequent failure of judgment:

"I don't like it."

"You don't, eh. Well, what does he know! But I'm not going to say anything."

So, taste is not a feature inherent in the person, the way temperament might be. We are not born with it. We acquire it by effort, like knowledge, and make effort to deepen it. Someone says:

"This is not to my taste, thank you."

What is really meant is:

"Regrettably, I have not yet acquired the taste for it."

But how does none acquire taste? How is taste in anything cultivated? Taste for coffee, for example, is acquired as we grow out of childhood. Cultivating taste for varieties of cheese requires:

1) willingness to try, and

2) sustained effort.

Encounter with another culture expands our taste, provided we make effort to acclimatize to the more distinct features of that culture. Most Americans in 1950s thought eating raw fish was sickening; today, we find sushi bars even in a small provincial town.

In addition to desire and effort, it helps to have

3) continued exposure to great many exemplars,

4) discerning senses, and

5) repeated comparisons.

Through practice, one develops discriminating taste. It is not different from the way we learn to speak a foreign language. The more adept you become, the more sensitive you get to distinguishing subtle phonetic variations.

A person of cultivated taste is a connoisseur. Consider connoisseurs in areas other than art. Horses are horses to most of us; but horse fanciers are fastidious about discriminating one horse from another. Baseball fanatics can see subtle differences in pitching of a ball. Plumbers know at a glance if a pipe is 1/2 inch or 5/8 inch without measuring, just by looking or touching. Diagnostics relies on discriminating observations. An opera buff can tell one singer from another by hearing a briefest snatch of singing.

Cultivated taste equips us with an ability to distinguish individual traits first, and, then building on it, a keener perception of qualitative differences. Cultivated taste is, nevertheless, still taste, and it is still inevitably personal. This is because, aside from acquired taste, we all have different biographical background and therefore built-in biases. Every connoisseur has her or his blindspots, where judgment falters. But within the areas in which one's taste was trained, the expression of taste is not a personal whim but the fund of knowledge developed in years of exposure to like objects.

An astute collector says:

"I like this. I'll take it. That one? No thanks."

The decision may be instant but it derives from extensive comparisons that flash in the mind's eye.

Yes, taste is personal and might even be unreliable at times as a judgment of value. But a cultivated taste judges more discriminatingly; and it is, then, an expression of knowledge in the realm of perception.



T. Kaori Kitao, 08.22.04

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