Matters of Taste

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   September 27, 2018

No doubt you have heard the wise old saw which pontificates that “There is no accounting for taste.” Yet any number of psychologists and other professional explorers of the human psyche, to say nothing of all the people engaged in advertising, marketing, and other activities involving the purveying of products, are constantly trying to account for our tastes and preferences – largely so that they can be exploited, catered to, and manipulated for a variety of purposes from winning profits and winning hearts to winning wars.

Common sense tells us that there are indeed many ways of accounting for taste – the most obvious being nature and nurture, to which we can also add culture, custom, education, perhaps climate, and – who knows – even cosmic rays.

Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that there is still an element of mystery in such eternal questions as why I prefer chocolate and you choose vanilla. Yet life would be much simpler, and society infinitely more efficient, if we were confronted with fewer choices. It has, for example, always seemed slightly absurd to me, that, even within a single relatively small vehicle such as a passenger plane, there should be a division into “classes.” And Americans, who are so relatively free from genuine class-consciousness that the vast majority of us, almost without thinking consider ourselves “middle-class,” still accept such chopping-up of airplane space as part of the natural order of things.

Of course, it is all basically a matter of money – which determines so many aspects of our lives – except that it does not determine taste – as we all know from the characterization of people who have “champagne tastes on a beer budget.”

But “taste” itself in physiological terms, seems to resolve itself into a surprisingly small set of variables: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. Apparently, it is just the various mixings of these four qualities that provide what we call “flavor.” No doubt I am simplifying things here, but even the range of choices between simplicity and complexity is a matter of taste. Incredible as it may seem to the simplicity-lovers among of us, there are others who actually like things to be complicated. They must be the same folks who enjoy doing the kinds of puzzles that quickly turn the rest of us to other pursuits.

Then there is the matter of “good taste” and “bad taste” – and there are social arbiters whose whole role in our lives is to help us distinguish between the two. This talent (if that’s what it is) functions particularly in the realms of art, design, fashion, and décor. These “authorities” appear in every generation, and their judgments can be so powerful as to make or ruin careers. Such a one, in his time, was John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the Victorian era in England. His enormous influence was satirized by Punch magazine in a verse supposedly uttered by one who had suffered from its effects:

I paints and paints, hears no complaints, and sells before I’m dry,
Till savage Ruskin sticks his tusk in – then nobody will buy!

Another victim of critics – and this one truly tragic – was John Keats, whose death at the age of 25 was said to have been hastened by a caustic attack on his poetry in the Edinburgh Review. This prompted a churlish comment by his rival Lord Byron:

‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuff’d out by an article.

But matters of taste – or, if you like, of fashion, are notoriously time-sensitive. By modern standards, our ancestors in many ways had terrible taste. There have been eras when highly elaborate ornamentation, whether on buildings or in furniture, was considered de rigueur. Think of the Medieval cathedral, or the Victorian living-room. 

Then along will come some contemporary equivalent of the Puritans, who want to get “back to basics,” and proceed to demolish once-revered idols. Of course, religion is inevitably astride this see-saw, and the historical record is bestrewn with such zealous dictators of taste as John Calvin and Savonarola.

But you and I know what we like and what we don’t like. And, being reasonable people and – for the most part, kind-hearted souls – we have no interest in burning at the stake those benighted individuals who may happen to disagree with our preferences. In the long run, we believe that people should be allowed to have what they want – so long as what they want is what they really ought to have. 


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