On Taste: You and Your Peers (part one)
My Curious Reading presents:
On Taste: You and Your Peers
The commonly received picture of very tasteful décor, or fashion, is monotonality, lack of pattern and trim; also, the color must be muted, neutral—with few exceptions, pale. White rooms, their occupants dressed in black…the classic mental picture of an art gallery exhibit.
Why should this feel like a standard, when so much in nature that strikes us beautiful adds, in addition to complexities of pattern and brightnesses of color, motion and sound?
It’s not that the human eye isn’t drawn to busy detail, “clashing” hues, heavy and varied textures; not that even the austere don’t take pleasure in sunsets, forested landscapes, dramatic cloud formations.
It’s that human-created objects and spaces, (“curated” spaces, as they may now be called), are subject to human criticism. So why does color seem like commitment? Why is it a more criticizable choice to wear all hot pink than all black?
The minimalist movement in the visual arts, strong in the 1960s, was the anti-expression of a wartime generation, artists reared, or spending their young adult years, in an environment where finger-pointing could kill. If you can turn the oblique face of a concrete cube to the world, and dare it to judge you, who can say this is not perfection of its kind?
Criticism spurs creative paralysis, the urge to level and trim, to see what everyone else is doing, to conform. Taste, beyond personal attraction—interactive taste (how you would like to appear to the world; what sort of world you make for yourself, in the art you hang on your walls, the books you read, the restaurants you tell people you’ve tried), is malleable to criticism. Criticism itself (taken outside the formal discipline), is approbation or disapprobation, administered by a dominant personality to a weaker, or by the dominance in numbers of a group, to an outsider.
But it’s more complex, because the human brain parses information categorically. If I have been mocked for wearing a sun visor, or socks with sandals, I will have to make a choice…am I dorky and defiant, or compliant in neutral non-fashion—jeans and a tee-shirt? If I’m chic and somewhat dominant myself, I may dress with character, and be called bohemian, a style iconoclast. If I’m political, I may bludgeon the discount shopper with hemp and hand-crafting. If I’m wealthy, I will dress in brands, and the brand I can afford, that you can’t, will be my shield against criticism, my oblique face to the rabble. The complexity is that we learn aversions not only from our own memory of hurt, but from reading others’ criticism of others. We categorize.
Consider expressiveness in writing:
As the sharp bite of autumn winds brings to the waning blossoms of my summer beds, the news that they must drop their ripening seeds to fall into the gentle sleep that is this season’s part in the ever-renewing cycle of the cottage gardener’s year, I walk my lovingly tended rows and bid a fond adieu to my beloved cabbage roses and the last of the nodding bellflowers.
This is sentiment, yes; but many of us, though we may think we do, don’t dislike sentiment. We expect the payoff of it in certain types of writing. We (perhaps with reservations) don’t want a Christmas fable telling us people are rotten, the miser is right, the orphans get no gifts, they’ll all grow up to be criminals anyway. Soldiers and lost dogs come home. Almost no one is that cynical, that he doesn’t want them to. Lovers find each other against all odds, etc.
Our sentimental garden (especially if we haven’t got a real one) is a cozy, safe place; we’re drawn to garden writing that evokes this…as with food writing, travel, and holiday pieces.
But, what makes the above over-the-top twee?
That every noun has its adjective; that most of these: “sharp bite”, “gentle sleep”, “lovingly tended”, are stock phrases. “Ripening seeds” shades a little icky; “fond adieu” feels mannered.
(Stock phrases, though, have only the weight of individual words; I advise they are not bad per se—but some have more vividity, more satirical potential, or more reassuring conformity where reassuring conformity is needed, than others).
As the winds bring to the blossoms of my beds the news that they must drop their seeds to fall into the sleep that is part of the cycle of the year, I walk my rows and bid adieu to my roses and bellflowers.
Without adjectives we can see, left behind, a still heavy construction. The first clause is the scaffolding of a conceit—that wind brings news to flowers; the last a second conceit, that flowers gain anything from being said goodbye to. The gist is that it’s autumn and things are folding up…but that, ungussied, is hardly a thought worth sharing.
In part one of this series, we looked at ways to measure what we call taste, against some objective standard, using exercises from the visual arts. In the second half of “Taste: You and Your Peers”, we will study a scale, to be used in discerning a constant value.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)