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Why we should stand up for good taste

Grayson Parry

British artist Grayson Perry is interested in how class and taste intersect (Rex Features)

We shouldn’t have to accept all statements on art as equally valid personal opinions – some works are good and others are just bad, writes Tiffany Jenkins.

“It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste,” wrote the Scottish philosopher David Hume in 1757, “a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.” 

Hume was trying to resolve two apparently contradictory observations. One: that people disagree about what is good and bad art, and two: that we can agree that some art works are understood to be the greatest achievements of humankind. There is a basis for good taste, Hume concluded, which is our feelings, our response to the art work. And he suggested that certain people were in a position to judge what was in good taste: those who had “delicate sentiment, improved by practice” could decide, “the true standard of taste and beauty”.

Today, however, we rarely speak of someone having good taste. Taste is a word that is off limits when it comes to art. Carl Wilson, author of Let’s Talk about Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, notes that Hume’s theory “could be described as a prejudice – a bias in favour of tradition, which may publish deviation from the ‘highest’ standards and obstruct the creation of new ones.’

The US critic Clement Greenberg, writing in the late 1950s, was probably the last critic to advocate good taste. Since then, much has changed. The idea has come to be negatively associated with an outlook and a period in history when, it is argued, a group of old, white men imposed their views on the rest of the population, who they looked down on. Today, if you were to speak of having good taste you would be laughed at, seen as old fashioned and out of touch, told to ‘check your privilege’. Nothing is worse than saying one art work is definitively better than another, and that everyone else should think so too.

High-brow, low-brow

The work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was an important trigger for this shift. In his 1979 study Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Bourdieu surveyed thousands of the French public on what culture they liked. He found the results were stratified along class lines – the working class liked low-brow culture, the middle class middle-brow, and so on. And the higher up the class ladder you went, the reasons for what people chose became more grand and abstract.

The title of Bourdieu’s book is an implicit critique of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that taste could be disinterested, that is, that it could have no agenda. Bourdieu disagreed, arguing that taste is always interested  ̶ it is self-interested. What we call taste is  merely a selection of symbolic associations we use to set ourselves apart from those whose social ranking is beneath us. In other words, when you visit an art gallery to look at fine art, you are really just announcing to the world your (elevated) class.

This analysis is now mainstream. “There is no such thing as good and bad taste”, argues Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry, in his television documentary All in the Best Possible Taste. “Taste is simply the expression of your class”. Perry has created six new tapestries to illustrate his point that social class determines our taste, titled The Vanity of Small Differences.

Without doubt, there is an element of truth to Bourdieu’s theories. Even today, although the base for the consumption of culture has widened and been democratised, it remains a class-based activity. But Bourdieu’s outlook has also had major and sometimes negative consequences for how we create and relate to culture.

So pervasive has been this way of thinking that it is now rare to talk of art for art’s sake, let alone of truth and beauty. It has made it difficult to make judgements of quality and even to make art, because so often the questions asked about it concern the status of the artist, the audience, who funded it, and what it all means symbolically.

Points of view

As the idea of good taste is ridiculed, bad taste has been embraced in its place. Take the Eurovision Song Contest, where everyone champions songs so bad, they are good. Eurovision is an international spectator sport in which millions of people participate, with a sneer and a knowing wink. We are comfortable showing that we know what is bad, but all too quiet about what is good. There is a hashtag on Twitter devoted to #badtaste, but search for #goodtaste and you find, either foodie recommendations (where the idea of good taste remains possible), or clear irony.

If not bad taste, or ugliness, then eclectic taste is hot. American sociologists Richard Petersen and Roger Kern suggest that people now act as omnivores when it comes to culture, so as to avoid being labelled snobs. Someone might go to the opera one night, but will make sure it’s a drum and bass event the next.

Knowing that art is just a signifier is the modern way to show you are an educated person. This means it’s exhausting talking about art because everything is qualified and all judgements hedged. Some of us seem almost scared to say that something is better than something else. Everything is just a point of view, nothing more. 

 There are dangers in not holding up an ideal of good taste. While art can be employed to mark social differences, it does much more than that. And pointing out the class-based nature of art doesn’t answer the important question: is the art any good? Working out the answer to what is and isn’t good, and what everyone should like ̶ what’s the best that has been thought and said ̶ is essential to creating a common culture.

This doesn’t mean that taste is fixed, despite Carl Wilson’s concerns. In Kant and Humes’ day it was always the result of critical conflicts. Taste should be formed through debate. Doing so means convincing fellow members of our society about what art has value according to the standards we have chosen. 

If art matters, then we should care about quality. And that means having the courage to forge a standard of good taste.

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