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  The word ‘taste’ is ultimately derived from Latin tangere, ‘to touch’. Its technical meaning (one of the five senses) has been broadened and metaphorized. Lord Shaftesbury, for example, writing in 1714, called taste ‘Relish in the concerns of Life’, and Kant, in Critique of Judgement (1790), more narrowly but more loftily defined it as ‘the completely disinterested faculty for judging an object or a manner of representation, and judging it pleasing or displeasing; the object judged pleasing is beautiful’. Both these statements reveal one of the main problems with thinking or writing about aesthetics. Shaftesbury\'s implication that taste is innate, and Kant\'s statement that it can be exercised objectively, are disingenuous. Who is to say what ‘relish in the concerns of life’ is, except for oneself? The concerns I relish may displease you; yours may disgust me. And who is to judge what constitutes a ‘disinterested faculty of judging’, and to whom should such a faculty be entrusted? In truth, taste—especially in the narrower meaning of ‘good’ taste which both definitions also take for granted—is neither objective nor innate. It is a cultural determinant: some people perceive others or themselves to possess it; it defines groups of like-minded people both to themselves and to outsiders. Taste is not a faculty but a construct; of its nature it is not constant but fugitive.

In the broader view, it might be argued that all human civilization, all culture, depends on taste, that all the customs and beliefs which hold society together, from sumptuary laws to social taboos, from myth to etiquette, reflect a kind of taste-consensus, which defines the group and makes its continued existence possible. Certainly we react to people who offend against this consensus—depending on the society, their offences might range from religious nonconformity to a fondness for incest—in a way different only in degree from the way we chide or ostracize those who wear the ‘wrong’ kind of clothes or entertain themselves in ways of which ‘we’ disapprove. In aesthetic theory, such confusion of the shallow and the deep is endemic. From antiquity, writers like Plato or Cicero in the West, or the anonymous authorities who codified the ‘Confucian’ system of life and lifestyle in China, tried to define such concepts as beauty and moral excellence, and proceeded from definition to prescriptions about behaviour and attitude.

The aura of philosophical objectivity which surrounds such writings has infected thoughts about taste in the entire civilized world: in fact our very idea of ‘civilized’ now contains overtones of aesthetic sensitivity (or snobbery, depending on your point of view). Those aspiring to what they see as cultural ‘betterment’ are often as obsessed with the taste-minutiae of the admired society as with (say) its material or technological advantages. In reality, taste concerns a shallow, narrow range of options, and the only mystery is why, when so many of the perceptions and ideas it involves are vain and frivolous, they are promoted and adhered to as eagerly as if they were, precisely, essential for survival. There are many people—and not just style gurus in Western Sunday newspapers—for whom taste is a major factor of every moment of existence, not so much the frame as the skeleton of what they are.

There are tastes in taste itself. In Renaissance Europe, for example, taste in the arts and design—a prerogative, as so often, of those rich enough and absorbed enough with self-image to bother about such matters—depended on imitation of models from ancient Greece and Rome, from hairstyles to literary forms, from sculpture to garden-design. In the early 20th century, by contrast, modernism saw taste as an area closely linked to form and function (see functionalism), the purity of machine production and the new materials of technology. The arrival of postmodernism raised difficult questions about how concepts of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ taste are linked to class, social conditions, race and gender. Contemporary ideas on taste largely ignore traditional canons in favour of an eclectic aesthetic, which takes what it wants from cultures of every kind and every level in the world, and which is constantly squabbled over and redefined by ‘experts’ whose influence is often out of all proportion to their credentials.

The ephemerality of taste, particularly in an age of mass consumerism, can be a depressing phenomenon, at least to those whose ‘disinterested faculty for judging’ leads them to find the current taste-consensus itself distasteful. Such people might argue that we are given too limited a selection of options on which to exercise judgement, that the ‘taste’ which society exhibits at any given moment is not for the best of everything, but merely for the least worst of what is available. Discrimination, such people might claim, depends on education. But this is merely another form of Shaftesbury\'s and Kant\'s intellectual and cultural snobbery. No one can know, can experience, everything; all choices must be made from the options available. In the final analysis, taste is a manifestation of closed-mindedness, and therefore (it can be argued) not the result, but an enemy, of human thought. KMcL

See also criticism; kitsch.



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