The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

On Taste (1984)

Arts, April 1984, p. 128. Originally a paper read at New York University, February 1984.

Taste is the name we have given to what we use to get at what is there for us in art. A tasting is a testing, a trying, a trial, a slight experience in the service of judgment, with which it is coincidental. It is the mechanism which comes into play when we evaluate something in a setting which lacks criteria. Art, as art, is that human enterprise which proceeds most explicitly by means of evaluation without criteria. Very good art, as it persists through time, continuously sheds criteria, thereby requiring perpetual reevaluation through the exercise of taste. Outside of the operation of taste art is not art.

It follows that taste in action, taste as taste, is personal, that judgments of taste will be expressed in terms of value, and that these judgments will be subject to agreement but not to verification. It does not follow, however, that taste is subjective. This common misconception should he put to rest. It leads too easily to the vacuous flattery that one judgment is "as good" as another, that one work of art is as good as another, that the whole idea or "goodness" in art is not only beside the point but also unfair, elitist, discriminatory, and all the other hopeful fantasies born of this illegitimate surmise. Taste is not subjective. It is tentative, various, rudimentary, changeable, practiced or imperfect, but it is no more subjective than a guess at the number of beans in a jar is subjective - that is, it is either right or wrong, close or far off. Clearly, if taste were finally subjective, there could be no such thing as great art, only fashion, forever. And, as the current art market illustrates, suppressing the standard of artistic goodness moves us quickly from the pleasures of art to the politics of fashion, and demotes the function of taste from evaluation to identification.

Furthermore, though taste in action is involuntary, though we cannot will ourselves to like something in any instance, it does not follow that taste is unaffectable. Taste is not inert. It can be cultivated; it can he pushed around. It grows; it deteriorates. It sharpens; it weakens. It is a talent which can become a skill, and it operates as a skill, to be exercised, not settled, to be used and enjoyed, not drawn and drained and served up as cold proof. The connoisseur works on this skill. He earns the pleasures of discrimination and denies them to no one. The connoisseur - of art, of music, of people, even of life - tastes distinctions. The snob, in his turn, merely insists on them. And the public accepts them and clings to them even as they deteriorate, unrefreshed, into platitude.

Public taste, if there is such a thing, is less taste than conditioned choice, less personal liking than communal opinion. This is the realm of so-called "good" taste and "bad" taste, of dying your hair pink or owning Williamsburg furniture, of liking Picasso or Pollock or "new wave" painting without knowing if you like them or not. Working taste, in its hungry quest for aesthetic pleasure, accepts nothing on faith. It does not always force change, but it always evaluates, and it always acts only between the taster and the tasted. If it doesn't, it isn't taste.

When it does, it can be very unsettling. Taste in art, like conscience in life, is the instrument of independence. As such, it can be subversive, divisive, and dangerous. It threatens our pet habits and shared mythologies. It undermines the comfortable fiction of "It's only a matter of taste, after all," which is lazy taste in disguise. It can propel us headlong out of the sheltering crowd. So we lock taste in a dark closet and ignore its muffled protests as we go our reckless way. That these are difficult times for the public revelation of private taste is no excuse, especially for those of us in the business. Most of the dramatic folly perpetrated by art professionals today springs less from bad taste than bad judgment - fearful, intimidated judgment pushing taste around, pushing it into that dark closet. We don't admit what we really like. We won't admit liking what we think is good, or even what others might think is good, but only, it seems, what we think other people will admit that they think is good. There's anarchy at the center of this. And when the art bullies declare that comics and Christmas glitz and Hallowe'en in the kindergarten are great art we rush like lemmings to buy it. Like war, the art business has an astonishing capacity to rationalize bad behavior. Without the anchor of high standards and the steady winnowing prudence of taste, it runs amok.

My ruminations about taste, and art, have led me down a path of thought which seems to peter out into a puzzle. I'll share it with you to see what you think. Art is very important to us. We spend a lot of time and effort deciding what is good, and then we make it very expensive and build enormous public vaults to keep it in. We fuss over it continuously. That's what we are doing here. I go along with all this. I look at a fine work of art and think "that's precious and worth-while, and should be tended, preserved and seen." And I count it fortunate that it is valuable. But I also think "It is neither useful nor alive; it's just ten dollars worth of stuff someone did something to. How can it be 'good' or 'bad'?"

I won't try to solve this ancient riddle. But, just for fun, let's look at it from another angle. They say that art is universal, immortal, imperishable, eternal, deathless. But it isn't. Not at all. It is fragile and changeable. It evolves. It waxes and wanes. It could become extinct. There's no art in nature, unless you determine to find it there, which is, of course, just another type of art-making. Art is something we invented, got used to, and made into a habit. We keep it around because we want it around, and we want it around because we want something with us that is there for no other reason than to be good. Art embodies value. It embodies us at our best. That's why we keep at it; that's why we take it so seriously and protect and foster it so assiduously.

Now, with that in mind, look back to the active part of the equation, to the part in the brain rather than the part out hanging on the wall. Can it be that taste, not art, is the place to look for the missing pieces of the aesthetic puzzle? Is art essentially a vehicle for the development of taste? Is great art, art which satisfies "great" taste? Are we like the drunk under the lamppost, looking for our bottle not where we lost it, but where the light is best? What would we find if we looked as hard at taste as we do at art?

This paper was originally read during the panel session "Taste in Contemporary Art" at New York University. February 16, 1984.