by Sherwood Smith
Last week’s discussion about women’s and men’s fantasy intersected in my head with an old novel I was reading a few weeks back, one of the many nineteenth century novels I loaded onto my Kindle for my recent journey cross country on the train.
The novel was pretty much standard, but the thing that lingered in my mind for days afterward was the protagonist’s calm, confident assurance in stating “It is simply a matter of good taste.”
Taste. Not meaning food. It means a meaning a superior aesthetic, a refined discernment, the choice of an implied pinnacle of cultural or artistic hierarchy. Not so simple at all, especially if you begin to question the authority of the arbiters of taste.
At the far end of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton remarked, “Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions, has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed.” Has the idea of good taste become an impossibly elitist concept?
Is there a such thing as good taste? At a family party the other day I asked.
One person sighed and said something to the effect of “Here comes the aestheticism argument again.”
Another crabbed about “art” (especially with a high price tag and lots of publicity) that is hailed as art because it’s shocking. The only thing that makes it art (besides a pretentious name and a stratospheric price tag) is that it offends on every level.
Someone else gave an eye-roll and said that that argument was old when Plato was in diapers. There’s skill to making art, or everyone would be doing it.
Someone else said that bowing to accepted forms of aestheticism serves modern consumer trends, and that the art that thumbs its nose (or middle finger) at contemporary morals, or at what’s considered pleasing, can evoke the same behaviors the art is supposedly exposing.
I asked, what about a work that apparently defines itself as art by the way it exceeds the bounds of tolerance?
“Doesn’t that trump the objectionable by raising consciousness and questions? Art is supposed to make you think, instead of say Ooooh!”
As usual, we didn’t decide anything, but had great fun doing it.
So. I looked around for definitions of taste.
A German sociologist who lived at the same time as Chesterton defined fashion as a rapidly changing pattern of taste. Fashion, he maintained, was a method for strengthening the unity of the social classes and for making them distinct. The upper end of the class hierarchy demonstrates superiority by starting new trends that everyone below scrambles to follow in order to seem higher placed than they are. So as commodities, language, manners, fashions once regarded as high-class status markers are widely adopted, they lose their éclat.
At the same time, an economist pointed out that distancing oneself from labor has always been the conclusive sign of high social status. Therefore upper-class taste is not defined by things regarded as necessary or useful but by those that are the opposite, and from there we get conspicuous consumption.
Orthogonal to that is the education of taste (one goes to the right school, and is gently but firmly guided to regard Degas, say, as a great artist, but Mary Cassatt’s work as sentimental twaddle), but there is also the slow evolution of our own tastes, developed over a lifetime. “Taste” was once regarded not only as a sign of birth, but of education, of refinement. The person who gained education had a better chance of social mobility.
In Europe a few centuries ago, the aristocrats had the wealth and leisure to define taste, but within that limitation, women had as much authority as men, in particular the women who hosted salons. In fact, it was a very young wife— Madame Rambouillet—who set out early in the 1600s to improve French society, in reaction to the apparently less-than-couth manners of the male court around Louis XIII.
With the aid of Madame Scudery and Madame de la Fayette through novels as well as hostessing, the tone of French society improved, though not without some satirical resistance, as in Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules. In spite of his pillorying of the excesses of these taste-mongers, women, in particular French salonistes, were the taste-makers of Western Europe until the Revolution swept most of them away.
After the 1700s, with the rise of literacy, for English speaking people, though women could draw social and cultural leaders together for parties, it seemed that taste was really dictated in the media. Only men could publish under their own names. “Ladies” (so received wisdom stated) should only appear by name when they were born, married, and died. Though women could and did write novels, it took a long time before their names could go on the title page—meanwhile, criticism and literary essays were still the privilege of men. They decided what was good, what was negligible, and what was worthy of reading in schools: the new definition of ‘classics.’
Their authority has eroded considerably in the last half-century, so who are the taste makers now? What is good taste in reading?
The year Christopher Paolini’s Eragon came out, I was a junior high teacher. I couldn’t force myself through it, but even as I winced over clumsy prose strung together with the most blatant clichés, the plot holes (and undigested wodges of Star Wars, Bruce Coville, etc) I envied my students. Paolini had clearly enjoyed penning every word, and his audience—teens like him—loved reading every word. I knew that if I’d been fifteen, I would have been part of that enthusiastic audience.
There are some books that work for us at certain ages, which makes them—for that time—great books. Dune worked for me at age fourteen. I can’t read it now without wincing, but I can remember shivering with delight, horror, and fascination, my head swimming with new ideas. Dragonflight is another that worked terrifically for young women of my generation, though judging from reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, it doesn’t work for young women of this generation as effectively; Valdemar worked for thirteen year olds in my classroom during the eighties and nineties, but not so much during the 2000s.
It seems to me that the idea of taste is evolving as rapidly as other areas of our culture. Is it bad taste to like Eragon? These days, the confident sneer of some male critics about romance novels is thrown right back at them by loyal readers who refuse to accept their authority on what makes good or bad books.
I wonder if the idea of ‘taste’ is undergoing a paradigm shift as authority or entitlement continues to erode, and no one accepts anyone else’s hierarchy of discrimination. What do you think?