by Stacey Egger
It was Christmas break, and I was out in the wide world—specifically, driving down a Saint Louis street with a close friend. I asked if she wanted to stop by a certain store on the way home. “Oh, shoot,” she replied, “I don’t have my earbuds. I can’t listen to the music they play in there.”
The compulsion to drown out the noises of the world around you with sounds that are up to your level of selection may strike you as foreign and obviously negative—an extreme example. It may strike you as a fairly reasonable sentiment. Either way, it seems an innocuous claim that a refined faculty of taste, considered broadly as a person’s non-discursive sensitivity and selectivity towards beauty and goodness, has the tendency to withdraw him in some ways from his community. We like grains too much to eat the bread they serve in the high school cafeteria. We like Keats too much to sit through open mic night without being distracted by the sound of our insides clawing at themselves. We like intelligent conversation too much not to take extended walks around our grandparents’ familiar neighborhood instead of sitting in the living room and talking to our cousins.
This article is not going to claim that cultivating taste is evil because it schools us to snub. I believe that the faculty of taste is invaluable for beauty-lovers and truth-seekers—ideally, invaluable for all. But its importance as a tool for truth requires us to be cautious with it. Like most powerful tools, taste can be dangerous. It can demolish just as much as it can build, and faster.
To understand the dangers involved in cultivating taste, it is important first to understand its value. Taste has two main goods. The first is simple: the physical world around us, the natural and the man-made, has certain qualities of beauty and goodness. Taste, as an appreciation of these, brings us closer to this beauty and goodness by sensitizing us to them. Secondly, our taste determines what art and culture we expose ourselves to, and thus shapes the images with which we see the world and process ideas. This affects both our own vision and, crucially, our communication with others. There is a reason that new friendships often involve finding shared cultural or artistic loves, or sharing them. Art is a good example. Our understanding of certain ideas, our way of looking at things, and our roads to certain conclusions are often aided or informed by the concise and potent expressions of certain pieces of art. (Art has a special ability to do this; this is why religions produce music and images, which can often express and share devotion in a way that cannot be expressed in any other form.) With a piece of art serving as a foundation for our vision of something, it can be very difficult to express it to someone else in any other way. Our taste thus not only paints the sensible landscape of our own vision of the truth, but it gives us the tools to communicate this to others.
If we believe that beauty is aligned with truth, then, simply put, good taste helps us to use our aesthetic faculties in the service of both beauty and truth. If artistic influences, as I have claimed, are powerful enough to color the way in which we see the world and come to conclusions, then it is crucial that our non-discursive, artistic selectivity is as sharp as possible. However, for a faculty that should lead to love of truth and communication of truth, there is a surprisingly typical tendency to increase in disdain of the community and world that surrounds us as we develop as tasteful individuals. This a disconcerting trend. If taste brings us closer to reality in pointing us to good things, if it is an agent of truth, then why should it divide us from the world? Why, especially, should it divide us from the people around us?
It is crucial to a respect for high taste to recognize that this haughty, separative taste is an early stage in the development of the faculty. It is perhaps natural to go to extremes in the learning or acquisition of anything. Thus it is not the very tasteful but the medium-tasteful that tend to set themselves the farthest above “lower” things or people. This can come either from a zeal for or possessiveness towards our new loves, or from a conflation of the faculty of taste with what it should seek to lead us to, namely, truth. Conflating taste with truth can prevent us from fully attaining either. Part of the importance of recognizing where these aesthetic lines lie is so that the things that truly divide us from others stand out clear. These are not matters of taste; they are the hard-won, central truths to which all of our cultivation, it is to be hoped, has led. These divisions between us and others are not enjoyable, and this should be one of their markers. They should not cause us to laugh and roll our internal eyes, or send a scornful text message to a friend who gets it. They are grave, and if we are lovers of truth and of goodness and of our neighbor, they should lead us not further into the well-decorated isolation of ourselves, but outwards with the truth we have come to know.
This kind of elitism is something that can be based in almost anything with a learning curve, in any job, discipline, or area of interest. To use a slightly on-the-nose example, last summer I started working in an art gallery. I was hired having just finished my freshman year as a history student: I knew nothing about art. To my great relief, and quite conveniently for the uses of this article, the gallery was being newly opened after a year of remodeling: almost everyone in my position was a new hire, many of them with as little prior knowledge as I had. It was a perfect place to observe the rapid development of new taste. For the first couple of weeks most people remained fairly quiet about things they knew they didn’t know. Occasionally, however, we would overhear a curator, or someone else who knew what they were talking about, make a small jab at something a visitor had said, a silly reaction they had had to a piece of art, etc. They were all fairly harmless, the frustrations of professionals expressed to other professionals about people disrespecting or misinterpreting what was their entire life’s work. Interestingly, however, these kinds of comments were the first things that my fellow yuppies picked up on. Knowing how recently-acquired was the entirety of our knowledge on the subject, we still made fun of the visitors, whom it was our job to acquaint with the art, as soon as they left. It is an amazing thing to hear someone who in their group interview a month before named Superman: The Movie as the piece of art that had most changed them mock a thirty-year-old mother for asking her child what animals he could see in Richard Tuttle’s Wire Pieces (“so disrespectful”). The tone of these critiques was as much more harsh as it was less warranted than those of our superiors. In our desire to mask our lack of knowledge, to take on as quickly as possible an appreciation for something new, the fastest and easiest route to inclusion seemed to be disdain and hatred. The more we were able to critique the reactions of others, the more we felt as if we were setting ourselves aside from the masses along with the art, and thus drawing closer to it and to those who truly appreciated it. As is probably apparent, this was not the case. It was absurd for us to look down on interested, sincere people for not having access to information that we had been exposed to just weeks, perhaps days, before—and exposed to for the express purpose of sharing it with them. A true appreciation of the art began once time went on and, in drawing closer to it and understanding it more, our compulsion, rather than trying to set it and ourselves apart, was to share with others something that had actually begin to reach and affect us.
A truly tasteful appreciation of something comes when it is seen as it is and fit into its place. This is rarely a place with the height of exclusion we give it in early stages of appreciation. A fully developed and truth-serving taste will not have this character of hatred and putting-down; it will see the object as it is, the good and the bad, neither too high nor too low, without lessening the value of other things, or of other people, through the appreciation of this one. It is important as we develop in taste, as we begin to discern and love the beauty and goodness in things, that we humble ourselves to be cautious of our own zeal and critical of our own cultivation, keeping in mind how newly-acquired these appreciations are, and what they must serve.
Recognizing these tendencies of the fledgling development of taste, it is crucial that we keep above all in our eyes humility and love, both recognizing our young tastes for what they are and knowing true taste for what it is, something lower than love and lower than truth, and good only as it serves these.
Stacey Egger is a sophomore studying history.