Arbiters of Taste

Some questions arising from the Key Ideas Taste Symposium Wednesday 27 October 2010.

Education /
Q.How much do art and design students look to their tutors and lecturers as arbiters of taste in terms of what they learn in college?

Q.Should they? Or is the point of being at Art College to find one's own way and 'kick against' the system?

Tourism /
Q. Are objets d'art collected on overseas travel more discerning and genuine than those from home soil?

Sense of place /
Q. If Venice is known for Murano glass what is Britain to become known for, beyond Royal Doulton or Waterford Crystal?

The Influence of Others /
Q. Does an individual's taste change when they start a relationship, live with a partner or get married?

Q. What does online social networking mean for Taste?

Q. Are blogs such as 'Its Nice That' and 'Ffffound' genuine arbiters of taste? If so, what gives them authority?

Q. How old is the person at Franklin Mint who makes the decisions to put fluffy felines on plates and then advertise them in the Mail On Sunday Magazine Supplement?


Courtesy of here, thank you.
I just wanted to take a quick look at something like this and try to unpack how my judgement/ taste comes to affect an understanding of this. Taste by definition is about having a liking or partiality for something or seeing a level of excellence, sublime-ness in a thing or object. So I look at this image of Wayne Rooney - poor under-appreciated Wayne - and it grates with me on a visual level, because perhaps I think that the artists painterly affectation coupled with Pub landlord charicaturing is a gross and unnecessary fusion of visual language [I can rationalise my distaste because of my education and training]. Perhaps I am equally annoyed by the benign nature of the image, where is the biting satire? [being currently deeply annoyed at the greed of the Rooney's and their representation, so my taste is viewed through a political lens as well]- the soft focussing which makes a virtue of the odd proportions and the curiously idiotic expression - I pity Wayne because he has not had the advantages, educationally, that I have. Perhaps I secretly think that I am better than him? - so this is an issue of class, my distaste for this image is fuelled by a sense of superiority despite his millions.


Imanuel Kant and common sense

This is Immanuel Kant, a philosopher.
I have borrowed form the wiki source so thank you -

"In the chapter "Analytic of the Beautiful" of the Critique of Judgment, Kant states that beauty is not a property of an artwork or natural phenomenon, but is instead a consciousness of the pleasure which attends the 'free play' of the imagination and the understanding. Even though it appears that we are using reason to decide that which is beautiful, the judgment is not a cognitive judgment,[64] "and is consequently not logical, but aesthetical" (§ 1). A pure judgement of taste is in fact subjective insofar as it refers to the emotional response of the subject and is based upon nothing but esteem for an object itself: it is a disinterested pleasure, and we feel that pure judgements of taste, i.e. judgements of beauty, lay claim to universal validity (§§20–22). It is important to note that this universal validity is not derived from a determinate concept of beauty but from common sense."

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanuel_Kant [24/10/2010]

Kant describes the appreciation of an object or thing as a disinterested pleasure and that a thing can have a universal validity derived from 'common sense'. I think that this refers to a shared appreciation - a collective understanding of what is good and what is not. So whilst this notion of taste seems to oppose Bourdieu's - particularly the bit about having a 'disinterested pleasure' which would suggest that there are no social or political factors at play - no aspiration or desire to be perceived as more sophisticated or clever than you already are, there is the sense that the foundation for conformity and exclusivity - cementing class barriers through taste choices, is being laid here.

art skool

This is an image from Daniel Clowes' 'Art School Confidential', its deadly accurate - describing art school types - wistful hippies, angry lesbian radicals, beatnik modernists etc etc - the fashions may have dated but the typologies remain.
So Art School - that process of education and transformation - did, I came to realise, imbue in me a set of values, ideas and tastes that have stayed with me ever since. The stuuf that I like to surround myself with [plaster casts/bits of coral/white things] refers to several traditions from classical sculpture and the process of drawing from casts to modernists ideals about form - even Peter Blake's Museum of the white. My taste for these things is not innate but acquired and carries with it associative value and pretence. Art School taught me how to use 'specialist language' - so that I could talk knowingly with other people in the know - I learned the codes, like never to use the word 'nice'. Although using the word nice now - is post ironic, acceptable - I now know so much that I can use the word nice to describe a piece of work in the full and certain knowledge that the person that I am talking with knows that I do not really mean that the work is merely 'nice'. So tastes and the way that I expressed them have moved away from the Edwardian semi in the midlands - they are now much more urbane and sophisticated, I am the product of several art schools - I have been through my reactionary phase [actively encouraged!] and come out of it the other side. This is simplistic - but my question is to what extent do institutions like the art school shape taste and values.

becoming institutionalised / the road to damascus

I wanted to tell a short story about taste development and role [positive and negative] that institutions have to play in the process. But starting with three little kittens is as good a place as any.
My grandparents, like many I expect, used to collect 'objet d'art', knick knacks and ornaments and keep them on the mantelpiece and in a special, glass fronted, unit. My grandfather was particularly fond of three brands of these kind of goods. There is an example of one above from the Franklin Mint. The Franklin Mint usually advertise in the back of the supplement for the Mail on Sunday and each week there would be an image of a either a Georgian Lady on a swing, in soft focus, or a small, dewy eyed boy reclining in a pile of hay and invariably these things would find their way in to the cabinet in my grandparents front room.
I used to love these objects and seem to remember spending a lot of time looking at them - marvelling at the skill and dexterity of the artists.

They were also partial to Lladro figurines and

Porcelain from Limoges in France - although they never managed to acquire anything quite as spectacular as these vases with their magnificent cartouches depicting 'mythological scenes'. My appreciation of these objets was usually accompanied by the tortured crooning of Engelbert Humperdink or P J Proby on the casette player.

For a long time my parent appeared to 'sort of' share these tastes and the odd bit of Lladro would find its way in to our semi-detached new build.

It looked a bit like this only less grand and without the garage.
But then we moved to a house that looked like this:

An Edwardian semi detached house with a pantry and period features, like wood panelling and an authentic bathroom suite. It also had a leaking roof and ice formed on the inside of the windows in the winter. No more banal little semi for us -
With this transition came a marked change in the stuff that we surrounded ourselves with - every Sunday I found myself at an Antiques market - getting something authentic, with character. No more Franklin mint for me.

I'd even lost my taste for Engelbert.
I cannot say that this transition had anything to do with aspiration or an overt desire to be perceived as more sophisticated or clever on the part of my parents - but it was a distinct change. Naturally this had an effect on me - I am sitting in my own home surrounded by mid century modern furniture, Danish light fittings, formica tables [irony!]. I also have gonks and tringlements but they are 'tasteful' and reference working resources that I have seen/liked at places like Barbara
Hepworth's studio in St Ives but I shall come to this.

The point here is that my own value system changed and evolved over time - my tastes changed. This may seem like an obvious point but it does reinforce Bourdieu's claim - in a way.
The next phase in terms of my own taste development happened when I went to West Notts.. College of FE - 'the art school'. Again it is an obvious observation but this experience exposed me to stuff/things and ideas that were so far removed from my own experiences that it was bewildering...and seductive. And it is this quasi-religious/erotic element to institutional art school education that I would like to briefly look at.

Martin Parr

Martin Parr's documentary photography.
Martin Parr has consistently produced work that highlights the frailties of the British working class, perhaps?. This may be a crude description of the work - but I cannot help but feel ambivalent/troubled by the way of looking. We are
presented with lurid images that seem to present a particular stance on the part of the photographer - is this sneering contempt or genuine empathy? there is a focus in Parr's work on the 'taste' of the subject - his clever use of objects/signs that connect you to the subject on both a personal and political level. Roland Barthes would call this the studium and the punctum, twin mechanisms by which we are enabled to 'read' an image - but there is inevitably an element of taste at play here and it is bound in to the culture and politics of the photographer and the viewer.

Class, Bourdieu and Mitford

Taste and class.
Below a sketch featuring the Two Ronnies and John Cleese. In a way it is one way to explore the notion of Cultural Capital and the relationship between Social class and judgements of taste put forward by Pierre Bourdieu in his seminal work Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste

Bourdieu said:
“Whereas the ideology of charisma regards taste in a legitimate culture as a gift of nature, scientific observation shows that cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education: surveys establish that all cultural practices [museum visits, concert going, reading etc] and preferences in literature, painting or music, are closely liked to educational level [measured by qualifications or length of schooling] and secondarily to social origin"

Bonjour Pierre!

So Bourdieu describes the acquisition of certain preferences as a result of upbringing and education. Interestingly - John Cleese's character, the impoverished Upper Class Male states that he has 'innate breeding [but no money!]. His claim being that his inherent superiority is hereditary - inborn, and arguably his taste [which will also be superior in every way], is natural and the result of genes. The idea of innate-ness [although not necessarily linked to Social class] runs counter to Bourdieu's theory of acquired Cultural Capital. The phrase Cultural Capital is well worn now and it is commonly accepted as the theory that best reflects how an individual develops, ideas, preferences and taste. Innate-ness is loaded with a class history and, at its heart, suggests that those in-bred qualities cannot be bought/read about/acquired through education or a set of favourable circumstances. When Ronnie Corbett, as the quintessential working class man, says "I know my place" he certainly does. However Bourdieu claims that Cultural Capital is learnt, that there is no such thing as innate-ness. He belongs to the 'accident of birth' camp which suggests that had Elizabeth Windsor been born on a council estate in the black country, to a working class family not only would her accent have been completely different, but her sense of purpose, superiority, duty and taste [so do I]. So, does this also mean that taste is learned? it would suggest so.

What is also apparent in the sketch is an element of aspiration on the part of the character who represents the middle classes, Ronnie Barker, - the arriviste. This debate was illustrated in the article produced by Nancy Mitford in the 1950s describing 'linguistic' differences the U and not U [the U here standing for the Upper Classes] where social breeding [not innate-ness] is typified by a certain use of language for instance saying what? instead of pardon? and calling a fireplace a chimney-piece. It outlined a difference - the working classes being largely neglected form this particular discussion. So aspiration, the appropriation of language, behaviour and perhaps more particularly from our point of view objects/images/things that describe an approach to taste and therefore locate us in terms of our class and social standing.

So taste can perhaps be learned, can perhaps be acquired, can also be appropriated and adopted. Taste can become an affectation or badge to distinguish us from or align us with a particular social group.

Stephen Bayley on taste and class:
"Taste is a merciless betrayer of social and cultural attitudes"

Taste and Duchamp

The subject for the first Key ideas symposium this year is taste.

We will be using this opportunity to examine ideas around the notion of taste. This is one of the things that Stephen Bayley has to say about it:

“Everyone has taste and yet it is a more taboo subject than sex or money. The reason for this is simple. Claims about your attitudes to or achievements in the carnal or financial arenas can be disputed only by your lover and your financial advisors, whereas by making a statement about your taste you expose body and soul to terrible scrutiny”

Bayley.S, P.13 General Knowledge, Booth Clibborn Editions [2000]

Taste – or personal visual and aesthetic preference - is a contentious and difficult subject to tackle head on. We realized this at a previous Key Ideas symposium when a ‘light’ element of the overall discussion around Image became the dominant talking point. It was apparent that Stephen Bayley’s assertion that Taste is a problematic subject was correct. The discussion that developed ranged broadly across a variety of cultural assumptions, issues around social class, politics and aesthetics. It was impassioned and well informed but inconclusive and has prompted us to make Taste the subject for today’s discussion and activities. The aim of the symposium is to firstly talk about Taste and its development as an idea and secondly to ask all participants to consider what this thing Taste is, where is comes from and what it means. Everybody in the room is connected to design, in most cases as practitioners and cannot help but apply a personal sensibility to the processes that we engage in. Taste plays a part in everything that we do, everything that we buy, everything that we produce, it is integral to our visual lives and therefore worthy of further scrutiny.

This is Marcel Duchamp talking about his approach to taste and Art. I wonder who the laymen who are so desperate to be pleased
are? So, Marcel Duchamp equates being pleased or deriving pleasure with Taste. Is Duchamp here signalling his distaste for vulgar pleasure seeking in Art - his indifference could be interpreted as the ultimate disaffected 'pose'. Suggesting that to offer an opinion one way or the other is beneath his dignity or perhaps that the obvious and crude desire for pleasure is the terrain of those less refined or sophisticated. This, broadly speaking, describes a notion put forward by Bourdieu - sublimation.

"The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile - in a word, natural - enjoyment which consitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane. That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social difference"