On personal taste

De gustibus non est disputandum
In matters of taste there can be no dispute.

Can this statement itself not be disputed? If I were to eat fish that has gone off, and, not even realising that it has gone off – or, perhaps, realising, but not caring – find this rotten fish to my taste, can it not reasonably be claimed that my taste is poor? But even here, I think, if I enjoy rotten fish, then it is my privilege to do so, and there can be no room for dispute on this point.

So, in short, everyone is entitled to like or to dislike whatever they damn well want. There is never, and nor can there ever be, any argument on this point.

However, being a self-proclaimed argumentative old git, I can’t quite let it go there. The expression of an opinion – an expression, inevitably, of one’s personal taste – is frequently presented as a final word: “it’s just my opinion” is a phrase almost invariably intended as the last word in any argument – the adjective “just” denoting the very opposite of the humility and self-deprecation implied by its literal meaning: it’s a way of saying “This is my opinion, an expression of my personal taste, and don’t you dare dispute that!” Fair enough. As we all agreed, there can be no disputing that. And yet, something in me in me demands that I dispute it: there is in me a perverse streak that sees “It’s just my opinion” as but the beginning of a debate, not the end of one.

At the very least, if personal taste is to be the ultimate criterion – even if that personal taste is unable to distinguish fresh fish from rotten – let us at least consider the nature of this “personal taste”. Is it innate in us ? – is it something we are born with? Up to a point, certainly. It is also, I think, what we take in as we grow up – what we are accustomed to: as in the shaping of our personalities, both nature and nurture play major parts in shaping our tastes.

But then, what are we to make of “acquired taste”? What can we make of those things we like – often love, sometimes love passionately – but which we only came to love after much exposure, and not at first sight? I cannot, for instance, believe that there can be too many people – if, indeed, any at all – who love beer at first taste. Especially English ales. Now, I love a good pint of English ale, and I know that this love is not an affectation on my part; and yet, it took me a long, long time to get round to liking these ales; and those who have not yet developed a taste for them tend, I have noticed, to turn away even at first gulp in barely-concealed disgust. It is, in short, an “acquired taste” – although, I’d argue, a taste that is well worth acquiring.

Moving away from food and drink, it seems to me that much – if, indeed, not most, or even all – that I love and value most dearly are “acquired tastes”. Often, this is inevitably so: when we describe something as “deep”, we are using a metaphor to denote that much of its substance lies below the surface; and when this is so, how can we hope to gauge its true worth from a first glance that takes in no more than merely the surface? Does not the taste for anything that is “deep” need to be acquired?

But how exactly do we “acquire” tastes for certain things? By exposing ourselves to them over time, seems the obvious answer. But one cannot expose oneself over time to everything; and if, at first acquaintance, something had made but an indifferent or even a bad impression, then we are not very likely to welcome further exposure to it: life isn’t long enough to persevere with everything. Inevitably, one has to choose what one perseveres with, and the factors governing these choices seem to me worth considering. There’s social pressure, for a start (without social pressure, the market for English ales may, I fear, be very small indeed); there is, sometimes, an inkling even from an inadequate first viewing that there had been more than had initially met the eye; and it may be that those whose judgement we trust convince us that the effort put into liking something – even if that something seems unpromising to begin with – may be rewarded. But whatever the reason for pursuing further that which had not at first made too great an impression, the fact remains that the decision to pursue it or otherwise is our decision, it is our choice. In short, up to a considerable extent, far more so, I think, than is generally recognised, we may choose what we like or dislike; we may direct our own tastes.

Let me propose an example. I may choose, if I were so inclined, to like Renaissance polyphony. This is something I know very little about; but I may listen to recordings of masses and motets by Byrd and Palestrina and Lassus; I may read books about them, to understand them better; I may attend concerts; I may, in short, immerse myself in all this, until my ear and my mind learn to pick out the esoteric beauties of this music, to distinguish its subtleties. Now, it may be, of course, that my ear isn’t up to it; or it may be that my mind can’t take it in; or it may be that even after I had trained myself to take it all in, there remains some inexplicable aspect in my character that refuses to enjoy it. All this is true. But it is also true that if I choose not to make the effort, then I’d never get to like this complex and intricate music. So do I make the effort, or don’t I? The choice is mine. If, inspired by the belief that it is highly unlikely for something not worthwhile to be thought of so highly by generations of intelligent and discerning people across the centuries, I do make the effort, then I may get to like it; but if, on the other hand, I cling to the belief that all “classical music” is stuffy and elitist and but a symbol of middle-class privilege, and I do not make the effort, then I certainly won’t get to like it. To a very great extent, what I end up liking or not liking is a consequence of a conscious choice on my part.

So yes, in matters of taste there can be no dispute. But the directions in which we choose to develop our personal tastes seem to me very much open to debate. And as an argumentative old git, I can only welcome that.

15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on August 23, 2012 at 12:36 am

    Thought provoking commentary as usual Himadri.

    I would just add, that there is a tendency for me, as I suspect it is for most people, that when I do acquire a taste for the more sophisticated, be it movies, books music , beer, etc., I often lose my taste for the less sophisticated and simplistic versions. There are books and movies that I was so very impressed with once upon a time that now seem boring shallow and cheap.

    By the way, I too love higher quality beers and I like Real English Ales very much!

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, I suppose in a sense this is inevitable: our tastes change with age, and the reason for this change is, I think, that we ourselves change with experience. And coming to know and to enjoy finer things are part of this experience. There are certainly many books and films I enjoyed as a child that I don’t think I’d be able to sit through now. But this isn’t, thankfully, always the case: nostalgia is a powerful force – at least in my case – and there is much that is not of a particularly high quality that I still enjoy for the sake of nostalgia. When I catch a few bars of some pop song that I used to jump up & down to as a thirteen-year-old, it still makes me feel good, and sometimes even brings a tear to the eye – even though I am well aware that in terms of quality, it isn’t exactly on a par with Beethoven quartets! :)

      Glad to know you’re a fan of real Engish ales, although, as I have said elsewhere, I have had virtually to give them up for health reasons.

      Reply

  2. This is something I’ve pondered often over the years, because my tastes often seem to be out of whack with those of people around me. I’ll persevere in cases where I sense that I really ought to like something more than I do, but I’m a fairly impatient and lazy person, so I’ll only put so much effort into appreciating things I don’t like. Beer took a bit of effort, but single malt whisky was a case of love at first taste!

    Reply

    • Hello Paul, and good to see you round these parts! Sadly, I have virtually given up beer: I had to for health reasons – all those sugars and carbohydrates just weren’t good for me. I think I took a bit longer over malt whisky than you did – but when I die and ho to heaven, I know that if I’ve been good, the Almighty will grant me a cellar full of the finest stuff!

      There are several things that I now love dearly, but which required time and effort. And it’s still happening: just give me a few more years, and I know I’ll emerge a huge fan of the novels of Jane Austen! Sometimes, I think back on my changing tastes over the years – in something such as literature, say – and it’s almost like autobiography: those changing tastes seem to reflect my changing outlooks over the years. But there are some areas that will always, I think, remain closed books to me: I doubt, for instance, that I’ll ever be able to enjoy science fiction – it is something that has always eluded me.

      Reply

  3. The beer example struck a chord. The only beers available in Louisiana for many years were commercial brands (Miller, Budweiser, etc.) and a couple of microbrews (Abita, Pete’s), whose quality was vastly overrated simply due to their geographical location. After living in Michigan for a decade (this month!), I’m *still* staggered by the sheer variety and quality of beers out there, not just in Michigan but in other parts of the Upper Midwest, especially Wisconsin. If I’d never moved here, I’d never have gotten to experience the delights of, say, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale. Expanding one’s horizons may backfire, but I usually think it’s a worthwhile effort. When it comes to literature or film, say, my liking for films or writing of greater artistic quality can actually inform and enrich my occasional enjoyment for the more run-of-the-mill or even crappier specimens, and to recognize when questions of quality seem to fly out the window and become meaningless through some weird physical quirk. Sometimes I won’t be able to defend a choice on qualitative grounds, but I *will* be able to explain *why* I like it. Thankfully, my personality and some of my choices in life have largely inured me to much social pressure when it comes to my time spent.

    It’s weird that you post this now, as I’ve recently begun my quest to find out why people like comic books so much (read “Batman: Year One” a couple of nights ago). It isn’t social pressure, though the dominant culture has overwhelmingly embraced the medium (or the nerd money that comes with it), just a mystification that so many people whose personalities and tastes I like and respect have such fondness and love for something that leaves me so cold (much of this is because I find superheroes tremendously boring, though I also find the mix of artwork, dialogue, and text jarring), This isn’t limited to comic books. For whatever reason, I find it difficult these days to appreciate poetry, and I’ve always been tepid when it comes to whole arts such as sculpture or architecture. At my age (thirty-seven), I have to wonder I have enough of a grounding in my own art form (prose fiction) to start branching out into others (if only as influences, though I want to learn how to play the guitar, or at least the rudiments, for an upcoming project). So the question of taste, as you mention, comes with a time factor that weighs heavier and heavier. The weighted questions that come with this stuff only get more confusing. I wonder sometimes whether that excites me or depresses me, to be honest. Probably the former.

    Reply

    • Hello Wendell, I find this point of yours particularly fascinating:
      When it comes to literature or film, say, my liking for films or writing of greater artistic quality can actually inform and enrich my occasional enjoyment for the more run-of-the-mill or even crappier specimens, and to recognize when questions of quality seem to fly out the window and become meaningless through some weird physical quirk.
      I find it fascinating because it is the complete opposite of the point Brian makes above, and I am trying to reconcile the two. It is certainly true that as a small boy, I used to laugh at Abbott & Costello films: I don’t think I could now. And yet, my childhood love of Hammer horror films has stayed with me, although I know that by any reasonable critical criteria, not even the best of them are up to the standard of a Wild Strawberries or an Andrei Rublev. Is this “weird physical quirk” you mention nostalgia, I wonder? A warm remembrance of the kind of thing that used to make one feel good when one was younger? Is there some other reason for prizing that which one knows to be of inferior quality above that one knows to be superior? Or do we just accept that we are irrational beings, and leave it there? It’s an interesting one…

      I too share your puzzlement over superhero comics. I do love poetry though. That art form I find most difficult to appreciate is dace. I can enjoy the elegance of a Fred Astaire or the physical bravura of a Gene Kelly, say, but ballet largely leaves me cold; and modern dance means very little to me. But then again, I have expended no effort at all in getting to know and to understand these forms: I suppose what this is another example of where I may choose the direction in which I wish to develop my tastes.

      Reply

      • I think maybe it comes down to being aware of separate scales, with their own criteria. For example, I can wholly appreciate that ANDREI RUBLEV and I, MONSTER are completely different kinds of movies, both in genre and artistic quality, but I’m fully capable of appreciating both the staggering cinematic talent and vision that went into the former and the endearingly ramshackle story-telling, photography, editing, and Mike Raven that produced the latter. They’re not the same at all, but I think I *am* capable of getting equal amounts of enjoyment out of them, under certain circumstances. There’s plenty of room between the very best and the very worst, and I think focusing on the former as an absolute hallmark can occasionally subconsciously sell short some of the more middling productions on offer (you seem to get at this point in the preface to your latest post on “Anna Karenina”). To go back to my previous example, beer is another thing entirely. Savoring a glass of Anchor Steam or Bell’s Two-Hearted at one’s favorite bar is wholly different from having to make do with a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon at the nearby dive or finding that a family function back home only has Coors or Bud Light and hence being forced to boycott beer for a couple of hours. The surrounding *times* may be equally enjoyable, but I’m (more or less) incapable of getting the same kind of enjoyment out of the product. I think that physical taste, epistemological though its roots may be, simply varies less than cultural taste (at least for me), so that principle doesn’t always hold true.

    • It’s weird that you post this now, as I’ve recently begun my quest to find out why people like comic books so much (read “Batman: Year One” a couple of nights ago). It isn’t social pressure, though the dominant culture has overwhelmingly embraced the medium (or the nerd money that comes with it), just a mystification that so many people whose personalities and tastes I like and respect have such fondness and love for something that leaves me so cold (much of this is because I find superheroes tremendously boring, though I also find the mix of artwork, dialogue, and text jarring)

      There’s nothing like a well-made superhero comic book. Done right, it’s one of the most pleasurable experiences a human being can have. The mixture of naïve idealism, humor, (soap) opera, decades-old continuity, entertaining violence, the triumph over evil and the affirmation of all the best in human beings is impossible in any other art form, but in a superhero comic book, all these features just come together perfectly. Comics are the rightful heirs of the great 19th century storytellers – Stevenson, Haggard, Salgari, Wells, Verne, Conan Doyle: a repository of entertaining adventures and basic moral teachings that engage with readers at their most elementary level because they give them the thrills they want and allow them to become, for a few instants, the heroes they’d like to be. At their peak of popularity, in the 1940s, American comics sold dozens of millions of copies every month. During the Depression, how could the reader not love to see Superman throwing bankers and capitalists off rooftops? And during WWII, how could the reader not squeal in pleasure as Captain America punched Hitler right on the face? And what child wouldn’t love to utter the magical word Shazam and become Captain Marvel, an adult with the powers of the ancient gods?

      There’s nothing wrong with superhero comics, except that kids no longer read them and, at best, the most successful title sells only 100,000 copies a month. In a country with 300 million people, that’s ridiculous. I’ve given them up because they’re just not as good as they used to be. They were a big part of my childhood, my first incursions into literature, and they taught me many important values. But these days they’re angst-ridden, cynical, violent, repellent excuses of writing and artwork that don’t even meet the basic standards of storytelling. The movies, especially Christopher Nolan’s, don’t help matters. It makes me sad to think that people watch those humorless, hyper-real, unimaginative, grey movies and think they’re getting the actual experience of what superheroes are about.

      Of course there are many good non-superhero comics made by very talented artists and writers. Those are the comics people disappointed with superheroes gravitate to, unless they’re too critically inebriated to notice the declining quality. And as those older readers leave, there are no new readers getting in, no kids. That saddens me a bit. I wonder where are kids learning about good and evil these days? And overcoming their fears? Harry Potter? Bah, in the 1980s X-Men had better, more complex and involving storytelling, more multiple storylines going on, and a wider and more interesting cast of characters, not to mention cooler settings than a nostalgic version of Britain’s medieval countryside.

      Superhero comic books are the best thing ever invented, and that’s a fact :)

      Reply

      • What a marvellous post!

        I must admit to not having grown up with these comics. When I was growing up (60s and 70s), the comics most widely available in UK were either wartime adventure stories (which didn’t really interest me), or the unny ones – Beano, Dandy, Topper, Sparky, Beezer, etc. – which I lapped up, and which I look back on with fond nostalgia. (These comics have fallen very much out of fasion these days.) I had never really considered the Marvel superhero comics before, but the case you make for them, and the enthusiasm you have for them, does make me want to investigate.

        I don’t, I confess, enjoy the recent super-hero films, and was quite heartened to read your less-than-enthusiastic comments on them. But then again, I am both out of touch and out of sympathy with modern cinema: modern film-makers even make a mess out of such seemingly foolproof material as Robin Hood or The Three Musketeers, so I have no problem in accepting that these superhero films are not accurate reflections of the original material.

        As for me, I learnt about good and evil from teh Robin hood series on British television back in the 60s, with Robin Hood (Richard Greene) battling against teh evil Sheriff of Nottingham. I enjoyed the Errol Flynn film as well.

        Cheers for now,
        Himadri

      • Learning good and evil from Robin Hood in my generation… Maid Marian and her Merry Men provided many pleasures and lessons, but good and evil wasn’t one of them :)

  4. Hello Wendell,
    First of all, I think my writing style conveys a greater degree of certainty and dogmatism than I usually intend; sometimes, as, I think, in this post, I give the impression of thundering down imperatives from on high, when, really, I am just taking some ideas for a walk, as it were, just to see where they lead me. The issues of personal tastes, of how they develop, of how flexible they are, of what choice if any we may have in moulding them, are complex and tangled; and, this being the case, certainty is out of place (of that at least I am certain! :) )

    I certainly have no problem with, as you put it, “separate scales”. The criteria by which I rate I, Monster, even unconsciously, are clearly different from those I’d apply to Andrei Rublev. But what is interesting for me is that we actually have separate scales: we do not do away with scales altogether because we are not dealing with the great artistic hallmarks. We are both, after all, aficionados of horror films – a genre that hasn’t, if we’re to be honest, produced too many works of artistic worth: ye I am sure that we could both reel off titles of horror films that are so bad as to be unwatchable. They are not bad in comparison with Andrei Rublev: that particular comparison is meaningless. But they are bad in comparison with I, Monster.

    If I am making a bit of a meal out of this, it is because there have been many instances when I have criticised something that is popular, only to be told that whatever it is I am criticising is only “a bit of fun”, or “light and undemanding” – the implication being that if anything is intended to be a light and undemanding bit of fun, standards do not apply. And I always find myself disagreeing vehemently with this: to say that standards of excellence do not apply to popular culture is insulting both to those practitioners of popular culture who do care about quality, and also to those who enjoy their works. There do, I think, exist standards of excellence applicable to horror films (although I agree that these standards are up for debate) whereby I, Monster or The Plague of the Zombies may be judged as good films; and these are very different from the standards whereby Andrei Rublev or Wild Strawberries may be judged as good films.

    But that I may enjoy them both – i.e. that I may appreciate both sets of standards – does not imply that I, Monster is an achievement of a comparable artistic level of Andrei Rublev. (Bear with me – I’m just taking an idea for a walk again!) I may enjoy them both equally in different frames of mind: but that is not, I think, a criterion of artistic merit. Of course, there is no compulsion on anyone to care for artistic merit: that’s fair enough. But if they do, then the artistic superiority of Andrei Rublev over I, Monster must surely be acknowledged. If, that is, one has developed a taste for cinema as an expression of artistic vision. And my argument is that developing such a taste – or, indeed, any other taste – is, to a very great extent, a matter of personal choice.

    I think I agree with you that “physical taste …varies less than cultural taste”. All metaphors , by their very nature, break down beyond a point: perhaps this one breaks down sooner than most!

    Cheers, Himadri

    Reply

  5. Posted by alan on September 16, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    “Had we but world enough, and time”

    This is a yes, but: Yes, but I have limited time in which to develop my tastes, and a lot of people, perhaps the world’s majority, have had less time than us.

    So, inevitably, we must make choices, and you shouldn’t be that surprised or offended if some people’s choice is to follow a path that does not take years of study.

    “Years of study” might be a misnomer, and perhaps in the case of beer it is rather years of habituation, and I’m sure most of us can manage that if there is nothing else to get out of one’s box on.

    To quote my grandfather: “There’s no such thing as bad beer”.

    Reply

    • Hello Alan, I don’t know that I am offended “if some people’s choice is to follow a path that does not take years of study”. Not even if they had world enough and time, and still chose not to follow those paths. What paths people choose to follow is their own business, and it would be presumptuous of me to pass judgement. What does, I admit, rather upset me is the denial of the importance of what is usually termed “high culture”, and its sidelining from the mainstream. If something that requires effort is deemed unimportant, then one cannot expect people to make the effort to pursue it: why should they?

      And I am sorry to disagree with your grandfather, but i most certainly have had pints of bad beer that have made me feel sick! :)

      Reply

  6. Thanks for the heads-up on the replies, Himadri!

    Himadri: I’d never deny that ANDREI RUBLEV is a work of lesser–or even nearly approximate–artistic quality than I, MONSTER (and if historic BHC results have been anything to go on, quite a few people *don’t* consider the latter a “good” movie at all!). What I’ve been trying to say, I think, is that my reception of both films depends less on a singular application of “artistic quality” than on a continuum of different factors in which artistic quality rates as one component part. There’s a kind of nebulous feeling that comes into play in dealing with them. It’s like grading on a curve in some ways. For instance, I think TOUCH OF EVIL is a better film, of greater artistic quality, than FLASH GORDON, and maybe equal with CASABLANCA. All three are in my top ten favorite films of all time. So when we discuss something like “personal taste,” artistic quality is only, at least for me, one of the factors that go into the individual reception determining one’s memory and appreciation for those films. I think you got at that in your last reply, but I think that the “choice” varies by degrees, as well. Some have it more than others.

    Miguel: It was actually late 80s Marvel that drove me away. My brother used to collect comic books–mostly “X-Men,” from what I can remember–and I would read them on occasion. They struck me, even as a young teen, as pretty much the worst of what the wider cultural consciousness, at least until recently, thought of comic book culture: violent, nihilistic, unpleasant and often misogynist. This was, from what I understand, immediately preceding the infusion of British reformers like Morrison, Gaiman and Moore, and Miller’s reinvention of Batman, which I’ve now read, at least “Year One,” which was all right. I’ve since made a few stabs at trying to get back into the genre, so long as the works don’t involve superheroes, and I admit that much of the latter reluctance is based on their present reputation as doomy, neo-Goth bores (and I do agree that Nolan’s films have had a lot to do with that–a shame, really, as I enjoyed MEMENTO and *loved* THE PRESTIGE). It’s also a question of prioritization, though, one I’m pretty sure people have discussed before in this venue (though I could be wrong). I’m thirty-seven, work a blue-collar job, and have a wide variety of hobbies, chief of which is writing fiction. I’ve written one novel and am halfway through another, and am trying to write one short story a month this year, not to mention try and get something else published before New Year’s. As a blogger, I’m trying to keep a temporally embattled, erratic seven-year tradition going at my own place. As a civic-minded fellow, I try and keep up with the news, vote, and volunteer. As a cook, both vocationally and domestically, I try to research new recipes and do something new in the kitchen once a week. Exercise, social life, relaxation… the recitation may seem a little tedious, but I think it helps to illustrate that simply isn’t enough time in the day to try and do everything. It certainly leaves very little time to read books, let alone comic books or graphic novels (which admittedly take less time in general, so maybe I’m overthinking this). I’ve read a hundred books this year, and only three this month, as I’m now on my “writing season.” With all this, I have to carefully prioritize, and it’s been surprisingly difficult. Perhaps there will be time enough one day not only to get into comic books, but also the classic superhero variety of which I hear such good things, not just from yourself but from many of my friends. Apologies for the tangent, but I thought it was somewhat relevant to the discussion and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Thanks for the reply!

    Reply

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