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The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Taste & Style

What is Taste?

"Taste is a love of beauty." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
"All of life is a dispute over taste and tasting." – Nietzsche

Taste is someone's personal preference in food, fashion, music, beauty, art, and literature. Your taste determines what brings you pleasure, and what doesn't - what you like and don't like.

Your taste can change as you grow. A young child might not like bitter things like beer or tomatoes, but learn to like them as he grows up. Similarly, your taste in music and literature will change as you learn and understand more.

Your taste also depends on your identity. There are two questions a person must answer when deciding if he likes something:

1. What is there to like about this thing? What's good about it?
2. What will people think of me, if they know I like or dislike this? How am I expected to react?

So, a teenager might like heavy metal as a way of expressing rebellion, anger, and dissatisfaction with life. He wears black clothes and wears his hair long, to look like a rock star. He wants to show his family, friends, and teachers, that he's not afraid to look different (although teens often flock in groups that dress identically) or frightening. In college, he might feel self-conscious, being the only one who dresses in that manner - it probably looks dated by now. So, he changes his style, his hair, his way of speaking, and starts listening to classical music to show his peers that he's sophisticated. Sometimes people get tired of the way they look, or they feel older and ready to change. Sometimes people like something because it makes them feel rich, like sports cars and caviar.

"Know why certain foods, such as truffles (hľuzovky), are expensive? It's not because they taste best."Marilyn vos Savant

People cultivate their taste as a way to describe themselves, even as a way of advertising - a kind of self-promotion. That's also why, according to Thorstein Veblen, people copy each other's taste. If your best friend likes Nirvana, then you'll give Nirvana a try. If your colleagues at work all have similar haircuts and sports cars, then you'll feel expected to have the same haircut and sports car. Everyone wants to fit in, and we use taste to do it.

What is Good Taste? Is there a standard definition?

Good question. It's debatable. The most famous quote regarding taste comes from ancient Latin,

"de gustibus non est disputandum,"

meaning it's impossible to argue over taste. It's true about food. One person might love pickles, while another hates them. Do pickles taste good? Who is right? There's no answer, because your opinion is based on your taste buds (chuťové poháriky) rather than any higher logic.

But, with other things, like music, beauty, and art, there are arguments for a standard of good taste, based on aesthetics - qualities that appeal to an intelligent, emotional person. Not everyone agrees. For instance, George Orwell said:

"In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is "good". Nor is there any way of definitely proving that––for instance––Warwick Beeping is "bad". Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion."

But some people feel there are standards or qualities of good taste. The best explanation I've found was by the painter Stapleton Kearns (I'm paraphrasing here):

"Taste is a quality that an artwork may possess. Taste is now terribly underestimated (podceňovaný), but it was thought, until our grandfathers time, to be essential and a characteristic of the finest art that set it above the merely pretty or mundane (svetský, pozemský). It was one of the things that separated the fine arts from the baser (nižšej) products of the ordinary world of commerce and illustration.

Taste is the integrity of aesthetics, the highest form of artistic ethics, the high road. Taste is cool, measured, quiet, dignified (dôstojný), and refined (rafinovaný). It doesn’t shock or scream at you. Taste lives in the color, the proportions, the design, and every aspect of a painting. It is often a restraint (zdržanlivosť) of color and design, and a moderation of subject matter away from the extreme, the cloying (presítený), and the vulgar. It is neither cute nor morbid (morbídny). It is never obscene, or just the newest incarnation of a tired idea we have all seen before. It is neither retreaded (protektorovaný) nor spiky (špicatý). It is never sentimental, sensational, or cloyingly sweet.

Taste treats the viewer with the greatest possible respect. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill spoke with taste. [George Bush didn't] Taste places quality above commerciality. It's opposite to what I call “heightened cheese content”. It doesn’t make the most sellable art, but there are always clients who want it. Taste values workmanship, but neither flaunts (nechvalí) it nor imagines technique the purpose of art, but merely (len) its means. I often see well made art that fails because it lacks taste.

Tasteful art is powerful, not flashy. It is seldom the brightest thing in a show or gallery, but it is often the thing that speaks to you every time you see it, rather than expending its force like a firecracker, the first instant it is seen. It makes art that can be enjoyed for a lifetime, that will always appeal to the viewer, even as their knowledge and discernment increase. It strives for the eternal and eschews (vyhýba sa) the suddenly fashionable. Taste is what often separates the good from the great. The best artists almost always have it."

What is Bad/Poor Taste?

"It is impossible to have bad taste, but many people have none at all."Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

"Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste." - Charles Bukowski

Bad taste is most often something silly, lacking in quality or logic - often called tasteless. Making a mosaic portrait of Michael Jackson out of prescription pills is an example of bad taste:

by Jason Mecier

The jokes at and are tasteless - they're really funny, but they're tasteless.

Something done "in poor taste" often means that it's insensitive and offensive. Some art and music is meant to revolt (vzbudzovať odpor) and upset (rozrušiť) the audience.

Anarchy in the UK, by the Sex Pistols
(Note: The Sex Pistols were one of the first punk bands, protesting against the conservative, corporate establishment. The video above has been blocked by record companies on copyright grounds, a perfect example of the failure of punk rock - at least as a social movement.)

The artists or muscians enjoy upsetting people. Whether it's justified (oprávnený) is up to you, and it depends on the situation.

"If you're offended (ak si urazený), then you deserve to be (zaslúžiš si)." - George Carlin

Is Taste important? Does it matter?

"Sometimes it's more important to be human, than to have good taste." - Bertolt Brecht

It depends. If you want to be happy, or at least comfortable, you need the freedom to enjoy your own tastes. Imagine a world where everyone has to eat spinach and cauliflower at every meal, or where you can't listen to rock n' roll, or where library books are burned in piles.

On the other hand, many writers, artists, and especially comedians see it as a limit on your creativity.

"There is a fine line between censorship and good taste and moral responsibility." - Stephen Spielberg

Here’s an example. It’s normally in bad taste to make jokes about war and dying. But, wars are often unjust, and humour is a powerful method of making arguments. So, how does a master comedian do it? Here’s George Carlin again:

“During one of those patriotic orgies of self-congratulation that followed the first Gulf War, as General Schwarzkopf was bragging about dropping fire on women and babies, a protester interrupted his speech. The man who had killed a few hundred thousand civilians continued to speak. The protester was charged with disturbing the peace (bol obvinený z výtržníctva).”

George made a joke, but it’s not the kind where you laugh. It’s a kind that makes you think, that confronts the audience. He’s asking people if we should really accept these kinds of speeches in our society. After the 1st Gulf War, Schwarzkopf got paid about $20,000 per speech to talk about the war, showing videos of “smart bombs”. George Carlin’s joke is not polite nor tasteful, but it is human, and in this situation, that’s more important.

What are some other kinds of taste?

Impeccable Taste - When someone's taste is so great that no one can criticize it. It usually refers to someone's fashion sense.

Varied Taste - When someone likes a variety of styles, usually musical.

Acquired Taste - when something is too strange, exotic, bitter, or complex to be liked at first. But with time and exposure, you learn to like it. "Reality is an acquired taste." - Robert Fritz

Eclectic Taste - strange taste, when someone likes a variety of things that don't normally go together. Like when a pregnant woman gets a craving for pickles and icecream. It's also used for fashion - mixing styles, both old and new in strange new ways.

Lavish Taste - When someone likes rich, expensive things. This is used to describe people with expensive houses, cars, and clothes.

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