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On the Definition of Good Taste in Art and Music


January 9, 2009

To have good taste in something has always been a fragile concept for me, and the fundamental problem is that I can't define what having "good taste" actually means, and yet I would like to think of myself as having it. Some people believe that this is actually a pointless argument, that "good taste" is purely a subjective notion and consequently impossible to define objectively. But I don't think this is the case, because when I first I started thinking about this question, I've already begun to sense that my taste in music is far better than my taste in art. I just didn't know what I meant at the time when I said "better".

Consistency

I believe that I possess a more refined taste in movies and music relative to my taste in classical art which is abysmal. If someone were to ask me why I like a particular painting, I would be unable to do more than mumble vague truisms about color and texture. But on the subject of my favorite music, I could describe everything I loved and hated about a song down to the individual notes. "It's those three notes! Right there! Do you hear it? I just love those three notes!" is a reply I gave once to my friend.

During my life so far, I was lucky enough to have traveled to Europe several times now, and have visited the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican museum, and the Louvre twice. But if someone were to ask me what my favourite paintings are, I would still be unable to give a definitive answer, whereas I can spin off a long list of my favorite movies.

So one necessary condition for having good taste, it seems, is to first of all, have taste. You simply have to know what you like! You have to be able to make a list of your favorite paintings before anyone can judge whether that list is any good. So one measure that seems suited for judging one's taste, is how consistent it is.

If I were to give you a thousand paintings, and told you to rate each one from one to ten, and repeated this test once a year, how consistent across time would your ratings be? If your ratings are very consistent, then we can safely say that you know what you like. Otherwise you're just the human equivalent of a noisy sensor.

Difficulty

Consistency by itself is not enough to identify good taste. Take Tom's taste for example, he prefers paintings with a lot of red in it. The more red the better. It doesn't even matter how the red is arranged, it only matters that it's there. Tom would score very well on the consistency test, but few people would say he has good taste in art. So there must be another factor in determining good taste than just consistency.

The thing to notice about Tom though, is that his taste is very easy to satisfy. In fact, according to his taste, a completely red canvas would be the perfect painting. It's impossible to any better. And a gorilla can splash red paint on a canvas as well as any Leonardo.

So difficulty becomes a defining attribute of good taste. A painting is only good if it's very difficult to reproduce. I think this is reasonable because it matches well with my experience. In grade one, when I was around five years old, it was very popular for students to want to draw rainbows on every art assignment given to them. And at that age, I think this was a very reasonable thing to do. I liked rainbows. They have a nice shape and pleasing harmonious colors. I don't know of any child that didn't go through a rainbow drawing phase in their life.

If you inspect a child's case of color markers, you will find that the most worn out colors are almost always the colors that comprise the rainbow. The brown marker is usually untouched. I remember I personally used them as projectiles to be thrown as weapons.

And eventually the novelty of rainbows wear off. Since every kid in the class can now draw one there is nothing special anymore about the one that you drew. And thus our tastes evolve.

Good Taste

So good taste, in my opinion, is defined by two attributes. How consistent it is, and how hard it is to satisfy. In another article I will comment on about how one goes about developing one's taste, which I didn't mention in this article.

 -Patrick

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