Question of the Day: What is Taste? (Or, does it matter where the fashion victim bought her plastic?)

by on May.05, 2011

Question of the day: What is taste? Please answer in the comments field!

I’ve been writing a lot about “taste” it seems; how I’m against it and all that. In the comment to my last post about the Poetry Foundation, Steve Burt writes that he believes in “personal taste.” That concept is very popular in poetry discussions, the idea that we all have our “personal tastes.” And I am sure I have said similar things on this blog.

However, I feel dissatisfied with this concept – both “taste” and “personal”. It seems to me too invested in an idea of personal agency and original essence and interiority – as if we all have this individual taste with which we then approach the shopping mall of poetry (where everything is free).

It seems this model doesn’t acknowledge the way our reading/writing is shaped by the writers, teachers, texts, criticisms we encounter; not to mention extraliterary conditions; and it doesn’t show the way our “tastes” in fact affect others (Steve Burt’s personal tastes are published in The Believer and The New York Times – are they still “personal tastes”?). Everything becomes personal, the public space is erased.

It also suggests a critical distance and an evaluative model of interaction that I don’t relate to. Again, a kind of shopping mall of free agents roaming for their favorite goods, unencumbered by discussions publishing practices etc.

At the same time, so much of taste’s rhetoric is opposition to the market place: the hipster is ridiculed for wearing fancy clothes (her/his poetry is like clothes, shallow), opposing poetry are denigrated as “fads” (Hoagland calling his grad students “skittery poets of the moment” etc). The key here: fashion sweeps you off your feet, ruins your agency and individuality, puts a spell on you.

Is this a different kind of taste? Taste-taste. Taste as contagion, taste as art that escapes from the pages of the book, the video screen and turns you into media. Makes the world into a wax museum. (Anybody who’s seen those wax museum horror movies from the 50s know that there are corpses beneath that wax!)

And that’s why I’m constantly holding up fashion as a model for Art rather than it’s opposite. Art should infect you, erase your critical distance. Poetry Magazine can have their refined and well-educated everyman who keeps both feet on his ground; I feel closer to the “fashion victims.”

Further, “taste” is related to “tasteful” and “tasteless,” which always seem part of an institutional situation and class systems, and always seems based on various kinds of “restrain” (you have to learn not to enjoy your poetry too much, that’s tasteless).

I think of Art as something that obliterates taste. Ie exactly not the “clear-headed” agents of taste and refinement that Poetry Magazine envisions as its readers.

I feel like my writing/reading is more closely bound up in certain zones or environment, with certain assemblages or relationships I’ve formed with texts and writers and teachers and students and, yes, institutions. And of course with things outside of the strictly literary (being an immigrant for example, or having different jobs, living in the rust belt etc).

BUT at the same time, it’s very hard to think of a model without taste. Ie I obviously love Aase Berg, Chelsey Minnis, Artaud, Genet, pageants, outfits, Kathy Acker, ghost stories, b-movies, Godard, Ringu, Max Ernst, Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, Hitchcock, Jack Smith, Kara Walker, Basquiat, Ryan Trecartin, Joyelle McSweeney and her necropastoral, Kim Hyesoon, Von Trier (who made himself an aristocrat by adopting that prefix ‘Von’, and who is always accused of being tasteless), Mary Shelley, gothic tales of sleepwalkers, stunted fantasias, deplorable bodies etc.

And some of these I’ve liked for a long time (since watching Hitchcock as a 4-year-old for example) and others were later discoveries and some things I liked and then I didn’t like it and then I liked it in a different way or I liked with a different “taste” or I liked from a different place with a different direction.

Perhaps the problem here is “like” – a terms which tends to become an endpoint in a lot of discussions of poetry, and thus mostly conservative (ie “I know what I like, don’t try to introduce me to something new,” ie “don’t challenge who I am”, don’t corrupt my essence/interiority/sovereignty).

It’s hard to think beyond “personal taste.”

But: How can you “like” art when Art eats your face?When Art tastes you?

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Henry Gould

    Johannes, it seems sort of ironic to me that in the process of criticizing the individualist implications of the notion of “taste”, you are projecting your own personal definitions & implications of this term on others (like Burt) – the sense of the term, in your view, as bourgois level-headed shopping-mall consumerist…

    This is YOUR personal definition of “taste”. But there are others.

    Taste is another word for judgement or discrimination. In this sense, taste begins with the work of art itself : it represents (on one level, anyway) a kind of criticism or internal calibration or judgement on prior works of art or prior experience. And a reader of poetry with taste is someone who recognizes these dimensions in the work and responds to them. Such “dimensions” are really values. It’s by such values (say, originality, or authenticity, or relevance, or elegance, etc. etc.) that both the artist and the reader discover things in art that haven’t already been done better before. A person without taste is someone without discrimination or the means of judgement. This is not a moral or ethical shortcoming : in fact there are nasty people with discriminating taste, and beautiful people who know little about art or poetry.

  2. James Pate

    Yes, I think “taste” implies a subject/object divide that very much reinforces a classical notion of art. Art as that which we watch on stage with the footlights firmly in place. Derrida wrote admiringly of Artaud because of exactly this point: his desire to do away with the Theater-as-Contemplation, Theater-as-Allegory.

    The whole project of deconstruction could be seen as an attempt to carry this out in the world of philosophy and literature…

    And Henry: the values you discuss are fabricated, constructed, as is everything else when we talk about aesthetics. There is no such thing as “elegance:” only an discourse of elegance. The same holds true for authenticity, etc. I’m not against fabrication and the constructed, inorganic makeup of Art, I’m all for it. But these “values” are simple accidents of history, nothing more, and that fact should always be highlighted in these discussions…

  3. Johannes

    At the same time, it’s hard to think beyond “personal taste” when it comes to describing what drives one in a practical sense, so it’s hard for me to be too negative against Steve. In addition, Steve really takes the time to read contemporary poetry and write about it, which neither scholars nor poets seem all that willing to do.


  4. Kent Johnson

    I’m glad you said that, Johannes, especially after my remark regarding Steve’s rather weak comment under the other post (I’ve been posting too much, I know, I’ll stop for a while).

    But it’s good to say– in addition to his industriousness, Burt is one of the sharpest critics in poetry world, no question.

  5. Carina Finn

    taste = the shiniest thing anyone will let me touch. mostly taste = mirrors because I am vain. therefore taste = glitter just a lot of mirrors. I want to go to the mall with daddy’s plastic & buy whatever I want I am a girl-poet this is my right. of course it matters where the victim buys her plastic there are always three malls there is the ghetto mall the average mall & the princess mall. at the princess mall they only pretend to let girls buy the dresses really you just try them on. taste = whatever, it’s going to change in five seconds. if someone has a cooler outfit than me I will hate them forever.

  6. Monica Mody

    “AHG slrp mn mn … ulp ohhoo slrcch … ah ohhoo … ohhoo mmf …?…”
    (Phaedrus in dialogue with Socrates)

    – Paul Chan, Phaedrus Pron

  7. Henry Gould

    The curious thing these days is that it’s fashionable to be tasteless. I guess you could call it decadence.

  8. Dan Citro

    ah, but who has the energy even for that.

  9. Elisa

    I’m sorry I missed this post when it was new. I’m very interested in taste, how very real it seems despite being basically an illusion. Our tastes are so heavily defined by factors outside our control (mostly socio-economic), and the variation seems to be all signaling (do you want to appear quirky? hip? traditionalist? smarter than everyone else? or conversely do you want to blend in?), but of course that signaling is mostly unconscious. We truly believe that we love what we love. We *are* moved, though so much of it must be wanting to be moved, wanting to be able to say that you are moved, to say that you love what you love.