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Personal Taste

The second sense in which the word taste is used, what we are calling "personal taste," focuses on particular sets of aesthetic preferences. There is certainly a relationship between taste and personal taste, and we want to explore that a bit later on. For now, consider the nature of the preference that one may exhibit for vanilla ice cream over chocolate, for chicken over fish, for saturated colors over muted ones, and for action-adventure films over romantic comedies. In these matters, it is the rare observer who will assert that there is clearly a correct decision to be made, that one of each pair is clearly to be preferred over the other. Most observers are content to say that these are all simply matters of personal preference. Moreover, there are now many who say that all aesthetic judgments are on a continuum with such exemplars of personal preference. As mentioned earlier, antirealism is the position that there is nothing right or wrong about an aesthetic judgment that refers to anything beyond that judge's preference—that all aesthetic judgment is a matter of personal preference. If one takes such phrases as "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "there's no disputing individual taste" out of the realist contexts that the taste theorists had originally envisioned for them, one may understand taste as merely a set of personal preferences, over which external adjudication—or perhaps any adjudication—is inappropriate.

One challenge to this move toward antirealism as a theoretical platform for talking about personal taste is the widespread agreement in judgment forthcoming from certain aesthetic comparisons. Almost no one, on a "blind hearing," prefers Salieri to Mozart, and it is easy to develop a list of such comparisons, each instance of agreement serving as one more bit of inductive evidence in support of aesthetic realism. There is an explanation for this, and it turns on the fact that there are purposes to our aesthetic choices. We mean to invest our attention in those aesthetic experiences that we predict we will find more enjoyable, satisfying, rich, and rewarding. There are few museum or gallery patrons who will spend minutes upon minutes staring at Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can or a Marcel Duchamp ready-made. These conceptual works can be taken in quickly, and perhaps fully so. But it is not uncommon to see patrons spend a good deal of time in front of a mature Joseph Mallord William Turner, Paul Cézanne, or Henri Matisse. If the experience one seeks is deep visual satisfaction, one will tend to invest attention in objects that most likely will provide this.

One's personal taste can be understood, then, as a series of past choices and resulting experiences that provide a basis upon which one will make future investment predictions and choices. If one has a rewarding experience listening to a Billie Holiday song, one will most likely seek out more Billie Holiday songs, and it is likely that one will also seek out blues in general. If one has a less than rewarding experience looking at a Jackson Pollock work, then one will probably avoid Pollock in the future, and it may be expected that one may avoid modern art altogether. If one has a good experience with works by Mark Rothko, one may reasonably expect to enjoy the work of Agnes Martin. All of this is based on induction. We find patterns in the world that serve us, that promote survival, flourishing, or simple enjoyment. It is only reasonable that we will follow those patterns and that, to some degree, groups of people who are similar will find similar patterns.

A second challenge, perhaps more intriguing than the first, is the regular phenomenon that with exposure, time, and information, aesthetic preferences tend to grow and develop in fairly predictable ways. The film preferences of freshman students tend to be for very recent works that provide immediate, easy reward. The preferences of students who have taken a few film courses tend to be informed by a much broader temporal span of the film world and tend to focus on films that require some subject-initiated investment of attention, both cognitive and psychological. The preferences of senior level film studies majors (and perhaps their professors) may be seen as bizarre by the aforementioned freshmen, as such preferences may well include silent films, nonnarrative films, and directors like Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini. College students commonly move in their musical preferences from rock to jazz and classical, if not giving up the former, at least adding to it the latter. The best explanation for this is that taste grows in regular ways, and once these regularities are identified, taste can be educated: personal taste can grow in sophistication.

We need to be careful here to distinguish between the effects of education as a tool for social or cultural indoctrination and education as a means of facilitating experience, furthering horizons, and encouraging genuine aesthetic enjoyment. It would be a shame and a loss to move a student, through the education of taste, to less aesthetic enjoyment, and there is a danger in declaring that a person's aesthetic preferences are wrong if they do not match some standard or other. This returns us to the authority and autonomy of individual judgment with which the taste theorists wrestled.

One bit of support for the appropriate plurality of personal taste comes from the diversity of aesthetic preferences that follows geographical, ethnic, and even gender identities. The patterns of bright, colorful dress that one may see in the Maya, the Masai, and the Mongolians are very different from the patterns one sees in mainstream Europe and mainstream North America. Visually, traditional Asian artwork is easily separated from mainstream European and American artwork. One can take this to an even more basic level: the traditional Asian conception (or definition) of the aesthetic property of balance appears to be different from the mainstream European or American definition. If our very definitions of aesthetic properties diverge, yet in both contexts there is a general valuing of, in this case, balance, then the preferences that follow from this will diverge, as well.

Similar sorts of cases of diversity will manifest themselves in comparisons among ethnicities even within a geographical region. Public-space ambient music tends to follow these preferences; the music one hears in shopping centers in one part of the country may differ radically from the music one hears in another part. This is most likely more than simply the management's preferences. The choice in ambient music more likely follows the management's best judgments concerning the sort of music that the likely clientele will enjoy and that will keep them shopping. This is partly a geographical phenomenon, but in many places, can involve ethnic and subcultural considerations, as well.

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