On Good Taste
In my favorite scene from The Devil Wears Prada, the main character, Andy, is quietly taking notes of a meeting at her freshly landed fashion job. She can’t help but giggle after watching her boss, Miranda Priestly, struggling to pick one of two very similar-looking belts. Said boss takes offense and delivers a scathing lecture (nicknamed the Cerulean Speech ) to her arrogant assistant. In this monologue, Miranda explains the trickle-down dynamic leading her seemingly futile choices to influence millions of unaware consumers all over the world, including the ignorant Andy.
The skill that allows Miranda to make decisions about complex aesthetic matters is not simply “experience”, which is a vector to acquire abilities and not an ability by itself. It is a misunderstood talent whose very existence is a matter of controversy: good taste.
We look at the Mirandas of the world - the museum curators, wine experts, movie reviewers - with the same suspicion and barely hidden mockery than Andy. It is not clear whether or not they truly possess the skills they pretend they do. But good taste is not a made-up concept, it is just a tricky one. The subtlety lies in the fact that while it goes beyond simple preference, good taste is still a subjective ability - it does not reflect an absolute value of the objects it considers.
Why does the topic matter? If your job involves creative work, whether you’re a writer, a cook, a fashion designer, a photographer or a music producer, good taste is obviously one of the biggest factors of your performance. And actually, this is equally true is your job is to pick anything at all - a museum curator, a venture capitalist, an HR director, a radio DJ or a casting director. All of these jobs require some form of good taste. In the great documentary about his life and work, Jiro Ono, a three-Michelin-starred chef famous for his world-class sushi and his amazing work ethic put it in an elegant way:
“In order to make delicious food, you need to eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but one must develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad food. Without good taste, you can’t make good food.”
Understanding the anatomy of good taste leads to its improvement.
The 3 components of Good Taste
There are three components to good taste:
- Emotional intelligence
- Pattern recognition
- Contextual knowledge
Emotional intelligence, in this context, refers to the ability to detect and understand emotional cues in an artwork. For example, the full appreciation of a movie hinges on the ability of the viewer to notice and instinctively understand the intended effect of elements like an actor’s micro-expressions or a change of lightning. They are intended to provoke a certain emotional response and it is essential to who claim “good taste” to be fine-tuned to those details. The other aspect of emotional intelligence, in that regard, is the ability to understand the particular setting and mood in which an artwork is supposed to be enjoyed 1. Bach’s Air would appear atrocious would it be blasted by surprise in a nightclub. In the same way, one does not watch Moonlight interchangeably from Captain America - those two movies are simply not made to provoke the same emotions. Those dramatic examples may make this point seem obvious, but misreading the mood and setting an artwork is supposed to be consumed in is a very common mistake.
The second pillar of good taste is pattern recognition, the ability enabling the detection of similarities and oddities in the material examined. Extensive cognitive research indicates that appreciation for music is determined by an optimum of predictability and unexpectedness. When listening to a musical piece, we unconsciously make predictions as to what is going to happen next. A melodic sequence not finishing on a tonality we’re expecting would sound weird, in the same way un changement de langue au milieu d’une phrase would take us aback. This idea of an ideal predictability/unexpectedness ratio is common to virtually all creative endeavors. And it takes a solid pattern recognition aptitude to have a sense of what’s expected and what is not in the first place. The single best way of improving one’s pattern recognition to develop good taste is to dramatically increase the sheer volume of content they consume. A quick reading of a dozen science fiction novels will reveal some commonplaces of the genre and some particularities of their authors. But would you carefully study 500 novels, your ability to notice the cliches and the originalities will sharpen exponentially. This is why experts in aesthetic domains seem to get excited by some pieces looking unexceptional to our untrained eyes and unimpressed by some we judge atypical. They perceive things we don’t. This is part of the reason people with good taste are always frantically looking for new, fresh material and ideas.
The third component of good taste is contextual knowledge.
Take a look at this 1559 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Pieter Bruegel The Elder - Netherlandish Proverbs
It depicts a pretty busy scene full of characters doing all kinds of odd activities. If you enjoy Dutch renaissance style, you probably appreciate it at a superficial level, at least. What you may not know, however, is that this painting, called Netherlandish Proverbs, depicts a literal illustration of about 112 Dutch proverbs and idioms. For example, on the right side of the picture, you can see a man falling through a basket an expression used to describe people whose shenanigans are uncovered. You can also notice a woman gazing at a stork in the middle part, which could be translated as wasting time.
The point is, one does not enjoy art pieces in a vacuum. Having a deep knowledge of the greater context in which those artworks were produced and of the world in general help to put things in perspective. To consider all aspects of Godzilla, you need to know about the nuclear bombings of Japan. To fully understand Kanye West’s Wouldn’t Leave, you need to be aware of his antics and to understand these, you need some knowledge of the history of African Americans and the USA in general.
Those three components overlap. You cannot possess any of them without a bit of the others. To have good taste is to have a sufficient degree of all three. When Miranda Priestly observes two very similar cerulean belts, her emotional intelligence allows her to know which style they are intended to contribute to, she can see tiny differences in details thanks to her pattern recognition abilities and her biting speech demonstrate that she is extremely familiar with the greater context of these fashion accessories.
It is important to reiterate that good taste is a skill but does not reflect an intrinsic quality of the object it considers. This is a sort of controversial idea. Jazz music is not inherently better than electro-pop and action movies are not a fundamentally lesser genre than art-house films. Good taste is about how one approaches, analyze and consider a piece, not the piece itself 2. If you take a photo of a boring grey brick wall with a very high definition camera and a photo of an incredible sunset with a terrible one, the first camera is still the better one, the subject of its photos does not matter. However, it is true that some genres are usually harder to appreciate - one must often possess a certain level of good taste to genuinely do so. Many of us instinctively like the taste of fast food. I distinctively remember the first time I tasted a döner kebab in Barcelona with my family as a young kid. It was amazing, even to my ignorant palate. In contrast, while I do also absolutely love sushi, they were an acquired taste. I did have to learn to appreciate them through repeated exposure and the education of my tongue to complex flavors and textures. My appreciation for sushi is not forced at all, I genuinely enjoy them a lot, but it took a honing of my culinary good taste. As blasphemous as it sounds, there is no absolute hierarchy between döner kebabs and sushi. But it usually takes more “work” to appreciate the latter. This is why what is often considered of “intrinsically good taste” (which, again, is not really a thing - good taste is an individual ability not an attribute of objects) is often things that are hard to like 3.
This mainstream “objective” idea of good taste is dictated by the upper class, who value self-restraint and the sharpening of intellectual skills. If you’re wondering if a certain art form or specific piece is considered of good taste by the general public, ask yourself how much work is needed to appreciate it, on average. Most video games can be appreciated by ignorant teenagers, which is why there is still an ongoing debate as to whether or not they constitute art. On the other hand, Battleship Potemkin would bore many viewers to death and to authentically enjoy it, one must watch it very carefully - as in, expending effort to not look away 4 and be very knowledgeable of the historical context of the movie. This is the kind of “appreciation moat” required to earn the label of “objective good taste”.
The three most basic advice one may apply to improve their own good taste with this knowledge would be:
- Consume a very large volume of content. Watch, meet, read, eat, etc… so much that you develop some sort of sixth sense. And then do it some more.
- Learn about the world in general. Be curious and learn as much as you can about history and the current times in order to build your own vision and understanding of the world - this will show through your own work.
- Increase your emotional depth by meeting different people and doing new things. You can neither convey nor detect an emotion you never felt. Constantly seek new ones.
Understanding good taste also allows you to deal with the gatekeepers whose job is to pick things. Every time you face them, keep in mind that in the abstract, they’re all looking for the same thing. Venture capitalists are “good taste workers” too, for example. They seek the optimum of predictability and unexpectedness [¨^5], they want to be able to place your vision in a larger historical and commercial context and they are extremely fine-tuned to your behavior.
At last, good taste belongs to what I call cognitive black matter - the hidden segment of human skills that are, in my very humble opinion, either not studied enough or poorly understood by researchers. The bulk of the academic discussions on the subject are philosophical debates on aesthetics, sociological ones on cultural norms and social stratification, or, awful attempts to come up with an “objective scale”. Good taste is nothing else than a subset of intuition, but because its subjects are hard to quantify, it is unfortunately often believed that it is impossible to examine its nature thoroughly.
Thanks to Thierry Danse for his feedback on my earlier draft of this piece.
This does not mean that these objects shouldn’t be appreciated in another context, of course, but that they need to be considered according to this intended setting. You’re free to do whatever you want with an umbrella you just bought, but it would be strange to complain about the fact that it is not very practical to draw with - it’s not what it is supposed to do. However, playing with this idea of the “right context” may yield interesting results.↩
The subjective nature of taste does not make a lively debate about its subjects pointless. There’s a whole other article to write about the benefits of discussing taste. My sister and I often joke that half the pleasure of watching a movie is the ensuing discussion.↩
I did a middle school presentation on Battleship Potemkin and boy was it hard to watch. I didn’t finish it and simply read summaries of the script and some commentary online. I aced it, but I suspect my art teacher didn’t watch it carefully enough or at all neither.↩