Taste (sociology)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In sociology, taste is an individual's choice and preference. Taste is drawing distinctions between things such as styles, manners, consumer goods and works of art and relating to these. Social inquiry of taste is about the human ability to judge what is beautiful, good and proper.

Social and cultural phenomena concerning taste are closely associated to social relations and dynamics between people. The concept of social taste is therefore rarely separated from its accompanying sociological concepts. An understanding of taste as something that is expressed in actions between people helps to perceive many social phenomena that would otherwise be inconceivable.

Aesthetic preferences and attendance to various cultural events are associated with education and social origin. Different socioeconomic groups are likely to have different tastes. Social class is one of the prominent factors structuring taste.

Contents

History

The modern concept of "taste" is a product of the 16th century Italian style called Mannerism, named at the time for the maniera or "manner" in which a work of art was couched. More specifically, the idea of "taste" as a quality that is independent of the style that is simply its vehicle — though the style might be designated a taste, such as "the Antique taste"— was born in the circle of Pope Julius III and first realized at the Villa Giulia built on the edge of Rome in 1551 - 1555.

To the Enlightenment, "taste" was still a universal character, which could be recognized by what pleased any cultured sensibility. With the shift in perspective that Romanticism brought, it began to be thought that, to the contrary, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and could be individually interpreted, with results that might be of equivalent aesthetic value.

The significance of the term develops with the transition from its purely physical nature to being interpreted as an intellectual quality. It begins to be used in a metaphorical sense to refer to certain degrees of competence in relation to understanding of cultural practices. Taste is also closely related to the concept of discrimination, as being based on certain material experiences it can set distinctions between tasteful and tasteless or having a good taste or a bad taste, thus providing categories for social division and producing cultural hierarchy.

Taste and aesthetics

The concept of aesthetics has been the interest of philosophers such as Plato, Hume and Kant, who understood aesthetics as something pure and searched the essence of beauty, or, the ontology of aesthetics. But it was not before the beginning of the cultural sociology of early 19th century that the question was problematized in its social context, which took the differences and changes in historical view as an important process of aesthetical thought. Although Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgement (1790) did formulate a non-relativistic idea of aesthetical universality, where both personal pleasure and pure beauty coexisted, it was concepts such as class taste that began the attempt to find essentially sociological answers to the problem of taste and aesthetics. Metaphysical or spiritual interpretations of common aesthetical values have shifted towards locating social groups that form the contemporary artistic taste or fashion.

In his aesthetic philosophy, Kant denies any standard of a good taste, which would be the taste of the majority or any social group. For Kant, beauty is not a property of any object, but an aesthetic judgement based on a subjective feeling. He claims that a genuine good taste does exist, though it could not be empirically identified. Good taste cannot be found in any standards or generalizations, and the validity of a judgement is not the general view of the majority or some specific social group. Taste is both personal and beyond reasoning, and therefore disputing over matters of taste never reaches any universality. Kant stresses that our preferences, even on generally liked things, do not justify our judgements.

Every judgement of taste, according to Kant, presumes the existence of a sensus communis, a consensus of taste. This non-existent consensus is an idea that both enables judgements of taste and is constituted by a somewhat conceptual common spiritual humanity. A judgement does not take for granted that everyone agrees with it, but it proposes the community to share the experience. If the statement would not be addressed to this community, it is not a genuine subjective judgement. Kant's idea of good taste excludes fashion, which can be understood only in its empirical form, and has no connection with the harmony of ideal consensus. There is a proposition of a universal communal voice in judgements of taste, which calls for a shared feeling among the others.

Bourdieu argued against Kantian view of pure aesthetics, stating that the legitimate taste of the society is the taste of the ruling class. This position also rejects the idea of genuine good taste, as the legitimate taste is merely a class taste. This idea was also proposed by Simmel, who noted that the upper classes abandon fashions as they are adopted by lower ones.

Fashion in a Kantian sense is an aesthetic phenomenon and source of pleasure. For Kant, the function of fashion was merely a means of social distinction, and he excluded fashion from pure aesthetics because of its contents' arbitrary nature. Simmel, following Kantian thought, recognises the usefulness of fashionable objects in its social context. For him, the function lies in the whole fashion pattern, and cannot be attributed to any single object. Fashion, for Simmel, is a tool of individuation, social distinction, and even class distinction, which are neither utilitarian or aesthetical criteria. Still, both Kant and Simmel agreed that staying out of fashion would be pointless.

Criticisms

The main critic of this idea is French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose main argument is based on the claim that individual tastes and preferences are socially produced. According to Bourdieu, individual tastes are shaped by certain aspects of social practices and position within society. People aspire towards "higher" cultural forms and produce their identities accordingly – they want to be associated with those who are considered to be more developed intellectually and artistically and therefore tend to consume corresponding cultural products. In this sense the notion of taste is closely linked to consumption and consumerism: the viewer or reader consumes various artistic products and then interprets them by the means of criticism that rests upon the idea of taste.

"In matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is negation, and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others … Aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent. Aversion to different lifestyles is perhaps one of the strongest barriers between the classes…" (Pierre Bourdieu 1984: 56)
Defining good taste is difficult or impossible for most, and definitions can vary widely. For instance, this exchange between EC Comics editor-in-chief William M. Gaines and Estes Kefauver at US Senate hearings on comic books held by the Senate Subcommittee for Juvenile Delinquincy.
  • Kefauver: [holding up a recent copy of EC's Crime SuspenStories] "Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding woman's head which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?"
  • Gaines: "Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little bit higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody."
  • G.K. Chesterton: "Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions, has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed."

Bad taste

See bad taste

Bad taste is generally a title given to any object or idea that does not fall within the normal social standards of the time or area. Varying from society to society and from time to time, bad taste is generally thought of as a negative thing, but also changes with each individual.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Taste (sociology)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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