What Exactly Does it Mean to Have “Good Taste”?

If You Don’t Like This Photo, You’re Not a Very Good Person.

As anyone who has perused a ‘photo critique’ website knows, there’s a fine line between respecting others’ right to their bad taste and opting to participate in it or encourage it. There’s a lot of truly awful photography peddled via the internet..or, at least, that’s my take on it. Most people would reject my judgment as snobbish. Taste is taste; who am I to pass judgment on the tastes of others, right?

The question is the degree to which peoples’ inability to agree about aesthetic matters is itself something we can agree on (i.e. it’s all simply a matter of ‘taste’), or is there something objective we can point to when arguing for an aesthetic standard? Is my claim to recognize ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ creative expression simply subjective or does it entail an objective standard that I’m in possession of?

The post-modernist belief is that the plurality of aesthetic points of view is the necessary result of the diversity between human beings. This is a good thing, and we should celebrate the fact that we are all free to judge for ourselves what appeals to us. We moderns think of aesthetic disputes as reflecting a person’s ‘taste’. There’s no arguing over taste, the assumption being that taste is subjective and therefore unimportant as a means to differentiate people. I don’t believe that, and one look at your average photo enthusiast website should be enough to convince you I’m right. I believe a proper understanding and recognition of superior aesthetics is something one develops. It’s a skill learned like any other. Some people possess a better understanding of it than do others who are too slow to understand what they don’t know – think of it as the Dunning-Kruger Effect applied to aesthetics.

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This is a Good Photo. Those 3 Birds Make It. Somehow I Forgot To Include it in Car Sick.

The Ancient Greeks agreed with me. They believed in an objective standard of the beautiful, a standard that was, in theory, available to any rational person. In the Euthyphro, Plato, via the voice of Socrates, claims that our disagreements always involve one of two subjects: ethics – how to act – and aesthetics – what is beautiful – in his words those that have as their subject matter “the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad.” In various Platonic dialogues, you’ll often read of some horny old philosopher praising some nubile young boy for his noble birth, his virtuous character, and his handsome body, all at the same time. That’s because in ancient Greek, the word “kalon” (‘noble’ ‘virtuous’, ‘handsome’) fused aesthetics and ethics into one thing. The beautiful was just, and the just was beautiful. Likewise, the trite or banal or vulgar was ugly and unjust, and those who mistook it as beautiful were compromised personally. They were, in a real sense, deformed.

For Plato, your ‘tastes’ irrevocably reflect your status of personhood. They indicate your progression in the state of being. They are a badge of your refinement, a refinement developed through your concerted effort. It takes a lot of intellectual and spiritual work to recognize the beautiful and embrace it when most others cannot or will not. It takes knowledge and courage to reject the facile sub-standard banalities that so often are publically celebrated as virtuous. Plato has no problem with you pointing and laughing at the guy sporting the Canonikon with 17-280 kit zoom who would look at Robert Frank’s The Americans and criticize it for not respecting the Rule of Thirds.

Your tastes in effect define you as an ethical person. In fact, your tastes constitute an ethics in themselves; if you have “bad” taste, you are, in some sense, a “bad” person i.e. deficient in some way. Likewise, having “good” taste makes you a “good” person, and this aesthetic divide between two human beings obstructs their ethical relations. I suppose it’s why I find the usual suspects – the guys flogging their association with Leica as a badge of their creativity, when in fact it’s just the opposite – so pathetic. Plato would find them pathetic too.

14 thoughts on “What Exactly Does it Mean to Have “Good Taste”?

  1. Dogman

    I love that photo! In fact, I love almost everything by Koudelka I’ve ever seen. I must be a very, very good person, huh?

    Yeah, I know. Having good taste doesn’t translate into universality. Oh well. Still, I’m not a bad guy….

    Reply
  2. Kenneth Wajda

    I love that cemetery photo, yes, the birds are the topper!

    I’ve never been a fan of popularity contests to give awards to art. I’ve joked with waiters and waitresses when I ask how something is on the menu, and they reply, “It’s very popular, ” I follow up with, “What kind of people are these that enjoy it?”

    Taste is subjective–I like that. You like your kid’s kindergarten crayon drawing because of who made it. Not because of the technique. No one else is putting it on their refrigerator.

    Just because someone likes something, doesn’t mean they know anything. Someone comment on one of my photos that it was magnificent or some superlative and that she really liked it, but then she commented on something that was terrible and poorly made, and I thought, “You know nothing, so your praise is worth nothing.” And now whenever I see someone comment on something, I think, “But what do you know? Are you at all educated in what you’re commenting on?”

    Reply
  3. Larry Cloetta

    Duchamp has much to answer for. As does Clement Greenberg for that matter. I’ll continue to swim upstream with Plato.

    Reply
  4. Andrew Molitor

    Despite the predations of postmodernism, even the most pomo critics make it pretty clear that if you don’t agree with them, you’re probably a bad person. They dress is up in various clothing, but that is what it boils down to. And what they like is generally dreck.

    Reply
  5. Daniel Castelli

    I subscribe to this site, therefore, I have good taste.
    Or, as Lucy in “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” video stated, She only eats January snowflakes. She has good taste.
    Or, maybe I don’t have good taste. I have always liked some of the work by Gary Winogrand. Earlier this week, I watched the American Masters profile of him on PBS Passport. Silly me thinking they were just quirky slices of everyday events. After listening to the host of People Who Know What They Are Talking About When It Comes To Photography in the video, I realized I don’t have the mental capacity to recognize the True Impact of his work.
    So, taste is related to intelligence and I don’t have the intelligence to understand that it’s just not a photograph of an outstretched Elephants trunk and a human hand. It’s so much more.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Dan, you can get degrees, and a high-status job in galleries for life if you truly, truly buy into that jive. You can also get onto tv and be invited to write the forward to all sorts of monographs you helped curate!

      What’s not to like?.

      Reply
  6. Stephen J

    I am not sure what it exactly means to have good taste.

    I guess we could always ask Donald Trump…

    He will know.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Nah, he’ll simply tell you it’s all fake news from the left. You’ll be no better off and certainly none the wiser than if you’d left him well alone.

      Mainly, good taste consists of liking the same things as do I.

      Regarding Frank’s The Americans – why should those images be saddled with the baggage of taste? They are documentary work and, as such, removed from those requirements. They had better be, or you’d get pretty poverty and Mother Teresa would have worn Prada.

      🙂

      Reply
      1. Stephen J

        As you know Rob, I reckon that rightly or wrongly, Trump is a conservative, with a small c… Which is why I prefer his incumbency to any change in November.

        As the president that got more minorities into work, sometimes after generations of unemployment, clearly black lives matter to him.

        What he does not care for though is criminality, and that is all I have heard him talk about, in relation to the above.

        However, seeing the sort of material things that he chooses, he has absolutely awful taste…. and I would expect that applies to his taste in photography too.

        Reply
  7. Pierre

    Would Plato really laugh at someone carrying a superzoom who criticizes Frank’s pictures in The Americans? Or would he be laughing at those seeing high aesthetic value in The Americans? Would such criticism of the criticism hinge on whether the rule of thirds is an objective standard? Are standards objective or does slavish devotion to standards cause art to stagnate, preventing us from recognizing new art? If there are exceptions to standards, how can such standards actually be objective?

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      The simple answer, and probably the only true one is this: life is in a permanent state of flux. That is the only real constant.

      We could play Russian dolls all night…

      🙂

      Reply
  8. Nick

    According to Plato, I should be a bad person as I don’t like “The Americans”. But I don’t really care because I can live with it and I always take Plato’s writing with a pinch of salt.

    Reply
    1. Eric de montigny

      Wasn’t it a pinch of hemlock … in french we use cigüe, hope it’s a good translation and by the way no harm intended, was just too easy.

      Reply

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