On the value of good taste

The following comes in response to a short blog I read about “guilty pleasures.” I’m not sure that the concept of “guilty pleasures” is coherent, but I think the concept of “shameful pleasures” is. The latter, in its misstep, seems to be indicative of our desire for good taste. But why would having good taste make any difference? Isn’t it just snobbery or the half-shrouded desire for social distinction? That’s my question.

1. Good Taste & Bad. Good taste is the appreciation for well-made things. I follow the artist Eric Gill in thinking that the distinction between crafts and fine art is a product of industrial society and should actually have no bearing on our aesthetic judgments. So, a quilt, a poem, a garden, a shoe, a painting, a tool: these can all be made well or poorly, and someone with good taste ought to know the difference.

Someone with bad taste clearly doesn’t. Either he doesn’t appreciate well-made things (“You call what Rothko’s doing art? Anyone could do that!”), or he considers poorly made things to be well-made (“Oh, Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley, was just brilliant!”).

2. Preferences, Likes/Dislikes, & Taste. I’d distinguish between these three. Preferences are things we approve of without reason or without good reason. Toilet roll can go up or down, driving on the left or right side of the street, and so on. Preferences are arbitrary, possibly conventional, and there’s nothing wrong (or right) about that.

Likes and dislikes occupy a middle category between preferences and tastes. Think of ‘liking’ something on Facebook. You could mean, “Well, I have no idea why I like it; I just do.” So liking is ‘downgraded’ to a preference. Or you could mean, “Well, if you pressed me, I’d say that I like it for this reason.” So liking is ‘upgraded’ to taste—could be good or bad taste, but that’s a further question.

3. The Objective Nature of Taste. Taste is not subjective; it has objective validity. Kant says that aesthetic judgment invokes a sensus communis (common sense). By this, he means that when we say that something is beautiful or remarkable or moving, we presume that we’re making this judgment in a room full of likeminded people. In other words, we all ‘get it’ and insofar as you ‘get it’ too you’re a part of my community. Kant’s thought is lovely.

Book or movie recommendations are a case in point. When we make them, we do so on the presumption that the recipients will appreciate how well-made they are. If they don’t ‘get it,’ then it’s hard to see, really, how we could be friends. (Mull this thought over before you dismiss it.) I mean: Isn’t it disappointing, really disappointing, when someone just doesn’t ‘get it’ and, in a way, doesn’t ‘get you’? It seems as if we occupied totally different worlds.

Snobbery spells the destruction of sensus communis. You cultivate good taste in order to distinguish yourself from others, to put on airs and to cut others down. The focus is on you, not on the artwork before us or on the common space we share. Snobbery is vanity from top to bottom.

4. From ‘Guilty Pleasures’ to ‘Shameful Pleasures.’ I’m not sure that the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’ is a coherent one. I know it’s something we feel bad about. But there’s feeling bad and then there’s feeling bad. We feel guilty when we’ve done something wrong and we know we shouldn’t have done it. A standard of action ‘sits behind’ the action in question and judges that action a failure. But shame has to do with the kind of person we are: we are seen (or imagine we’re seen) by people we respect in the wrong way. We feel naked and exposed.**

And isn’t this what a shameful pleasure is all about? We’re taking pleasure in appreciating poorly made things, we know we shouldn’t be taking pleasure in this, and we feel, while we’re doing it, as if we’re being watched by people with good taste. So, there’s something humiliating and quasi-masochistic about the whole thing.

5. From Shameful Pleasures to Good Taste. Shameful pleasures point us back to the thought that we value (and intimate we ought to value) good taste. In the history of modern philosophy, Nietzsche’s brilliant move was to change the topic of conversation from epistemology to axiology, from “What is truth, and how do we know?” to “What is the value of truth, and why does that matter?” That we are ashamed of some of our aesthetic pleasures implies that we value pleasures that come in a higher form. But why? I can think of 4 reasons.

First, as I argued above good taste convokes a likeminded community of judgers. It’s not that I say, “P is well-made,” and then, in a second thought, search about for likeminded people. This is not it at all. It’s rather that in the moment of uttering “P is well-made” I am also presuming that such a community exists (in reality or in my imagination). There is something deliciously magical but also delightfully homey about this. Magical and homey in good senses.

Second, good taste is an exercise in thinking about the nature of things well-made. Antonio Dias argued similarly yet more metaphysically yesterday in his post about crafting awareness. Good training in judging well is learning to perceive more perspicaciously all kinds of orderings: natural beauties, crafted objects, and–my hobbyhorse–well-ordered lives. One or two steps up the ladder, one can ask: Is a culture well-ordered? Generally speaking, my second point goes to the question of self-transformation (metanoia) via the ongoing spiritual exercise (ascesis) of perceiving and judging well.

Third, good taste suggests a reverence for the life that can create well-ordered things. (I know: this old saw about the creator behind creation!) When I see that someone or some force has made something well, I also see (infer?) that someone or some force has made something well.

Fourth, good taste, writ large, can go hand-in-hand with a desire that the world be filled with well-made things. If this is right, then the spirit of capitalism just died. Just died! Oh the spirit, I mean, the spirit, not the reality.


There is clearly a larger question here lurking behind that of good taste. Is it better to transvalue the value of a particular concept (e.g., good taste, good life, success, happiness, aspiration, friend), or would it be wiser to come up with a new one? When we transvalue a concept, we seek to ‘move it’ toward its higher essence even though we run the risk of carrying with it the weight of other connotations, the inertia of history. ‘Good taste’ may be too loaded down with detritus and snobbery to head in the direction I wish to take it. Or maybe not.

End Note

**I’m lifting this thought, whole cloth, from Bernard Williams’ Shame and Necessity.