Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: Musings on Taste and Art (Which Probably Lead Nowhere)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Musings on Taste and Art (Which Probably Lead Nowhere)

I've been thinking the last few days about whether various artistic tastes are based on anything. We've been reruns of what seems to me a fairly indifferent TV show that's been widely praised, and there were also what seemed to me some fairly questionable awards at the 48-hour film presentation we attended last night. I'm not really interested in talking about the details of any of that, because that gets too close to an "I'm right and they're wrong" point of view that ultimately doesn't end up in anything much more than an "Am too--are not!" type of argument. What I'm more curious about instead is how do we build our individual artistic tastes. You can learn about an artform, which can give you a recognition and appreciation of various aspects of it, but I believe that influences taste only a bit. Generally, as you mature, your tastes become somewhat refined, but can you have any success in attempting to refine them in a certain direction? There are certain qualities that you can look for in art, but while recognition of them may help in appreciation, it doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be moved more or less by them. Or does it?

To pick an older example completely at random (basically because it just popped into my head), I never really enjoyed Miami Vice as a TV show. Many of the people I knew swore by it, but it just didn't do anything for me. I can't completely remember, but I suspect I saw an episode when it started but wasn't overly impressed, so I didn't make an effort to see it again. I didn't, that it, until friends and critics started talking it up. On at least two occasions, I consciously decided to watch it to see if I could tell what people saw in it. Both times, without even realizing it at first, my attention lapsed and I picked up a newspaper or magazine or something. About ten minutes later, after I'd missed some important plot developments and no longer knew what was going on, I'd realized that I'd stopped watching. I never made a decision to stop, it just sort of happened. For reasons that are not at all clear, that show--which was considered compelling viewing by many people (some of whom I even respected)--couldn't hold my attention, even if I was intentionally trying to watch it.

Another example for me is REM. I got the first album when it was new, and it just didn't resonate with me as it seemed to among my friends and the critics. They put out more and more music, but it just did nothing for me. But then they put out Out of Time, and all of a sudden, I was a fan. A while after that, I saw one of their earlier albums in a used CD bin and picked it up--I was a fan now, after all. I took it home and played it, and nothing. I still didn't like the earlier stuff. I knew people with whose tastes I normally agreed with who considered the '80s REM albums among their favorites, and I've got no reason to argue that they're simply not that good, it's just that they don't move me.

There are a number of other examples I could give, and no doubt you could, too. What do other people see that I don't? And conversely, there are other instances in which I see something that others don't. I can't help but wonder if I had more training in psychology or something if such disparities could be explained. Anybody who has an explanation is welcome to offer it.


At 2:11 PM, July 14, 2008, OpenID charlesofcamden said...

I can offer my opinion on part of your question. I think that the things we like fall into two categories: The things we like because we like them, and the things we like because we convince ourselves we like them. Examples of the first category include things like a child’s love for sweets (children are a great example because the second category must be learned, so children tend to be much more honest about their likes and dislikes than adults). Examples of the second category would be things like pretentious, boring movies that carry the right message at the right time being hailed as riveting masterpieces. This also applies to other art forms and is closely related to the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome.

As for why we like what we like and why this varies so much from person to person, that gets a lot trickier. While much of it can perhaps be ascribed to early traumas and other impactful life experiences, I personally believe that much of it may be ascribed to the built-in variation that is a part of our collective genetic identity as a society. Humans have evolved not merely as individuals, but as a society, and a society requires differing individuals with different skills and different types of cognitive abilities. Our varying tastes are but one reflection of this. I have been accused of elitism for espousing this, which I think misses the point; I don’t say “better” or “worse”; just “different.”

I also think that most (though perhaps not all) of our tastes are set at an early age. What changes is our ability to understand and articulate, to ourselves and others, exactly what it is we like and don’t like. At the same time, I do see some exceptions. There are movies and songs I adored at the age of 18 that I can’t get away from fast enough today. Distressing as it can be to see or hear some treasured movie or song for the first time in 20 years only to find that you now consider it to be total crap, it also cheers me a bit upon reflection – it tells me that I’ve continued to evolve.

I know this isn’t any sort of complete thesis on the subject, but I hope it’s at least food for thought!

At 5:11 PM, July 16, 2008, Blogger Don said...

Miami Vice had important plot developments?

At 11:41 PM, July 16, 2008, Anonymous Doug said...

I don't know. I never made it all the way through an episode.


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