Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Matter of Taste


What follows is a guest post by Iskra Fileva. She is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado, Boulder.

A pianist I know said once that she enjoys listening to various types of non-classical music but would not tell this to other classical musicians for fear of embarrassment. Gourmet chefs, similarly, sometimes confess to eating fast and other plain, non-gourmet food (Google “What do chefs really eat after work?”). According to my – admittedly cursory – investigation, pizza, ramen noodles, mashed avocado on toast, and Wendy’s fast food top many chefs’ after-work favorites. Again, many of the chefs in question appear to have opted to remain anonymous, and in any event, they would not put such confessions on the restaurant page. Finally, people with exquisite literary sensitivity have probably, at some point or other, gobbled up a crime story or a fantasy novel, or else taken pleasure in watching well-done B-movies. The question that interests me here is what this type of hedonic eclecticism and the pressure some apparently feel to keep eclecticism secret (nay, to treat it as a “dirty” little secret) tells us about taste.  

It may help to begin by asking why a classical pianist may be sheepish about enjoying non-classical music or a gourmet chef apologetic about eating comfort food. There are, of course, many possible answers. Perhaps, the high-end cook is afraid that confessing to liking low-brow cuisine would be bad PR. After all, many people are suspicious of the value of connoisseur-approved entrées (the merits of expensive wines tend to give rise to even higher doses of skepticism) and one may, not unreasonably, expect that cynics who hear a Ritz-Carleton restaurant chef admit to relishing plain food will become even more cynical. And of course, the chef’s job and livelihood crucially depend on curbing this type of skepticism. 

There is probably some truth to this suggestion, but it’s hardly the whole story. No parallel explanations are available in the case of the classical pianist or the reader with wide-ranging tastes. I have never heard anyone express skepticism about classical music (opera may be an exception here) and claim that, really, Beethoven is no big deal. As for literature, people do, occasionally, say disparaging things about some greats of the literary canon – Shakespeare and Joyce come to mind –  but it is not clear why any reader would care much. For in contrast with the chef, a reader’s job and livelihood do not depend on what others think of the books she reads. But if fear of inviting skepticism regarding the worth of some high-brow endeavor is not the answer, what is? 

One option is the following: people may be concerned that if they get caught seeking lower quality pleasures, others will conclude they don’t really have a refined taste after all, even if they consume quality art or food, etc. much of the time. One may be wary of arousing the suspicion that one is just pretending to like high-end cuisine or Brahms or Joyce or what have you – but that what one really likes is rock, comfort food, and the writing of Steven King. (It is interesting that this type of suspicion always tends to run in the same direction: a person known to enjoy mainstream novels but caught listening to a Virginia Woolf book on his mp3, say, is unlikely to be seen as pretending to enjoy the popular literature he normally consumes). Suppose this type of fear is the explanation. What explains the fear itself? I wish to suggest that at the root of it must be the belief that others assume it to be impossible to genuinely enjoy a variety of things, that they believe that if you truly appreciate the highest quality, you wouldn’t have anything less. 

This assumption is not altogether unreasonable. Eclecticism lacks internal unity. Much like an outfit that consists of a variety of mismatched elements, liking multiple different kinds of thing may seem to cut against the grain of style and good taste all on its own. For style is, to a large extent, a kind of harmony – a way in which all the different elements fit together in a unified whole. Lack of style has much to do with the absence of this type of harmony. Moreover, it is probably true that if one deeply appreciates something, one is unlikely to revel in certain other things. Thus, I would be surprised if many classical musicians voluntarily choose to listen to simplistic and repetitive pop songs, for instance. I would conjecture that classical musicians will tend to find such songs, well, tedious: once a person has learned to expect from music a certain level of complexity and sophistication, she is almost bound to have those expectations frustrated while listening to the typical, familiar 3-cord song. But it would not be astonishing in the least bit if it turns out that a significant number of classical musicians are keen on jazz, alternative rock, tango, or a number of other styles. When it comes to taste, things stand much the way they do with character: character has some unity, but it is also complex and partly fragmented. Thus, while a kind person will not kill for profit, she may well refuse to help someone in need because she has too much on her own mind, say, or is too exhausted. That’s all the unity we can hope for in the realm of character. As with character, so with taste. This is my first point.   

My second point is this: a person’s tastes are more like a collection of objects than they are like an outfit, and this largely obviates the need for unity. The reason a person’s shirt, scarf, and coat must match if she is to be seen as elegant is that the different parts of the outfit are worn and perceived simultaneously, and there is pressure to make them look like a coherent whole, each complementing the rest. But one’s aesthetic preferences are not, similarly, meant to be satisfied all at once, and there is no reason to try and make the set perfectly coherent and unified. Different preferences are satisfied at different points in time. Sometimes, a classical music lover may want to listen to music that’s energizing and, perhaps, allows one to dance to it. A temperamental Latin piece would be perfect for such an occasion, and no classical music piece will be good unless, perhaps, the type of dance one craves is ballet. Or she may be too tired to appreciate the complexity of a Mendelssohn piece or be in the middle of an intimate conversation with a significant other and think that the perfect music for the occasion is soulful singer-songwriter music. Something similar is true of overworked chefs: they admit to just being too tired to appreciate gourmet food after a long day of work and so crave simple meals in the evening.   

Note that the question is not only why many feel pressure to hide taking guilty pleasure in simple things. I am sure not all feel such pressure, and some famous musicians, chefs, etc. have publicly acknowledged indulging in such guilty pleasures. The question is why the multi-faceted nature of taste tends to surprise us. Our default assumption is that classical musicians will simply not take non-classical music seriously and that haute cuisine chefs will scoff at fast food.  

Why would anyone suppose that a person’s taste is either a set of unified preferences or else a set of preferences firmly anchored in the lowest common denominator, i.e., in the plainest and most ordinary among one’s tastes? Perhaps, we think that humans are simpler than they, in fact, are – that there are just a few things they really like. Maybe, we want our images of others to have an internal harmony so we can “make sense” of those others and know how to interact with them – what music to put on when they come over to visit, what gift to buy for their birthdays. Or maybe the higher pleasures are somehow more elusive and thereby easier to deny than the lower ones, sort of the way mental anguish is easier to deny than physical pain is.  

Whatever the truth here, the assumption of unity must be rejected on both theoretical and practical grounds. A person may have a taste for more than one kind of thing. Taste is like Walt Whitman – large and it contains multitudes. Moreover, it is good for a person to have a wide and diverse set of aesthetic preferences. In fact, it is necessary if she is to find just what she needs on a variety of occasions. 

Note that while I have been assuming here that some pleasures are of a higher order than others and also, perhaps, implying that there is such a thing as good taste (controversial views, I know, but permit me not to go into this), nothing important in my argument hinges on these assumptions. The presumption of unity in a person’s taste and the corollary expectation that someone who enjoys this and that kind of thing cannot and should not enjoy this or that other kind of thing are pervasive and held independently of one’s view of the hierarchy of taste.  A propos, I recall an occasion in high-school when some of my friends and I were in a music record store, while on a trip in a different city. There were two young men working in the store, and everything about their appearance screamed “heavy metal.” One of my friends was a Beatles fan (many years after the Beatles heyday), and she wore the Beatles sign as a necklace around her neck. One of the young men looked at her and said, “Excuse me, are you listening to Beatles?” “Yes,” she muttered. “Get out of here,” he said, half-joking, no doubt, but only half. He was thereby showing just the type of purism and snobbism my classical pianist friend feared her colleagues would show, but more militant. More importantly, he appeared to be working on the assumption that someone who listens to the Beatles can’t possibly enjoy Metallica or Iron Maiden and bands of their ilk. But that’s quite possible, actually. I don’t remember if it was true of the friend I just described – if yes, the store may have lost a customer – but I am quite certain it is true in general.   

Some people do have a very narrow taste, surely, and appear unable to enjoy a variety of things. I once knew somebody like that – a person with a narrow taste, that is. He had an officemate who was just the opposite of him: always finding something new to enjoy. This acquaintance of mine liked making fun of his co-worker and of the wide range of the other’s tastes but actually, I suspect he was just jealous. The human emotional and psychological  needs are much wider than any one style of art or other product can satisfy, and it seems to me that we all know, at some level, that it is good (healthier?) to cultivate taste for a wider variety of things. And the friend in question must have known it too.

If you are reading this, T, apologies for bringing up the story of you and your co-worker. I either did not have the guts or did not have the insight to say this back then, but perhaps, I will say it now: there is no reason to be disparaging while desirous. Better go find some new things to enjoy. I know you doubt there are such things, but really, I knew you well enough to know you are a large man and contain multitudes. You may doubt there are such things, but I would be astonished if there aren’t.     


  1. I agree almost 100%. Catholic taste rules!

  2. Very interesting post, thank you. I got a PhD in English literature from an Ivy League School, and I have often felt pressure to like certain kinds of books — the less well-known books of authors from the literary canon, mostly; in those circles, you have to show you can think for yourself and don't just praise what everyone else applauds, but you shouldn't stray away from the group too much. For instance, I read most of Ursula Le Guin in graduate school, but nobody knew.

  3. I hope this doesn't come across as too mean in tone, but I think there are some dubious assumptions about pop/rock music here, and I can't quite make myself let them slide. It's not just the tell-tale use of the phrase 'alternative rock', which almost no one who seriously follows American indie rock seriously uses any more ('alternative rock'=pseudo-rebellious grunge music that did in the charts circa 1995). It's the assumption that somehow, a) perceived hierarchies of taste don't exist in the rock case, which is just false if you actually read any serious music journalism at all; you'll be hard pressed to find a rock critic who doesn't take The Beatles more seriously than Metallica, *even if they enjoy Metallica's music as much*, and b) the assumption that 'good' music is distinguished from bad, largely by its level of formal complexity. Both of these assumptions seem in tension with what I know about rock criticism. Firstly, since the 80s, it's been full of complaints about the canon being centered around music liked/played by straight white men, in a matter very similar to the canon wars in academia. Google 'rockism' for more details. Secondly, an aesthetic based solely on formal complexity, harmonic inventiveness, etc., just doesn't work for judging pop/rock music, at least relative to other pop/rock music, as can be seen by looking at which artists serious critics of rock music have historically been most enthusiastic about. Robert Christgau is arguably America's most serious distinguished living rock critic, and of his three 'favourite' rock/pop acts (as supposed to jazz artists-he's a serious jazz aficionado though he doesn't write much about it, which is evidence against the claim that those who appreciate more sophisticated music won't enjoy stuff that's lacking in harmonic variation or formal complexity), two are Chuck Berry and short-lived 70s proto-punk band The New York Dolls, hardly standard bearers for musical complexity! The other most famous living rock critic is Greil Marcus, and his most famous writing is about Elvis and Sex Pistols: lots of 'typical, familiar three-chord song[s]' there. It's true that some artists, Brian Wilson, say, or James Brown (though in his case it's rhythmic complexity allied to radical melodic and harmonic simplicity) or (some) Kraftwerk, or Prince (maybe more 'inventiveness' than 'complexity' in his case, or even, to some degree, The Beatles, post-Help, Love, even the Marvin Gaye of What's Going On, and if we're going to include hip-hop, some of the late 80s classics with heavy sampling, especially Public Enemy, are revered for the unusual musical complexity of their work, relative to other 'pop music' in the broad sense. But Elvis? Chucky Berry? Patsy Cline (or any country really)? The Rolling Stones? Aretha Franklin? Bob Dylan? The Velvet Underground (despite Cale being 'classically trained')? Otis Redding? The Clash? Biggie? Eminem? Numerous beautiful 60s pop singles (Tracks of My Tears, Different Drum etc.)? Numerous awesome garage rock tracks (96 Tears, Strychnine)? Any reggae ever? A huge amount of canonical rock and pop is canonical for reasons other than the sort of complexity your assuming is the major measure of aesthetic worth for music. Virtually everyone/thing in that second list is probably less complex musically than Metallica, who's 80s work I like a lot, but who are hopelessly kitsch compared to any of the artists on the 2nd list.

  4. In general, the aesthetics of post rock'n'roll Anglosphere popular music isn't about harmonic inventiveness or structural complexity. It's about the meaning created by the interaction between the timbre of the singer's voice, their vocal inflections (which can be judged better by comparison by acting than by comparison to a great opera singer-this is why serious rock critics regard Bob Dylan as a great singer, not someone who's 'poor voice' has to be endured to get to the lyrical goodies), the persona of the artist/band, the lyrics, and the general mood set by the music, plus of course also, whether the basic particular melodic phrases or the tracks rhythm is compelling, moving etc., irrespective of the manner in which it's developed (if at all). (The sort of thing that might be dismissed in the melodic case, by some writers about the aesthetics of western classical music as 'mere' charm, though greatness at the level of individual phrases and melodies is an important part of the armoury of some-maybe all?-great classical composers). It's through the interaction of all these elements that something that's aesthetically meaningful, and can be evaluated is created. It's a performers music, basically, not a composers music.

  5. Thank you for the comment. I found it interesting. (By the way, I disagree with you about the use of “alternative rock” — perhaps, we move in different social circles, but that's beside the point). Please note:

    (1) I neither said nor implied that there are no hierarchies in the case of rock (or any other genre). What I said was that there is typically the assumption that if you truly enjoy the works at the top of a hierarchy, you either can't or shouldn't enjoy the lower-level works (someone recently suggested the notion of “aesthetic akrasia”: knowing what's better but consuming what's worse). That's true both across genres (if you enjoy classical music, you can't or shouldn't enjoy pop/rock) and within genres (if you enjoy the best of pop/rock, you can't or shouldn't enjoy the more mediocre pieces). But I think that you both can and if you do, you should (in the prudential sense) enjoy works at various levels of a hierarchy.

    (2) I am not sure what point you thought I was making about complexity, but what I said was that many classical musicians are likely to find the typical pop song simplistic and repetitive. However, they mustn't conclude from here that they can't or shouldn't enjoy any pop/rock or other non-classical music, e.g., tango. (I happen to know a great many classical musicians who feel ashamed they listen to or enjoy non-classical music). They may find that some non-classical pieces are sufficiently interesting to them. Or they may, sometimes, be in a mood of listening to something simplistic and repetitive. If they are, they should go for it and should feel as though they are “sinking too low.”

    (3) I am not sure what the point about critics' taking the Beatles more seriously than Metallica has to do with my argument. I made no claims about which should be taken more seriously than which. What I said was that the young Metallica fans my friend and I encountered in a music store many years ago apparently assumed that if you listen to the Beatles, you can't also listen to Metallica. But this assumption seems false. A person can genuinely like both.

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