How Does One Acquire Good Taste?

That was sort of the question posed by Tyler Cowen to David Salle, an artist and writer on Conversations with Tyler podcast that I recently listened to. Now, before i got into Salle’s answer, perhaps we should raise another question–namely, what does developing or having good taste even matter? I think this is a good question, and I’ll take a stab at an answer. But let’s get to Salle’s answer.

One thought on “How Does One Acquire Good Taste?

  1. Salle mentions an answer given by the first Metropolitan Museum’s curator of modern art:

    …start collecting (art). “Okay, but I don’t have any money. How can I collect art?” You don’t have to collect great paintings. Just go to the flea market and buy a vase for 5 bucks. Bring it back to your room, live with it, and look at it.

    Pretty soon, you’ll start to make distinctions about it. Eventually, if you’re really paying attention to your own reactions, you’ll use it up. You’ll give that to somebody else, and you’ll go back to the flea market, and you buy another, slightly better vase, and you bring that home and live with that. And so the process goes. That’s very real. It’s very concrete.

    (emphasis added)

    This advice resonated with me–it seems sound–and the word “distinctions” made me think of the expression, “discriminating tastes.” Essentially good taste is one that is discriminating. (Could someone have good taste that is not really discriminating?) If this is true, then developing good taste is closely associated with becoming more discriminating. Primarily, this means being able to notice details of an object, which then allows one to notice differences between objects. Even if taste involves more than this, if one doesn’t really perceive details, including ones that are more minute and subtle, one can’t really distinguish differences between objects, not in a very precise and in-depth fashion. Therefore, this discriminating eye seems like a basic requirement for developing good taste.

    So how does one develop, and sharpen, one’s discernment? Off the top of my head, I would point to one’s experience of art–specifically, the variety, in terms of style and quality, and the frequency and total amount. If one’s experience of art is limited, in terms of quantity and variety, it’s hard to imagine such a person would develop a keen level of discernment, even if she was generally perceptive and insightful. On the other hand, someone who may not possess keen observation skills may start to acquire a greater ability to notice details if they have frequent experiences with a wide variety of art.

    I think the quote touches on this, although it emphasizes depth more than breadth. By living with the vase (or an art work), time will not only reveal details of the vase, but the positive qualities that prove durable and lasting. That is, some qualities that initially attracted the person may, over time, no longer do so. Giving an art work time seems really important for this winnowing effect, but also for allowing one to notice details and also better understand the artwork–such as, the way the parts form a whole, and an overall meaning(s), if there are any.

    But the method would limit the range of different types of vases–that is, the breadth of experience would suffer. The latter is also important, but I think one could get this by looking at different vases online. Depth of experience would likely suffer from the approach, but combine the method Salle mentioned with surveying vases online, in books, and museums, and one could arrive at a more balanced experience.

    The main point here is the quality and quantity, so to speak, of experience is really critical to developing greater powers of discernment. Even if this doesn’t lead to improved tastes, although I suspect it would, I suspect most would agree that gaining greater powers of perception and discernment is clearly a good thing.

    One last note. One may gain greater discernment in a more intuitive way. That is, one may not necessarily articulate the details and differences, or even be conscious of them. Rather, one may sense these details, a as well as sense or feel the ones that are aesthetically substantive. My point here is that discernment may not be something conscious or something one can translate into words, even to one’s self.

    But, again, the quality and quantity of one’s experience of art seems really critical to developing better discernment of art.

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