Popular culture and the death of “good taste”
Rollin, Roger B
“The enemy of art is what passes for good taste.” –Walter Hill
When people learn that I teach a college course in popular culture, their responses often go something like this: “What in the world is an English professor doing teaching Batman [or Schwarzenegger movies or Stephen King novels or rap]?”
Behind such questions lie several assumptions. One is that English professors are supposed to teach “the good stuff” (that is, the stuff all of us were forced to read in school) and not the stuff with which we regularly entertain ourselves. Related assumptions are that there are “high culture” and “low culture,” “art” and “trash,” and that the standards for these are fixed, clear, and knowable–at least to “experts” like English professors. Finally, such questions assume that college courses should be devoted solely to what that high priest of Good Taste, Matthew Arnold, referred to as “the best that has been thought and said”–and not to what is listed in the entertainment section.
A strong argument can be made for the serious study of popular culture, and that argument is explicitly or implicitly made in every article in this issue of National Forum. Here, however, shall focus on a single aspect of that argument, albeit a fundamental one: that our tendency to rank cultural artifacts on the basis of their supposed artistic quality (as determined by those possesssing Good Taste) is philosophically unsound and educationally counterproductive; consequently, condemnations of popular culture and its study on the basis of aesthetic evaluation–“You mean you actually study that junk?”–are misguided. My title, therefore, introduces, not a eulogy, but a polemic, for I come, not to praise Good Taste, but. to bury it. Specifically, I shall argue that Good Taste is an idea whose time has passed, that whatever limited usefulness it may have had in the past has long since been outlived. Moreover, I shall argue that Good Taste is an idea that probably has done more harm than good, and that, as a philosophical and aesthetic concept, it deserves to be mercifully interred.
Such claims quite naturally will meet with resistance on the part of those who believe that good taste, like God, is eternal. For evidence of my argument’s perversity they can call upon the common wisdom (which may be no wiser for being common, however) that some individuals obviously possess good taste and others just as obviously lack it. Implicit in this popular view of good taste is the idea that it is some kind of universal phenomenon, that somehow, in the beginning God made good taste and saw that it was, indeed, good.
The History of Good Taste
In fact, as a formal concept good taste is of relatively recent origin, no more than a few hundred years old. The Oxford English Dictionary implies a notion of “good taste” in its definition of “taste:” “the sense of what is appropriate, harmonious, or beautiful; [especially] discernment and appreciation of what is beautiful in nature or art; [specifically] the faculty of perceiving and applying what is excellent in art, literature, and the like.” The earliest use “taste” in this sense appears in 1671, in John Milton’s Paradise Regained. In the latter part of this “brief epic,” the Son of God, after rejecting Satan’s temptation of the glory that was Greek literature, gives a better review to Hebrew poetry, “Siloa’s songs, to all true tasts excelling.” The OED cites a less decorous use of the word twenty-three years later, in William Congreve’s comedy The Double-Dealer: “No, no, hang him, he has no Taste.”
Some evidence exists that the idea of good taste as the capacity for making approved aesthetic judgments had been evolving in Britain somewhat earlier, even though the term itself was not so employed. For example, England’s preeminent man of letters in the earlier seventeenth century, Ben Jonson, had complained, “Nothing in our age..is more preposterous than the running judgments upon poetry and poets; when we shall hear those things commended…for the best writings which a man would scarce vouchsafe to wrap any wholesome drug in; he would never light his tobacco with them” (Timber).
Although the idea of good taste as a faculty that the culturally discriminating possess and the great unwashed lack is a relative newcomer to English formal cultural thought, people interested in the arts and letters have been making judgments about what they feel to be aesthetically “good” and “bad” since time immemorial. At least as early as the fifth century B.C., the era of Sophocles, juries were convened to judge the “best” plays for production during the festival of Dionysius. And doubtless, even for Stone Age artists who scratched their drawings of bison hunts on the wall of the tribal cave, there were a dozen hairy-browed critics to offer such remarks as “No eye for arrangement whatsoever,” and “No one’s working representationally nowadays.”
Good Taste, Selective Perception, and Aesthetic Judgment
To make such judgments seems irresistible, almost inevitable. Although no one is born with a command of jargon like “arrangement” and “representational,” we are to be forgiven if it may seem that making aesthetic judgments, exercising our taste, is “natural” to human beings. After all, we seem constantly to be making judgments, indeed, discrimination–even aesthetic discrimination–appears almost to be a function of perception itself. For example, you, the gentle reader of this article, as you read, may well be evaluating not only the validity of what I write, but the “beauty” or “excellence” of my prose—such as it may be. Surely we employ our taste all the time, and even unconsciously. It is as if our predilection for continually exercising our taste is tied in with the principle of selective perception by which our minds routinely operate.
“Selective perception” is the psychologist’s term for our tendency to see and hear what we want. During our waking moments, we are bombarded with more stimuli than our minds can handle. Therefore, although we probably take in almost everything within our field of perception at any given moment, we actually take note of very little of it. To protect itself from overload, the mind, operating mainly without our awareness, selects what we need consciously to attend to according to our priorities–beginning with survival, followed by interest or importance, and so on.
My suggestion, then, is that our almost religious faith in the existence of good taste, of the universality of the standards by which it operates, and of the “naturalness” of that operation, may have something to do with the fact that selectivity, discrimination, whatever one wishes to call it, is a function of life itself, a sine qua non of survival: “I judge, therefore I am.”
However, there is a considerable difference between being able to tell a cop from a robber, and between judging a lyric by Madonna to be less aesthetically pleasing than one by Andrew Marvell. No one’s survival–ours, Madonna’s or Marvell’s–is at stake when we exercise our taste in this way. Why then does it seem so inevitable that we make judgments about aesthetic objects? The answer is, of course, that aesthetic objects are made to evoke judgments: they invite us to exercise our taste. One assumes, for example, that whenever Norman Rockwell painted one of his popular pictures he hoped that it would elicit positive responses such as “How lifelike!” He must have been prepared for negative reactions–like “mere kitsch”– as well, but negative reactions are still aesthetic reactions. Only if his work had been greeted with indifference or ignored might Rockwell have felt that his creative efforts had been in vain.
The reason why we constantly make aesthetic judgments is that we are inundated by aesthetic objects in daily life, well nigh overwhelmed by the Beautiful (or attempts at it), including each other. For most of us dress not only to shield our bodies from the elements but at the very minimum to avoid offending the sensibilities of others. And some of us consciously endeavor to transform ourselves into objets d’art.
Aesthetic judgment, then, is a mode in which our minds often operate, not only when we encounter prints or wallpaper patterns, billboards or Buicks, Playboy or Paradise Lost, but also when we respond to an object that could have been aesthetic but isn’t, like a stepladder, or to something upon which we actually impose aesthetics, like the natural vista that we say is “pretty as a picture postcard.”
Death of an Idea
If all this be true, it may seem as if I have painted myself into a corner. If the exercise of their tastes by human beings is as ubiquitous and even inevitable a phenomenon as I have suggested, is this article’s announced argument not subverted by its own reasoning? I think not, for what I am urging here is not that taste is dead, but that the idea of good taste is–dead as a viable philosophical construct, dead as a principle of culture criticism, and dead above all as a basis for education in the arts and letters. By attempting to demystify taste, I am trying to put value judgments in proper perspective and to challenge what too often has become a kind of aesthetic imperialism.
Such an endeavor is not at all novel. The devaluation of taste (I am aware of the paradox) has in fact been one of the fundamental implications of postmodern thought. Indeed, it has been one of the central implications of art itself in our century as far back as Dada and as recently as Pop Art and Found Art. Not a single major critical movement in the arts and letters since the Fifties has held up taste as a critical principle–not structuralism, not linguistic analytical philosophy, not feminism and neo-Marxism, not reception theory and its variants, and not deconstructionism. For all of these movements are based more upon reason and empirical data from the social sciences than upon the quasi-religious faith on which traditional humanistic thought tends to be grounded.
Socialization, Educators, and Good Taste
Although our human capacity to feel approval or disapproval seems innate, the standards by which aesthetic approval and disapproval are determined have not been shown to be so. Nor have any tablets of artistic standards been handed down on some artistic Mt. Sinai. Quite the contrary: common sense and common experience both suggest that we develop our standards of taste through socialization. As Northrop Frye observes, our taste evolves out of our negotiations with our “cultural environment,” and consists mainly of “acquiring an instinct for different conventions of verbal behavior”–making the right cultural noises, in other words. According to Frye, “The critic who fights his way through to some kind of intuitive feeling for what [aesthetic] conventions are accepted in his society becomes a representative of the [‘]good taste[‘] of his age” (in Strelka, Problems of Literary Evaluation). Thus, when critics exercise their “taste,” they are really talking more about themselves, or, at most, about themselves as “representative[s] of their age,” than they are about “texts.”
And every age, Frye observes, “left to itself, is incredibly narrow in its cultural range, and the critic, unless he is a greater genius than the world has ever seen, shares that narrowness in proportion to his confidence in his taste.” In other words, the less skeptical we are about our own taste, the more historically and socially parochial we are likely to be. To label something “a boring sitcom” or “an exciting album” is to tell more about ourselves than about either television or music. The more blithely we make such judgments the more culturally socialized, aesthetically conditioned, we probably are.
The socialization of the young is the primary aim of education, and it is through various forms of conditioning that such socialization is accomplished. More, perhaps, than any other group, we educators are those in whom education “took,” those who were most extensively conditioned. It is not surprising, then, that when it is our turn to be in charge of the socialization process, we often apply the same kinds of conditioning techniques that worked so well upon us. This scenario helps to explain why so much education in the arts and letters continues to be heavily grounded in “principles” of taste–even though these principles are invalid and on the whole don’t work.
That they don’t work for too many of our students, almost any English teacher can testify. It is our unhappy lot sometimes to be told, upon meeting someone for the first time, that in school they “hated English.” And generally what these good people mean is that they hated the study of the “masterpieces” of literature, those texts upon which our culture, even our civilization, are (it is said) founded It goes without saying that those professing to have “hated English” are in their freedom as adults unlikely to read the classics, if they read literature at all. Such failures are not uncommon, for at least two reasons: one has to do with taste-based curricula and the other with taste-oriented teaching.
Numerous teachers of the arts and letters abide by something like the following credo:
* There is such a thing as Good Taste;
* The artistic and literary canons, the “classics,” are the repositories of Good Taste, for they represent the cumulative judgments of generations;
* Our devotion to the canons is evidence of our own Good Taste;
* Enforced exposure to “good art,” “good music,” and “good literature” improves one’s character (note that if this were actually the case, humanities departments would be occupied exclusively by saints); and
* It is our sacred duty to transmit the artistic and literary canons to the young, whether they are ready to receive and desirous of receiving them or not.
Students who embrace these canons demonstrate that they too possess good taste, which is to say that they are gratifyingly like us, their teachers. As for the rest, those who find the canons unpleasurable because they are too difficult or dull or disturbing, they are informed, directly or indirectly, that they lack good taste: “You don’t judge Hamlet; Hamlet judges you.”
Small wonder, then, that our students often react defensively–withdrawing from the cultural action, becoming aesthetic bystanders, or getting mad, venting hostility upon their teachers, upon humanistic education generally, or, worse still, upon the fine arts and belles lettres. It is understandable then that, years later, all they remember is that they “hated English” or “hated art,” when what they really hated was being, in effect, bullied, given to understand that because they lacked good taste, they were inferior human beings.
To compound the insult, they could readily infer that the culture they really enjoyed–their music, their best sellers, their favorite movies and TV shows–was mere bubble gum for the mind, with no redeeming intellectual, social, or moral value. Hardly surprising, then, that after they leave school, they assiduously avoid elite culture and seek diversion instead solely in popular culture–thus becoming locked into a single “taste public.” Whereas many of those whose tastes run to Elite culture also can enjoy a lot of popular culture–The Lion King as well as King Lear–the victims of education’s unwitting taste imperialism can cut themselves off from the vast range of instruction and delight that elite culture can afford.
What Needs To Be Done?
What can we do to cure this cultural malaise, to make the cultural education of present and future generations of students more humane, more generous, and more productive? One answer would be to proclaim far and wide the death of good taste. To proclaim it in the mass media, which (paradoxically) perpetuate the illusion of good taste in their book and movie reviews, their fashion features, and their advertising. We also need to proclaim the death of good taste in the schools, where so many teachers do the Lord’s work, bringing the rudiments of elite culture to the huddled masses. Such teachers would find their professional lives easier and more productive if they need no longer feel that they have to conceal their own “guilty pleasures” in popular culture and to combat their students’ preoccupation with popular culture, and if in their classes they were to promote aesthetic tolerance and understanding. Above all, we need to proclaim the death of good taste in the very dragon’s den, the colleges and universities, where the future teachers of culture are taught and where young consumers of culture develop their tastes.
None of this is to urge that those of us in the business of the transmission of culture should enshrine popular taste as we have long enshrined Elite taste. Rather, if we have learned the lesson of the past, what is indicated is that we at least need to stop derogating students’ tastes, which–unless we are Compleat Elitists–are in part our tastes as well Even better would be for humanists to exhibit their humanness by showing tolerance for the tastes of others and perhaps even to begin to try to understand the nature and function of popular taste and of popular culture.
To show respect for the popular taste and its preferred artifacts does not mean that as educators we must abandon our traditional role as transmitters of the canon. We must continue to present that canon to students, but now as an expression of our culture’s cumulative, often changing, and by no means infallible taste. In the course of that presentation it would not be amiss occasionally to highlight the many connections between Elite and popular culture–the parallels, for example, between Beowulf and Batman–and if this means teaching a bit of popular culture, there might be worse things to do. What would be the harm in devoting a little class time to helping students understand the relationships between the culture they themselves freely choose and the culture we choose to require of them?
After all, in the end culture is one. Almost all forms of culture in essence involve the same kinds of “special” human experience. With few exceptions, cultural experience is something we acquire: in a special place (Lincoln Center, the TV room); at a special time (evenings at eight, Super Sunday); when we deal with objects or events that have somehow been “framed” (by a movie screen, a compact disc, or a space in a gallery). To borrow Patrick Brantlinger’s expression, all of the arts and letters are the products of the “aestheticization of experience” (Bread and Circuses) and as all experience can be aestheticized, so it can be aestheticized as popular or folk as well as elite culture. Moreover, all culture must “divert” us in the sense of facilitating “transcendence,” if only for that brief shining moment that is a Pavarotti aria or an Ella Fitzgerald riff. Additional, all culture is consumer culture–made to be used–and inherently evanescent, having its truest existence in its consumption.
All culture is also liberation–liberation from the prison of daily routine (society’s tyranny), liberation from the prison of the ego (the tyranny of the psychical personality), and liberation from the prison of time and space (nature’s tyranny). Eclectic tastes can maximize the possibilities for liberation whereas good taste can subvert them All culture invites us to role-play at large, providing a mental theatre in which to prepare new faces to meet the faces that we meet or to regard our old ones complacently. Grounded in narcissicism, cultural experience at the same time requires a kind of effacement of the self, the submerging of one’s identity into a Madam Bovary or a Marilyn Monroe.
Cultural experience is also always social, even when it is solitary, for we are herd animals and social interactions have forever shaped our perceptions. Any culture experience is historical, taking place in “real” time and “real” space, but it is also mythic, transforming the spatial and the temporal. It is far more than biofeedback, more than the quantifiable, and certainly more than an exercise of exquisite judgment, superior discrimination, and good taste.
As we move inexorably towards 2001, and as the quantity of our leisure time increases, so will our need for more and varied cultural experiences to fill that time. Indeed, what may loom ahead is a Century of Culture, when good taste will at last have been buried in the pages of history, serving as another quaint example of Sir Francis Bacon’s Idols of the Theatre–one of those delusions the human race has lived by, but which it eventually must live through.
Roger B. Rollin is William James Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson University, where he teaches courses in seventh-century British Literature and Popular Culture. He is past president of the American Culture Association and of the Popular Culture Association in the South. His most recent book is Robert Herrick (revised edition), a critical introduction to the poet.
Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Fall 1994
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