The Legacy Of Taste

The Development of Taste.

I have been teasing out what I want to say about developing taste and aesthetic judgment. There is something tangled up in this concept which I find incredibly important but am having difficulty dragging out into the light.

One aspect which I would like to hone in on is the role that taste plays in our day to day lives as a foundational, practical, tool for passing on quality.

When I am speaking about taste and aesthetic judgements, I am not quite talking about what people mean when they say someone “has taste”. What I mean is related to what we generally think of: a cultured sense of quality. Someone who appreciates classical music, fine wine and visiting the opera might be a dated central European caricature of what it means to have taste in that sense.

To say that someone has taste generally alludes to their qualities of judgment. It is a signpost for virtue, indicating that at the core of their being they are made of quality materials. For some reason it has been considered that those who appreciate quality must be able to do that because they themselves are of higher quality.

Well, I am not at all interested in the problematic issues which come from trying to assess the quality of someone else’s taste.

I’d rather focus on the mechanism for judging quality which we all possess.

For me, taste is the ability to reflect on what provides quality in our own lives. That may be the appreciation of classical music, or the hand stitching of fan-fic keychains, or engaging in ultimate frisbee. It is the ability to self-analyze how we are, how we feel, while being exposed to different situation.

Crucially, it must also include the shaping of behaviors. It is one thing to understand how spending our time exercising or eating more fruits and vegetables might have positive benefits on our lives, and quite another to actually integrate those choices into our lives.

Having taste is the quality of assessing the aspects of our lives that bring the most quality, and then also making the efforts to include more of those elements into our lives.

Exercising and building one’s taste is to leverage an innate quality, an innate mechanism, which all humans possess. It does not require formal training or genetic gifts.

What it does require are three costs which many people find difficult to pay:

  • Time
  • Vulnerability
  • Independence

In order to develop taste one must spend time reflecting on where meaning derives from. What makes them happy? What inspires them? Are there activities in which one engages and always feels energized, inspired and alive? What about activities (doom scrolling on social media) which always leave one feeling depressed, drained and unfulfilled?

Build upon what already exists. We can only judge the things we already engage in.

Vulnerability comes in when we are willing to consider that some of the decisions we have been making are not in our best interest. It is the ability to look at where we spend our time and energy where it does not serve us.

Some of this might be impractical, like the work we engage in. Certainly it is the rare few who are actually engaged in and inspired by what pays the bills. If we have the chance to change this we should, but knowing what to do instead, and actually making the career change are significantly more difficult obstacles.

We can change, however, the media we consume, the people we spend time with, the topics we engage in, our hobbies, our diet, our physical activity. All of these aspects have dramatic impacts on our wellbeing and most of them can be adjusted on our own time.

Sure, building the habits is difficult, but practicing the self-reflection is how we come to build a desire for change which can support those efforts.

Adapting our lives to new activities which adhere to a developed sense of taste will mean shifting the character of our time and energy usage. It will likely mean that we will engage less with aspects of society which many people value and take for granted. It will probably mean that the way one lives will seem “odd” to the mainstream. Having a strong sense of taste will make it clear to us why we live like we do, but it will not be clear to those around us.

This comes back to taste as something we assign other people. When our taste matches what society deems worthy, then we will be accepted. When our taste falls outside of those lines we will be misunderstood. Standing firm outside the crowd is not something easily maintained.

Taste as a Legacy of Knowledge.

In a recent conversation with artist, art critic and thoughtful human Eric Wayne he presented this simple description of what it means to be human which helped reframe an entire section of contemporary culture within my udnerstanding:

Our technology is way ahead of our morality, self-control, and maturity. The thing is, science builds upon generations, lifetimes, centuries, and thousands of years of technological development. But for us humans, each life starts from scratch, and we only have one lifetime to develop our own ability to participate meaningfully in life. We can’t inherit that ability from anyone else. We are probably no more unselfish or wise than we were a hundred years ago. That’s a fairly safe statement. It’s probably true for a thousand years, or ten thousand. But because tech builds and builds and we always have to start over, we have become like children with increasingly dangerous toys.

Eric Wayne

I feel the truth of this statement around me every day. It explains so much about he world we live in, especially the hyper modernized western world. Technology is the cause of and solution to each of our problems, and yet it is the age old questions of what it means to be a human which keep ringing in my ears.

Studying philosophy and art history is to keep in touch with those through lines of conversation. It is intriguing to me that generation upon generation continues to try and crack those same questions.

Is that really true, though, that there is no legacy pertaining to humanity that can be passed down from person to person? What about religion, spiritual traditions, philosophies?

Clearly, though they have been around as long as humans, we continue to struggle as individuals, and his point stands.

We may not have a science that pertains to finding meaning in one’s life, but I think that we do have practices. We have learned quite a lot about mindfulness, prayer, the powers of ritual and community practice. We have learned much about the value of having deep relationships and staying occupied with meaningful engaging hobbies.

There are magnificent treatises from each age which seek to combine and reframe spiritual understanding of our place within the universe.

Unlike science, we cannot simply download the manual and load it into the operating system. The problem is not that we don’t have the information, the problem is that the information comes in the form of Aesthetic knoweldge.

That is, knowledge which is wordless, embodied, practiced and experienced rather than passed on. It is knowledge which must be attempted so that it can be internalized.

The problem is also skepticism and scarcity of time. Realizing that trying new things might end up being a dead-end we first seek out what knowledge can be written. We read the reviews of religions and spiritualities, the first hand accounts of others who have gone before. A few bad reviews here, or conflicting accounts elsewhere, and we end up unsure of which direction to go.

Taste, as a mechanism for reviewing where meaning comes from and integrating it into our lives, is uniquely suited to helping us filter aesthetic knowledge.

It requires an investment in time, but is infallible when we open ourselves to what it brings to our attention.

We may not be able to build a purposeful life for society in the way that we can lay down a digital network. On the other hand, each person has the ability to tap into the cultural legacy which already exists. Taste is the conduit through which we can deepen our connection to meaning and the great cultural collective of aesthetic knowledge.