TASTE: How Artists Guide Audiences to Better Experiences

This isn’t a post about food, at least, not entirely.

This is about how we learn, how we find what we like, and how we savor experiences.

Think back, to our ancient history, to an ancient pre-human primate, discovering a fruit they had never seen before, hungrily taking a bite. Upon discovering how delicious it is, our ancestor brings some of this new fruit back to its tribe, offering it to the others.

”I found this. It’s good.”

In essence, this is what the curator and the artist do. The curator finds the good things, and shares what she thinks is the best. She may be a museum director or a DJ spinning vinyl on a friday night. Her job is to develop a nuanced appreciation for what is good, what tastes good to the soul, and bring it back to the tribe.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers - Moanin' (1958) Personnel: Lee Morgan (trumpet), Benny Golson (tenor sax), Bobby Timmons (piano), Jymie Merritt (bass), Art Blakey (drums) from the album 'MOANIN'' (Blue Note Records)

The curator must develop a sense of good taste with their experience of a genre, being able to recognize what stands out. The greater the breadth of their sources and the deeper their understanding of the particulars, the better their sense of taste becomes. The more they know of history and mathematics, the more appreciation they have for the work of John Coltrane, or the serpentine rhythms of Moon Dog. The broader their knowledge of music, the more connections they can find. Who knew there was such a fantastic rock scene in Thailand and Cambodia in the 60’s? I certainly didn’t, until a radio DJ brought some records back, shared it on the airwaves, and expanded my taste.

“I found this. It’s good.”

The artist is a curator who is compelled to create something delicious themselves. They take what they find, what they love, and put it in their toolbox. It may be a piano lick taken from Bobby Timmons, a stylistic approach to light and shadow from Ansel Adams, or an unexpected ingredient from an avant garde chef... Whatever it is, the artist takes that seed, and consciously or unconsciously uses that to build upon for their own work. It takes a long time to develop taste, and even longer still to develop one’s skills to match taste (see the post script below), but eventually, when the artist is ready, they can bring something new.

“You think that’s good? Try this.”

Edit to add a response:

George asked about whether I consider artists to be tastemakers, pointing out that “good taste” is usually tied to dominant cultural norms. In 19th Century France the works of the impressionists and van Gogh were considered “bad taste,” as were countless other artists who didn’t fit the norms of the day. Later, the Dadaists reviled “good taste” and deliberately made work in “Bad Taste” as a criticism of their contemporary culture.

There is certainly an element of “tastemaking” decided by gatekeepers in the professional art world (what kind of work is shown? What is never even considered? Who’s work is shown? Who is never invited, or sought out? Race, Sex, Ethnicity, and Class are still issues here), as well as the fashion world (Whats new? What are the colors this year, and next year? What are the cuts and styling? Who is wearing it? How can we make this more exclusive? Who should we copy?). There are definitely elements of commercialism and status in those realms, but I think that outside of that, the internet has changed the nature of society in the past 30 years. There is no longer a singular mass-media, and no singular dominant culture. Whether you like Beethoven or Nicki Minaj, you are a few clicks away from finding a nearly infinite amount of work that suits your tastes. The artist or curator that says “Hi, I think this is pretty good” and presents you with what they found or what it inspired them to make do not have the power to define that as the sole “good taste” to the exclusion of others. In previous eras that could be done by dominant religious or political groups, but right now at least, there is freedom and availability to match.

Back to George’s comment, I think that while artists and curators may attempt to be tastemakers (that is to say, defining what is “good” and what isn’t), it only works in microcosms that are structured with their own hierarchies. In the broader world and the internet, the artists and curators are mostly serving to expand the experiences (and tastes) of their audiences, letting them figure out for themselves what tastes good.

"And what is good Phaedrus, and what is not good -- need we ask anyone to tell us these things?" 

- Plato, paraphrased by Robert M Pirsig

PS: Taste takes a long time to develop, but the skill of putting it together to synthesize something new that matches up to one’s taste takes longer. I’ve been doing photography for over 15 years at this point, and I have just recently started to make work that matches up with what I want. This is of course discouraging to many would-be artists. I’ve found this quote by Ira Glass to be a good description of that gap, and included below is the video the quote is from. I hope you watch and share it.


“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Ira Glass