Over the past few months I’ve been writing about issues and ideas related to meaning-making and the arts. Exploring how meaning making happens is a complicated process, ruled as much by evolutionary biology and brain science as it is by education, philosophical inquiry and cultural mores.
But if understanding meaning making is difficult, then understanding taste is off-the-charts hard.
I think a lot about how taste is formed and controlled because our relationship to our personal taste portfolio has a powerful impact on how we interpret the meaning and value of the arts. And it has a lot to do with how, when, where and why we choose to talk—or, just as importantly, choose not to talk—about the arts.
This is because the very concept of taste is utterly conflated with personal and social identity. As I’ve written here before, we are born into our tastes through social class, ethnicity, family preferences and traditions. We are socialized and/or educated into our tastes through acculturation (what I need to like in order to be a part of this or that group). We choose our tastes through a maturing sense of individual identity (this is my thing and decidedly not my parents’ thing). These social and psychological constructs guide the ways in which we form our aesthetic preferences when it comes to the arts. And they guide the way we form opinions about the meaning and value of the art we experience as audience members.
So why don’t arts professionals talk about this reality when we talk about meaning and value? Why do we position ourselves behind ostensibly objective terms such as “artistic excellence” instead of actively grappling with how significantly socio-cultural constructs inform the process of evaluating an arts experience? (A brief pause to consider that the Latin root for taste, taxare, means to evaluate or to handle.)
Part of it has to do with our (quite legitimate) desire to establish and maintain professional standards. All professional fields of endeavor have systems in place to measure value and achievement, to define parameters for education and training, to create approved procedures and tactics for practice, and to ensure ethical codes of conduct. And all fields have gatekeepers whose education and experience allow them special insight into these standards.
But I think part of the reason we avoid substantive conversations with our audiences about meaning and value is more troubling, having to do with the arts industry’s reluctance to address head-on the implications of taste when it comes to ascribing value. It is easier to insist on essentialist concepts such as “artistic excellence” than to acknowledge that taste and all of its attendant cultural messiness is part of how we define value and part of how we get to a position of meaning. I know that this is a sensitive conversation (as reader responses to some of my earlier posts on this issue have demonstrated), and I am not trying to be gratuitously provocative here. I’m trying to continue the dialogue.
There is not a reader for this blog who hasn’t struggled with the experience of clashing evaluations —one person’s “great” is another person’s “meh.” When we like and respect that other person, or work with them, or, worse, work for them, this gets troubling. For some audience members, clashing tastes signals conflict. And since resolving conflict takes a special type of effort, many people simply choose to avoid talking about their differing tastes. (When it comes to the arts, that is. It is fascinating to note that our culture of sports talk proves, on a daily basis, that we have the societal structures in place to learn how to argue, debate, disagree, and then shake hands over some types of emotionally charged topics.)
For arts professionals, clashing taste often equals anxiety over the industry’s societal status. If we invite conversations in which individual taste portfolios are allowed equal weight, then how do we protect the integrity of our professional standards? It’s challenging to maintain standards in a field where mushy concepts such as “personal expression” are often used, uncritically, to define the work of both highly trained, highly skilled professionals and lay people. And it’s challenging to separate the process of listening to our audience’s opinions—being in conversation with them about meaning and value—from changing our professional standards in response to those opinions.
As I have argued before in this blog and in my new book, these are not the same things. The willingness to be in conversation with audience members and to listen to their opinions about meaning and value does not mean that aesthetic or business decisions have to be made based on those interpretations (though they certainly can be, and to good end).
I am arguing the value of arts talk for its own sake. I am arguing that a culture of arts talk increases our arts literacy, our capacity for adventure and risk-taking, our sense of connection and, most importantly, our pleasure as audience members.
To that end, I think the arts industry needs to engage in a richer, deeper, more critical investigation of just exactly what we mean when we claim “excellence.” During the month of December I plan to reflect on what I believe are two largely unexplored factors in the excellence equation:
- The process of opinion formation.
- The impact of class and ethnicity on taste formation and articulation.