Taste and Art

Yesterday I led a panel at the conference ‘Taste After Bourdieu‘ at Chelsea College of Art, London consisting of papers by Ken Wilder, Pil and Galia Kollectiv and Peter Osborne. Here is my 10 minute intro to the panel.

Why does a panel on taste and art stink of privilege and complacency, like the revival of beauty in art? Talking about taste after Bourdieu is like talking about monarchy after Cromwell: it shouldn’t happen, or it’s a sign that there’s been a retreat. A case might be made that talking about taste beyond the bastion of art challenges the economy of cultural capital, but to persist in talking about art and taste is to run the risk of undoing the critique. In this short introduction I want to challenge this intuition without realizing its prophesy.

The concept of taste has attached itself to art to the degree that it has been detached from the biological, natural or bodily processes of tasting. This convergence calls for a deeper inquiry into the historical transition in which art becomes a matter of taste and taste is exemplified in the aesthetic experience of art.

Although making artefacts and tasting food and drink is as old as the hills, the entanglement between art and taste is modern. Both art and aesthetics, it is well known, were invented in the eighteenth century. Rather than give priority to the inquiry into the ontology of art over aesthetics, as Thierry de Duve does, or put the emphasis on aesthetic experience independent of practices and debates within art, as Jay Bernstein does, the difficulty is to provide an historical account of how art and aesthetics are formed together.

The transition from the classical and feudal ordering of the several liberal and mechanical arts to the general and abstract concept of art in the singular corresponds historically to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This is the conjuncture in which taste and art are fused at the point occupied by the bourgeois concept of the free subject. Taste becomes subjective in a form that is exemplified by art. To facilitate this, taste was reordered so that the bodily processes of tasting were subsumed under the mental processes of the imagination.

The body was not completely eradicated from the Romantic concept of taste or the field of aesthetics to which it belonged. Rather, taste in the biological sense, a bodily sensation, was united with the imagination or judgement, on condition that the latter, a particular form of subjective activity, was dominant. Politically, the preeminence of imagination or judgement in aesthetics is emblematic of the bourgeois revolution’s conception of freedom: in contrast to the Lockean theory of sense as a passive receptor of stimuli from the external world, the new concept of taste puts its emphasis on the subjective activity of the individual.

The bourgeoisie inherited and overthrew an aristocratic apparatus of culture distinct from but bonded to classicism. Antiquity divided the arts into the ‘liberal’ and the ‘vulgar’, which differentiated the skills of the educated ruling class from the skills of the workers and slaves, but did not transpose this into a hierarchy of tastes. Only for the aristocratic elite did taste signify that all forms of pleasure within a complexly divided society were unified in a vertical ordering of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘fine’ and ‘vulgar’, ‘high’ and ‘low’.

Taste, within aristocratic culture, was based on objective principles of uniformity, variety, regularity, simplicity, complexity, intricacy, number, proportion, order and congruity, derived from surviving examples of Greek artefacts and Greek aesthetic principles. Classical Greek artefacts mostly residing in Rome, and Roman copies of Greek sculptures that could be seen all over Europe, were viewed as exemplary works of beauty by high-born young men and women on the Tour as part of a broader educational and character-forming adventure in which the development of good taste was integral to the extended pedagogy of the ruling class.

The decline and fall of the ‘objective sense’ of beauty – in which the terms beauty and beautiful were ‘used traditionally to denote objects or the property of objects’ – and the rise of the ‘phenomenal sense of beauty’ – in which beauty became something that was perceived or felt – is linked to the bourgeois revolution and the transition from feudalism to capitalism, in which fixed standards and inherited traditional values gave way to individualism, liberty and subjectivity. The absence of aristocratic formulas for beauty put the individual subject at the heart of aesthetics in a way that was radically liberal and at the same time exacting. The bourgeois aesthetic subject makes judgements that cannot be learned by rote. Free from rules, the subject is also unable to rely on rules.

It is vital to remember that the aristocratic regime of taste was not only discredited by the intellectuals of the bourgeois revolution but through new practices and new institutions. The appropriation and redistribution of Roman and Greek artefacts and dispersal of the new canon of art history around Europe were elements in the establishment of a whole new apparatus for art and taste. Between the founding of the Louvre in 1793 and the provision of a public museum of art in every western capital by 1825, as Carol Duncan has charted, followed not long after by the replacement of the academy with the art school, as Malcolm Quinn has argued, art and taste were nationalised. We need to add that art and taste were brought under the control of the bourgeois state in a form that was at once subjective and universal.

With the advent of bourgeois society, the concept of taste undergoes not one but two related but opposed critiques. One tradition, which finds its most influential expression in Kant, reconceives taste as subjective and free. Another tradition, which has its earliest peak with Benthamite philistinism, rejects taste altogether as an expression of feudal prejudice and privilege.
In the same historical conjuncture in which art and taste are refashioned by the revolutionary bourgeoisie, the concept of philistinism is formulated for the first time. As such, the bourgeois legacy with regard to taste is twofold: taste is fundamentally reconfigured as subjective and free but, at the same time, it is rejected as a residue of aristocratic privilege and bias. Bourdieu is blind to the former and pursues the latter not as part of the bourgeois revolution but as a critique of capitalism itself in the form of ‘cultural capital’.

Throughout his sociological study of taste, Bourdieu couches his critique in terms of the title of his first chapter, namely, the ‘aristocracy of taste’. This analysis of taste attempts to persuade us that no bourgeois revolution in taste took place, and, instead, the aristocratic regime of taste lurks secretly behind a bourgeois veneer. Bourdieu argues that the radical and revolutionary character of beauty is the perfect foil for its social function as a marker of distinction and the delayed pay-off of the acquisition of cultural capital. By exposing aesthetic judgement to sociological scrutiny, Bourdieu discovers the objective ‘rules of art’ behind the backs of subjects who appear, deludedly, to make judgements in the absence of rules.

If taste after Bourdieu does not mean merely mean adopting a narrowly defined critique of taste as an aristocratic survival, then it means exploring in full the political and aesthetic implications of subjectivity in taste without cutting it off from the full spectrum of philistinisms. My panel does not address the bourgeois revolution in taste directly but explores its legacies. Ken Wilder will speak to the intricacies of the spectator. Pil and Galia Kollectiv will question Bourdieu’s class analysis of taste by referring to recent trends in youth culture. Peter Osborne will extend the philosophical discussion of taste.