Taste and 'Taste', Session 3 of Beyond Seeing, Tate Modern.
The sense of taste, like that of smell, is a direct response to molecules that enter our bodies - in the case of taste sensors on the tongue and palate respond to molecules dissolved in saliva. It has a judgmental aspect: at its crudest it allows us to discern what tastes good from what tastes bad.
A widely held view is that all judgements of taste are subjective. You might prefer pistachio flavoured ice cream, I might prefer mango. And, undeniably, tastes differ. But there is no 'correct' view here about which preference is right. In the classic phrase de gustibus non est disputandum ('there's no disputing about taste') ...and yet in the world of wine tasting, it seems that there is wide inter-subjective agreement about which wines taste best...For more on the philosophical questions about the taste of wine, listen to this podcast interview with philosopher Barry Smith, editor of a forthcoming book about this topic Questions of Taste (due out in July, highly recommended).
Taste has been used as a model of aesthetic judgement. A person of good taste in art is one who reliably makes good assessments of the quality of works of art. Like the use of 'taste' in the gustatory sense, judgements of taste in the world of art rely on experience: you can't tell what something tastes like without tasting it (though smell might give you a strong hint); you can't judge a work of visual art purely on a verbal description of it (though, again, this might give clues). Rather in both cases you need to get first hand experience of it.
For most of this session we discussed the question whether there could be standards of taste in art, whether judgements about art are really like judgements about ice cream (or crisp) flavours.
The Eighteenth Century philospher David Hume gave one answer in his essay 'Of The Standard of Taste' (the link here is to the full text with useful annotations and commentaries) . He recognised the similarities between human beings in their physiological experience of the world; but also the different levels of discrimination that individuals can achieve. Also, the senses are not always functioning at an optimal level: if we are tired, or have just tasted something bitter, this can affect our sense perception.
Hume recalled the story from Don Quixote of two wine connoisseurs tasting wine from a barrel. One declared that there was a slight metallic taste; the other that there was a leathery flavour. Less sensitive drinkers mocked them. But when the barrel was drained to the bottom they found an old key with a leather fob. This story is supposed to illustrate the kind of discrimination that we would like to find in an ideal experiencer of a work of art (and also, presumably , how nice it would be if we could get some external corroboration analogous to the key and fob in the realm of judgments of artistic qualities).
Hume thought that there were four qualities that an ideal critic should exhibit. If the critic had these qualities, then they could be trusted as a reliable judge of artistic quality and so provide us with standard of taste.
First, a good critic needs what Hume called 'delicacy of taste'. This is what the wine tasters in the example above demonstrated.
Secondly, a good critic needs practice. The skill of making judgment about works of art is one that benefits from repeated use.
Thirdly, a good critic needs to be free from bias. Not easy to achieve, but that's the ideal goal.
And lastly, a good critic needs to have a sound understanding of whatever he or she is assessing. So if looking at a landscape painting, the good critic will be aware of other great landscape paintings, of work by the artist's contemporaries, and so on. This would allow a critic to judge that a work was derivative or heavily influenced by someone else. It would also, incidentally, allow the critic to recognise qualities such as originality or allusion.
In contrast with Hume, Clive Bell, writing just before the First World War, in his book Art (good title!) argued that to judge the aesthetic quality of a work of art requires no special background knowledge. What is needed is sensitivity to what he called Significant Form (patterns of lines, shapes and colours capable of evoking the aesthetic emotion in the viewer). For Bell art history is interesting, but not a pre-requisite of engaging with artworks seriously...(more on Bell's theory of art in chapter one of my book The Art Question).
There is also the possibility that much (or all) of what we call taste in art is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the rich and powerful who determine which works are 'in' and which 'out.' They come to a consensus about which artists merit attention, but this consensus may not be based on any objective quality of the work (it might simply be a matter of 'investment potential'): if they'd focussed their hype on a different artist, the same effect might have been achieved in terms of reputation...This is the cynical view...but if you read the interviews in the recent Collecting Contemporary ed. Adam Lindeman you will find some support for this.
If you are interested in doing some further reading on philosophical questions about 'Taste and 'Taste'', Carolyn Korsmeyer's essay on Taste in the Routledge Companion to Aesthetics is a very good place to start.