Wednesday, March 07, 2007

taste test

Over on Doctormama's blog, she posted about taking a cruise, and mentioned not liking the art (they always sell art on cruises, i assume because people on a cruise either have $ to burn, or get caught up in the moment and splurge on all kinds of things).

Anyway, DM didn't like the artwork:

Which is fair enough -- I don't think I'd buy it either. But what I found interesting was the universal and emphatic condemnation of it in the comments section. People talked about eyeballs melting, or poking their own eyes out. They're joking of course, but their position is unambiguous WRT this painting.

So my question is this:
What's so bad about it? It's not to everyone's taste, I admit. But nothing is, not even the Mona Lisa. Art is mostly about resonance for a particular person; no one has a monopoly on taste.

What I expect to hear is that it's "tacky". says tacky means:

1. not tasteful or fashionable; dowdy.
2. shabby in appearance; shoddy:
3. crass; cheaply vulgar; tasteless; crude.
4. gaudy; flashy; showy.

In the painting above, the colors are pleasing; the human form is nicely rendered; the theme has been a common one for serious artists throughout the ages; it's not obscene; it conveys some sensuality, but mostly affection. IOW, the only meaning of "tacky" that applies is #1, "not tasteful" -- and I contend that taste is mostly a matter of, well, taste. If this is "bad art", then a fair amt of what I saw in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC was utter and complete crap.

So, you wanna know what I think is going on? Well too bad, here it is anyway:

#1: Criticizing -- especially art -- is fun; it's a challenge to come up with a clever way to exaggerate how much we hate something.

#2: We like absolutes. We like certainty. We like belonging. And we like to feel superior.

So as soon as a person -- especially someone we admire -- suggests that something doesn't measure up to certain standards of class, we fall all over ourselves trying to put distance between us and the taint of bad taste. We're terrified of being the person who puts up something in their house that everyone else would laugh at. This fear is so strong -- we're so attuned to what we're supposed to like -- that half the time we don't even know what we care for and what we don't.

Now, I have no problem with savaging a piece of art in the comments section of a blog -- that can be fun. But what about this: we'll go to someone's house, and later on we'll criticize their taste in furnishings, in artwork, whatever. Who the hell do we think we are? It's their bleeding house. Not ours. We don't live there. They've chosen something they like, and somehow we think it's useful to venture an opinion about the rightness or wrongness of what they've chosen.

"I don't care for [x]" seems about the absolute maximum useful statement to make about someone else's art choice -- and even that is mostly irrelevant, unless we're actually having a conversation about art, or the person we're talking to is actively trying to learn what our tastes are.
But we go far beyone that -- we're downright snide: "Did you see that hideous [x] they put in the living room?"

AFAIC, the rules should be:
#1: Put whatever the hell you like to look at up in your own house.
#2: When it comes to something decorative that other people have chosen, keep your mouth shut.

Your mileage may vary; your opinion is welcome.


At Thu Mar 08, 02:03:00 PM PST, Blogger unca said...

I pretty much agree with everything you’ve written and with all the reasons you give for writing them--especially the parts about “why not just say you don’t care for it” and trashing somebody’s taste in décor for their own home. On the other hand, is it possible that there is good art and bad art, or is everything subjective? There’s an interesting website at (part of a blog) where the author (who can’t understand the fascination with “modern art”) holds forth on what he thinks is good art and bad art and why.

I don’t care for the painting you posted either but I think it is better defined by the word kitsch rather than tacky. Kitsch (according to the wikipedia) … “is said to be a gesture imitative of the superficial appearances of art. It is often said that kitsch relies on merely repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and originality displayed in genuine art.” Again, that’s no reason to hate the painting but I think the definition makes a valid distinction. . I would add that this definition could include much of modern art; Jackson Pollock’s first drizzle painting might have been interesting but the hundred that came after were kitsch.

At Thu Mar 08, 02:20:00 PM PST, Blogger unca said...

And for some reason, this quotation seems relevant (this is the devil addressing a rookie temptor):

"The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the
world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about
it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of
attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or
books he really likes in favour of the "best" people, the "right" food, the
"important" books."

At Thu Mar 08, 02:21:00 PM PST, Blogger unca said...

I should have added that this is from C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters.

At Thu Mar 08, 04:35:00 PM PST, Blogger blogball said...

I think the people that claim that they know a lot about something or have had lots of experience with; the snobbier and more critical they become and sometimes loose track of what they really think because of the circle of people they are influenced by.

Besides art this also goes for:

Computers (Electronics)
Countries to visit
Men about Women
Women about Men
And many more I can’t think of right now

I think many times art and some of the items listed above are like the Emperor's New Clothes combined with supply & demand.

“Sane and intelligent human beings are like all other human beings, and carefully and cautiously and diligently conceal their private real opinions from the world and give out fictitious ones in their stead for general consumption”
Mark Twain

This post has inspired me to dust off and proudly display all my dog’s playing cards and Elvis on velvet paintings despite what my wife thinks.

At Fri Mar 09, 11:54:00 AM PST, Blogger prrrof said...

Yeah, and there are also fascinating intertwinings with class and social aspirations, aren't there. I remember reading somewhere--now I can't find it, of course--about how the foods we like are completely related to class (of course). What was interesting to consider, though, is that "taste"--even in this case *literal* taste--is totally subjective, even when it seems to us that it's not (I used to love tuna casserole with crushed chips on top but now love gorgonzola-studded spinach salad--just because I do, we tell ourselves, not because it has anything to do with our aspirations/insecurities/ evolving kinds of friends/ rising income).

Anyway buried in that labyrinthine paragraph somewhere is an idea that once connected to your post...

At Fri Mar 09, 12:54:00 PM PST, Blogger Happy Mask Saleswoman said...

Does this mean I can decorate my own living space, when I have one, however I want to decorate it?
I was under the impression that if the furniture didn't match, the interior decorating gods might punish me, or at the very least nobody would ever want to visit.

At Fri Mar 09, 01:32:00 PM PST, Blogger bryan torre said...

excellent point about "kitsch".
and thx for the great quote. i read the SLs but had forgotten about that little snippet.

another great apropos quote. i tend to agree w/ you re your list, also.

very interesting about food, prrrof. i never considered that, but it definitely makes sense to me.

HMSW: the answer to your question depends entirely on who you ask...

At Fri Mar 09, 03:38:00 PM PST, Blogger Alan said...

I like my velvet "Road Runner" painting I picked up in Tijuana.

At Mon Mar 12, 03:07:00 PM PDT, Blogger rebecca said...

I'm sure if Doctormamma knew you had this painting hanging on your wall, she wouldn't have embarrassed you by trashing it. :)

I think the main thing with the responses is that people love to be clever and witty. It makes me think of the guys I used to work with. Any time someone made a mistake or did something slightly different, they were made fun of. Being the only female, I was frequently that someone. The thing this made me realize, once my skin got a bit thicker, was that they weren't really making fun of me, they were just trying to be funny and witty -- and usually they were. If the insults went on too long, I'd say, "You're very clever. Can I work now?" That usually did the trick.

At Tue Mar 20, 11:20:00 AM PDT, Blogger bryan torre said...

alan, you have one of those, too? cool.

rebecca, you make a good point about wanting to be clever/witty. also, i didn't realize it was so obvious that i'm in love with that painting. in fact, the reason it's hanging in my living room is that i bought it for myself for my birthday... ;-)


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