Praising the Unpopular: Some Reflections on Taste
In the beginning pages of his latest book Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek argues for the different between good taste and true taste. He writes:
The only proof of taste is that one knows how to occasionally appreciate things which do not meet the criteria of good taste–those who follow good taste too strictly only display their total lack of taste. (Likewise, someone who expresses his admiration for Beethoven’s ninth symphony or some other masterpiece of Western civilization immediately bears witness to his tastelessness–true taste is displayed by praising a minor work of Beethoven as being superior to his “greatest hits”). (9)
We can observe several consequences of Žižek’s proposal. First, separating true taste from good taste suggests that good taste is simply a construct of the majority. According to this view, it demonstrates good taste to appreciate Beethoven’s ninth symphony, because this symphony is widely recognized as something excellent and beautiful. Because good taste is a determination of the majority, however, it should not be confused with true taste.
Second, and as a result, it does not require any real work to develop good taste. One can have good taste simply by listening to all the recognized “masterpieces,” memorizing the famous poems, and reading the classic literature. Developing good taste does not take individual effort, but simply requires that one submits to the guidance of those who have decided what counts as good taste.
Third, and by contrast, true taste will always display an element of eccentricity, departing from the consensus on good taste to assert true tastefulness. True taste may correspond with good taste to a certain extent, but it is not the case that good taste will always be true taste. True taste recognizes beauty wherever it is found, not matter how something rates according to popular, tasteful opinion.
Of course, this understanding of true taste causes some problems. If true taste requires an element of eccentricity and praises the unpopular, is it ever possible to judge between tastes? Can I ever tell someone else that they have bad taste? Or to state the question another way: what if I do not like Beethoven’s ninth symphony at all? Does that signal bad taste and prove that there are standards for true taste? Furthermore, does it really make sense to distinguish between good taste and true taste?
I realize there are not easy answers to these questions, but I would love to hear your thoughts. Because this post is quite open-ended, feel free to comment on any aspect of taste, but especially how Christians should approach these issues, and to what extent Christians should be advocates for true taste, which may mean at times praising the unpopular.