April 23, 2011

Taste or meaning in art?

The narratives that have survived over the centuries are those that focus more on the art of storytelling and meaningful themes, rather than those that strive to get high marks from audiences for exhibiting high taste.

Occasionally we get lucky and find works that have both (like Shakespeare's later tragedies), and sometimes things go the other way than they should (like the drama section in Barnes & Noble having all kinds of 20th C. American junk, yet no Marlowe or Webster).

On the whole, though, there is a trade-off between a more Apollonian vs. Dionysian approach to crafting the story, and it is typically a folktale like Little Red Riding Hood or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that endure over the centuries, unlike In Praise of Folly or Candide. Looking forward, it's an easy prediction that Stephen King will outlast David Foster Wallace in popularity. Going back in time, I don't even know off the top of my head who the Ancient Greek taste-displayers were because they've already been totally forgotten to everyone but specialists; meanwhile, who hasn't heard of Oedipus?

Is this merely due to vulgar preferences among the majority of the audience? No: even among people today who prize taste, most or all do not read and re-read Alexander Pope, nor watch and watch again The 400 Blows. There is evidently something fickle about the preferences for specific works within the taste-based audience -- I wonder how many still revere the movie Rushmore, made not even 13 years ago?

The key difference seems to be the level of self-consciousness of the creator and their work. When talented people display their skills, we don't like them to be so self-aware and in-control because it feels like they're just trying to show off for narrow personal gain. In contrast, going into a trance, losing self-consciousness, and receding into the background as an author, these all give us the impression that the creator cannot possibly be trying to lord their superiority over the rest of us or to profit from their display -- after all, they're not even in control of what they're doing, but rather are possessed by something and are just going along with it.

This contrast between heightened and diminished self-consciousness shows up in the "author" field of their bibliographic entries. A good deal of the creators of fairy tales and of the books in the Bible are unknown, whereas the guardians of taste went so far as to enshrine their self-awareness in Auteur theory.

That also accounts for the ever-shifting fashions among the taste-oriented audiences: signaling good taste typically depends on an opposition to contemporary bad taste, which won't stay the same over time. There is simply too much bad taste to be fully explored in any single time period. Just think of how few of Seinfeld's put-downs today's teenagers and college students would get, barely 15 years after its heyday, compared to the more au courant snarky remarks from the Colbert Report.

More generally, taste depends on highlighting distinctions between the creator and his taste-making competitors, including those who are long dead -- "my taste is so much greater than his." Thus novelty per se is sought after. Meaning-makers, on the other hand, all see themselves as improvising their own variation on the same core of underlying themes. So novelty is perfectly allowed, provided it adds something meaningful to the storytelling. Because it is not desired in itself, good examples tend not to get forgotten. Nor is it devalued per se, which keeps the dead hand of history from freezing the basic narrative in identical form to be mindlessly repeated generation after generation.

The greater attractiveness of skill displays that lack self-consciousness applies much more broadly than just art creation, but those other case studies can wait for another time.


  1. i dunno. sometimes great writers know that they are writing for an audience beyond their time.

    "...not for the applause of the moment, but to be a treasure for all time."

    - Thucydides

  2. Actually good taste is all derived from media and opinion leaders. The only difference is each social class follows different media outlets and opinion leaders.

    High class = CNBC, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Mr. Warren Buffet

    Middle class = CNN/FOX, MTV, People/Cosmo, Lady Gaga or Opera

    Low class = Soap operas, game shows, TV Listing/guide, TMZ


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