Monday, 17 November 2014

Accounting for Taste

I have long believed that taste, one's aesthetic sense, one's choice in music, literature, art and fashion, is important, that it is not trivial or superficial. I've always struggled to articulate the idea, always wondering how people can like certain things which to me are clearly bad. Are these people deficient in some way? Sure, one can say "chacun son gout (to each his own)" or "there is no accounting for taste," but I've always felt that there is something deeper.  What we like is part of how we define ourselves as individuals. Our tastes are always on display, on our bookshelves, on our walls, in the clothes we wear, and as much of our lives have become digitized, we have our "likes" on our virtual walls, showing to everyone the music, movies and books we love. We say to the world, "This is what I like, therefore this is what I am like."

Like book covers, by which we have been told not to judge the contents, yet nevertheless always and reliably do, we surround and clothe ourselves with outward signs of our inner life. We live in an age of mass marketing and our associations with certain brands and logos are associations with certain values or ideals. It is simply unavoidable, and we, either consciously or not, put our values, or at least our tacit approval of others' values, on display every day.

I'm not talking about such ethical consumer choices where words like fair trade, local or organic might spring up, though, that is an important discussion. I am talking about cultural products. So, while a T-shirt made in a sweatshop in Bangladesh is a material product, weighted with the socioeconomic baggage of globalism, the company putting their logo on these shirts culpable for how it is produced, and that it is something of which we should be aware, I am right now trying to talk about that logo itself, the brand, the ephemeral marker of value, that we in the Western world interact with. And, just like logos on clothing, the music, movies, books and games, those things with which we occupy our imaginations, they too are brands that signify certain values. Certainly "genre" is a type of branding.

Our aesthetic choices say a lot about us, about how we want to be perceived, about our group identification. They can often tells us a lot about our personalities. A person's musical preferences, for example, can be predicted by how they score on a test of the Big Five personality traits, which are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism.Openness to experience has the highest predictive factor, showing that people who rate high in this category tend to like more complex and/or novel music. Those who are open to experience show curiosity, appreciation of art, and unusual ideas. At the same time, openness is also strongly correlated with liberal ethics, such as racial tolerance.

Stephen Harper
This is the point I want to come to: our aesthetics are political. Someone once told me that he had found a new appreciation for country music because he realized how political it is. Of course it is. It represents the values of a large segment of (mostly white, conservative) North America. My problem with it, with the so-called "new" country, is that it sells values like authenticity, small town pride and moral simplicity in a very deliberate and inauthentic way. It is to me as inauthentic and misleading as FOX News, the GOP and Canada's own Conservative Party.  Those who score high in the personality category of neuroticism, which is the tendency toward negative emotion, generally prefer conventional music like country music. At the same it has been shown that conservatives are much more sensitive to feelings of disgust, so maybe there is some correlation there. But regardless of my liberal bias against country music, it certainly cannot be said that it is any more political than say hip-hop or punk.

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus
But even that which seems apolitical is in fact not. Much of popular culture, especially music, is directed towards younger audiences and much of it reaffirms mindless capitalist consumption, sex, drinking, white privilege and hetero-normative stereotypes. In games and action movies we see the glorification of violence and the military. In fiction, we find stories that are purely escapist, which do not challenge our thinking or engage us morally, as good literature should. The seemingly apolitical nature of much our culture is in fact very political when it reaffirms the status-quo. And so, our aesthetic sensibilities are not superficial, even if what we like sometimes tends to be superficial. Our vision of how the world is and how it ought to is both a political and aesthetic one.

My point is that we must not be content only with what is sold to us on TV, in movies, magazines and on the radio, with what is popular, with what is spoon-fed to us. We are all cultural antennae and we have a choice of what we tune into. We must dig and sift to find art that is meaningful, important. Taste matters.