From museums to eating out, personal identity is expressed through a frenetic quest for socially-approved tastes and distinctions.
Evaluating one another’s taste is an ordinary aspect of everyday social life. We look for signs of taste in high fashion goods and social habits. This encourages us to speak to one another through material objects, and even though the definition of taste is constantly shifting, we use it to display who are think we are.
‘A person of taste is someone who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso’ (Dwight MacDonald 1944: 22). This pithy definition of taste was an ironic comment on the newly affluent post-war classes who were struggling with emerging art movements in painting, cinema and literature. The concern with fashionable styles of living was capturing the hearts and minds of the aspirational classes. Mid-twentieth century was an era of tightening conformity and judging people by their lifestyle habits was becoming the prevailing order. Russell Lynes (1949) famously defined taste along three dimensions – highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow. He employed the antique notions of human physiognomy made popular by Johann Caspar Lavater in the eighteenth century to describe these positions. For Lavater, facial features revealed human qualities; low ears suggested criminality, thick lips were a sign of dissipation and a high forehead indicated intelligence and social superiority. Lynes adapted the metaphor to describe types of taste. Highbrow taste was expressed through well-fashioned appetites.
There was a deep irony in this: after exterminating millions across Europe on the basis of race and ethnicity, the new social order was describing taste and social value using eugenic concepts. This time around, however, the revolution was bloodless. Taste as a measure of human worth was not a killing offense but it was a cause of status panic across the newly affluent classes. According to C.W.Mills (1951) these groups were caught in a constant re-positioning of themselves within an ever-shifting mobile hierarchy defined by fashions, fads and foibles. In the post war era, social ranking was not only based on material possessions such as cars, furniture, art and household goods but also on signs of cultural capital produced by travel, leisure and luxury, and whether indeed individuals could see the influence of Pablo Picasso in the prosaic sausage.
Taste has been a contested idea since the seventeenth century yet it has endured into the present as a means of categorizing people and their habits (Bourdieu 1984: 2). How we handle objects and instruments such as cups and saucers, knives and forks, the habits and styles we develop for eating, drinking, standing and moving, have imposed a mannered overlay on the body and, to those watching our deftness with such objects, this is read as indicative of personal attributes. We see instances of mastery, or lack of them, in displays of individual competency and discernment. The raised pinkie finger holding the teacup and the unclipped vent on the new Burberry raincoat both signal the parvenu.
Taste brings attention to different types of desire. Pursuing an experience for its own sake because it is pleasing or reassuring or elevating, and pursuing a desire in order to gratify it and make it disappear, are two different impulses. The former involves detachment, of being able to recognize value in an idea without it having an immediate application, thus we enjoy art for its own sake; the latter is a more active process, a type of hunger, in which the desirable experience needs to be devoured and captured in order to nullify its insistence. Food, for example, can be both; it can be valued for its aesthetic qualities as well as being good to taste, a life-sustaining fuel. It has appeal as the subject for still life painting, as in the masterpieces of Carravaggio and Luis Meléndez, and it can be treated as a convenience as with the early modern chophouse and now with the food court in the local shopping mall.
In the early modern period, an individual’s taste was obvious; it rested on ownership of certain goods and the display of expert knowledge about why such goods were to be admired. Taste in the colonial era was more a measure of wealth. But it began to lose its usefulness as a social yardstick when material possessions became increasingly available and new forms of wealth and social mobility developed. A more subtle form of discrimination was necessary, one that relied less on the ownership of goods and more on the types of goods that one owned. Taste transcended the financial cost of possession and supplied instead a reason for selecting one item over another from a wide range of functionally indistinguishable options. In the modern era, the Ikea version of the Eames chair is available to everyone, but knowing its not authentic has become synonymous with good taste. Thus has taste under-written the marketing of luxury: it is not that the Samsonite bag is less useful, it is just not a Louis Vuitton; and Nescafe is not Illy and Hershey is not Godiva. Viva la difference.
Products have an aura that extends beyond their material boundaries: this is the contemporary language of taste. Branded goods appear to have desirable properties that we can adopt and attach to ourselves. When we buy Levi’s, Beluga caviar, pink champagne we are buying a form of taste.
The consumer culture promotes taste. Zygmunt Bauman (2001) has argued that the driving force in contemporary human society is not to attain our dreams but to keep dreaming. It is not possession that we value but the desire to possess. We are constantly fashioning new appetites. To live in a state of desire makes us feel engaged; it defies entropy. The advent of the consumer society has amplified this state of longing. Conspicuous consumption supports insatiability and the undesirability of reaching completion and surfeit. It is driven by the fashioning of appetites and the continual invention of new tastes that always promise more. ■
Joanne Finkelstein is Dean of School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Greenwich. Her new book is Fashioning Appetite: Restaurants and the Making of Modern Identity and previous books include The Art of Self-Invention.
Image shows a detail from Patrick Caulfield’s After Lunch, 1975