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.
In 1944, Dwight MacDonald coined the phrase, “A person of taste is someone who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso,” offering a concise commentary on the affluent post-war classes grappling with emerging art movements. This definition underscored the irony of a society preoccupied with fashionable living standards. The mid-twentieth century witnessed a growing conformity, with lifestyle judgments becoming increasingly prevalent. In 1949, Russell Lynes categorized taste into three dimensions—highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow—drawing inspiration from Johann Caspar Lavater’s physiognomy theories of the eighteenth century. Lavater believed facial features revealed human traits; Lynes adapted this notion to describe different tastes. Highbrow taste, he noted, was characterized by refined preferences.
It’s profoundly ironic that, following the mass extermination in Europe based on racial and ethnic grounds, the new societal structure began assessing taste and social value through eugenic concepts. Unlike previous revolutions, this transition occurred without bloodshed. While taste wasn’t punishable by death, it stirred status anxiety among the newly affluent classes. According to C.W. Mills (1951), these groups found themselves in a constant process of repositioning within a fluid hierarchy shaped by trends and quirks. In the post-war era, social status wasn’t solely determined by material possessions like cars, furniture, and art, but also by indications of cultural sophistication derived from travel, leisure, and luxury. Recognizing the influence of Pablo Picasso in mundane items like sausages became a marker of cultural capital.
Since the seventeenth century, the notion of taste has been subject to debate, yet it persists as a tool for classifying individuals and their behaviors (Bourdieu 1984: 2). Our interactions with objects such as cups, saucers, knives, and forks, as well as the habits and styles we adopt for eating, drinking, standing, and moving, have imposed a refined veneer on our physical selves. To observers, our adeptness with such objects serves as an indicator of personal qualities. Competence and discernment, or the lack thereof, are evident in how we handle these items. For example, the way one holds a teacup with a raised pinkie finger or leaves the vent unclipped on a new Burberry raincoat can signify social climbing tendencies.
Taste directs attention towards different forms of desire. There are two distinct impulses: pursuing an experience purely for its intrinsic pleasure, reassurance, or elevation, and seeking to fulfill a desire to satisfy and extinguish it. The former involves detachment, the ability to appreciate the value of an idea without an immediate application, as seen in the enjoyment of art for its own sake. The latter is a more active process, driven by a type of hunger where the desirable experience must be consumed and captured to alleviate its urgency. Food, for instance, can serve both purposes; it can be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities and its taste, serving as nourishment. It holds appeal as a subject for still life paintings, exemplified in the works of Carravaggio and Luis Meléndez, and it can also be seen as a convenience, as evidenced by early modern chop houses and contemporary food courts in shopping malls.
During the early modern era, an individual’s taste was overtly apparent; it was based on possessing specific goods and demonstrating expert knowledge regarding why these items were esteemed. In the colonial period, taste was largely equated with wealth. However, its significance began to diminish as material possessions became more accessible and new forms of wealth and social mobility emerged. This necessitated a more nuanced form of discrimination, one that relied less on mere ownership and more on the types of goods one possessed. Taste went beyond the monetary value of possessions, offering a rationale for choosing one item over another from a plethora of functionally similar options. In the modern age, while the Ikea version of the Eames chair is widely available, discerning its lack of authenticity has become synonymous with good taste. Consequently, taste has influenced the marketing of luxury goods: it’s not that a Samsonite bag is less practical, it’s simply not a Louis Vuitton; and Nescafe doesn’t compare to Illy, just as Hershey isn’t on par with Godiva. Celebrating these differences is key.
Products possess an intangible essence that transcends their physical form; this embodies the contemporary language of taste. Branded goods often exude desirable qualities that we aspire to adopt and incorporate into our identities. When we purchase items like Levi’s jeans, Beluga caviar, or pink champagne, we’re essentially acquiring a form of taste.
Consumer culture actively cultivates taste. According to Zygmunt Bauman (2001), the primary driving force in modern society isn’t solely achieving our dreams but perpetually maintaining the desire for them. It’s not mere possession that we value, but rather the longing to possess. We continually cultivate new desires, finding fulfillment in a state of yearning that defies stagnation. The rise of consumerism has intensified this longing. Conspicuous consumption fuels insatiability, discouraging the notion of satisfaction and excess. It’s fueled by the cultivation of desires and the perpetual creation of new tastes that perpetually promise more.