The word “taste” has many meanings. The first definition of this word deals with the person’s physical ability to feel something with the help of receptors. The second meaning is an aesthetic notion that means the person’s ability to blend different things with each other, to feel what suits here and what does not. People with good taste always feel harmony with the surrounded world and are satisfied with what they do. People with bad taste usually feel discomfort and displeasure.
Taste is often used in the same meaning as preference. At the same time taste is a sociological concept. In this case we state that taste is not only a personal liking but also an attitude, which is formed under the social pressure. In this case taste can be regarded as good or bad. The theory of social taste was developed in the end of the twentieth century and is based on the concept of aesthetic relativism. The notion of taste, which existed before this transformation was associated with good manners and good habits. These manners were considered to be inborn qualities.
History of the Term
The word taste in the understanding close to modern one firstly appeared in the 16the century. It was firstly used in the vocabulary of Italian Style called Mannerism, which appeared in Italy in the 16th century. The name of the style explains its main peculiarities. Mannerism used the term “taste” to explain the manner in which the work of art had been created. “More specifically, the idea of “taste” as a quality that is independent of the style that is simply its vehicle — though the style might be designated a taste, such as “the Antique taste”— was born in the circle of Pope Julius III and first realized at the Villa Giulia built on the edge of Rome in 1551 – 1555.” (Stern, 115) So, the term reflected rather the way of production than the quality of the work of art. The distinction between good and bad taste did not exist at the time. During the period of Enlightenment the term ‘taste” still had a universal character and expressed something, plausible for the society. The change in meaning occurred during the period of Romanticism. It is during this period, when the term “taste” began to mean something beautiful for the audience. That is the period when taste became to be interpreted individually and its meaning became a synonym of the aesthetic value. This is the type of meaning of this term most of the contemporary people use nowadays. During several centuries the meaning of the word changed from physical characteristic of the piece of art into synonym of aesthetic value. From physical characteristic the word became intellectual quality and got emotional coloring. “It begins to be used in a metaphorical sense to refer to certain degrees of competence in relation to understanding of cultural practices. Taste is also closely related to the concept of discrimination, as being based on certain material experiences it can set distinctions between tasteful and tasteless or having a good taste or a bad taste, thus providing categories for social division and producing cultural hierarchy.” (Stern)
Taste as Social Phenomenon
The concept of good and bad taste is usually used by critics, while ordinary people tend to express their own opinions and appeal to such a term as “like-dislike” of this or that thing. Very often the opinion of the professionals is based on personal preferences; in this case personal liking label things of ones of bad or good taste. According to the theory of social origin of taste opinion of professionals quickly influences opinion of other people and an object gets its verdict as a one of good or bad taste. Unfortunately, modern theory of judgement does not assume other variant except for two polarities of good and bad taste.
The idea about social pressure on the individual taste was firstly expressed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. He states that society shapes individual taste according to social position and other social aspects of an individual. In this case the society, not individuals, becomes the carrier of cultural norms and that justifies things as good or bad. People try to fit higher cultural norms, proposed by the society, and change their identities accordingly. This has a double meaning, as people, who change their identities according to social requirements, become the consumers of cultural products and, at the same time, they produce pieces of art, which correspond to these norms and this makes other people want to achieve their “higher” cultural and intellectual level. “ In this sense the notion of taste is closely linked to consumption and consumerism: the viewer or reader consumes various artistic products and then interprets them by the means of criticism that rests upon the idea of taste” (Stern).
The definitions of good and bad taste also derive from the theory of social origin of the taste proposed by Bourdieu. Under bad taste we generally understand things not perceived or even rejected by the society. These are things, which do not correspond social standards of the certain time. This can be traced on simple example: in different societies different things will be considered as the things of a bad taste. The same situation is with the notion of good taste. It reflects things, which correspond to social norms and standards and meet the requirements of the contemporary society.
Taste and Design
The two notions – design and taste are very closely connected. It’s impossible to imagine a good fashionable designer with bad taste. Every designer has his own style and so his own unique taste. Aesthetic quality can be the characteristic of both – people and objects, while taste is the personal characteristic of a person. Nowadays good taste is the necessary attribute of a good designer who wants his products to be popular among consumers: “The idea of taste cannot now be separated from the idea of the consumer,” suggests Raymond Williams (Wiliams, 1976, 266).
Today’s understanding of taste differs from the classical one. According to the classical conception taste is an ability to analyze things critically from the aesthetic point of view. Today taste is more a subjective notion, it’s an inner state of the person and it’s not necessary to follow any classical canons. Inner harmony is the main criteria for the designers. Not only designers but also consumers can show their taste in the act of consumption. “The act of consumption is also an act of exercising taste, and the sheer magnitude of this process makes it impossible to have a singular standard for taste” (Postrel, 2003). One of the main design’s tasks is c the improving of the taste. In the past museums fulfilled this function in most cases. The museums had the mission to educate people by showing them specific designers. “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.” (Bourdieu 1984).
In modern world of different possibilities and different views, however taste plays a very important role. There are a lot of different facts that form good or bad taste. Among specialists who work in this sphere there are different opinions on this question. The most spread opinion is that all in all taste depends of the individual features of the person, it’s more a natural ability to blend things together.
There are some rules following which it’s possible to form a good taste. First of all it’s necessary to have a lively and bright imagination. It gives a person a possibility to conceive the images and ideas that the writer or the designer has described and so to feel the author’s purpose. “ Sometimes, when one’s imagination is lively, and regulated too by an acquaintance with nature, one may, notwithstanding, contract habits of indolence and irregularity in one’s studies; which produce a superficial medley of knowledge very detrimental to the native vigour of the mind” (Beatie, 69). The second important thing is distinct apprehension. A person must know exactly what he likes and what he hates. The third thing is acute senses, a person must be affected by harmony and beauty, must feel them. The next thing deals with sensibility or sympathy. With this feature we are conscious of emotions that arise within us. The last thing that is necessary to form a good taste is judgement. By judgement here is meant “a constitution of mind, as disposes a man to attend to the reality of things, and qualifies him for knowing and discovering the truth. It is by means of this faculty, as applied in criticism, that we compare poetical imitations with natural objects, so as to perceive in what they resemble, and in what they differ; that we estimate the rectitude of sentiments, the probability of incidents” (Beattie, 71). According to Beattie good taste is not a good taste in clothes or food, its inner state of the individuality, the form of self-expression. The person is born with good or bad taste, but it doesn’t mean that situation will not change. For the person with good taste it’s easy to transform it into a bad state under the influence of surrounding. Sometimes we can see designers who don’t try to follow their inner impulse and inner voice, instead they follow fashion and try to follow famous designers, in most cases they won’t be successful.
As it was already mentioned taste is closely connected with a consumer, and a consumer in his turn is closely connected with consumer culture. According to Slater consumer culture is “a subject which – far from being of narrow or recent interest – is intimately tied to the central issues of modern times and modern social thought.” (Slater, 1997). Slater thoroughly investigates numerous concepts and theories of consumption. The role of consumption a lot of years ago differed from the role it plays nowadays very much. With the changing of the process of consumption the meaning of the taste has also changed. Being of no importance in customer service, now it’s one of its main components.
The consumer culture is a new phenomenon. Nowadays consumer culture has become the a symbol of the modern era, which distinguishes it from the old one. The notion of consumer culture is connected with three related phenomena according to Slater: consumer good, hierarchical distinction between notions of lower and high forms of consumption and new market. Consumer goods have become the necessary component of the daily life. Hierarchical distinction between notions of lower and higher forms of consumption is determined by good taste and fashion. New markets bring infrastructural and organizational facilities in order. People with good taste buy production of higher quality.
There are no such strict aesthetic canons as there used to be just in the Age of Enlightenment or during some period afterwards. Nowadays there are no definite criteria of good taste. A person likes this suit, for example, in this suit the person feels harmony with the world and that’s it. Of course, the same rules can be applied for design, but however in designer there are some common laws, following which you’ll be regarded as a person of good taste.
Signs of Good Taste in Design
Good design is suggestive, it means that it’s just necessary to give customers a few basic elements and then they can combine them as they wish. “Good design is suggestive, it means that it’s just necessary to give customers a few basic elements and then they can combine them as they wish” (Postrel, 2003).
Good designer is a bit funny, because humor is connected wit strength. Good taste doesn’t mean to be a clown, it means to dilute serious things with some funny elements.
Design with good taste is “hard”. “When Bauhaus designers adopted Sullivan’s “form follows function,” what they meant was, form should follow function. And if function is hard enough, form is forced to follow it, because there is no effort to spare for error” (Postrel, 2003). Things produced by good design usually look like he has spent quite much time working on them. This can be false or true in reality, but an impression of hard work is really important. “When Bauhaus designers adopted Sullivan’s “form follows function,” what they meant was, form should follow function. And if function is hard enough, form is forced to follow it, because there is no effort to spare for error. Wild animals are beautiful because they have hard lives.” (Slater, 89)
Another thing is that good design looks easy. Ease is the attribute of practice and professionalism. Ease comes with practice. Practice gives an opportunity to do things unconsciously and to concentrate on the things themselves.
Good design resembles nature and uses symmetry. Symmetry is the best way to achieve simplicity and simplicity is the characteristic of good taste. Good design is usually a redesign because it’s very difficult to get the perfect thing from the first time.
At the same time good design should be natural. The nature is perfect and following it designer can recreate wonderful forms, which already exist. It is not a process of copying. The main purpose of every designer is to create that unique combination of his own ideas and things, which already exist in nature. When the balance is kept right, the customers will immediately appreciate natural and original creation. “Working from life is a valuable tool in painting too, though its role has often been misunderstood. The aim is not simply to make a record. The point of painting from life is that it gives your mind something to chew on: when your eyes are looking at something, your hand will do more interesting work.” (Slater, 97)
Working from life can be applied not only in painting. It’s also good for engineering, and any other branch connected with technology.
The statement that good design never repeats anything is a myth. In reality good design can copy good solutions and successful ideas. The desire to be original by any means can be bad for quality. The designer always looks for the right answer, for him it’s more important to be right than to be original, that is why he is not afraid to reproduce some ideas, already discovered by others.
Taste is often associated with personal appreciation of beauty. There are different theories of the origin of taste. In modern world good taste is associated with good design. Good design can look strange and can cause controversial opinions. “The only style worth having is the one you can’t help. And this is especially true for strangeness. There is no shortcut to it.” (Slater, 101) Originality very often implies daring. Designer should be ready to make a bold attempt and then to wait for the results. He should not be afraid to make a mistake because things, which are regarded as mistakes, can be new discoveries in the future.
James Beattie, “Of Imagination,” Chap. IV. Dissertations Moral and Critical, pp. 166, 170, 173, 180, 182.
Bourdieu, P. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Dant, T. Material Cultural Production, Polity, 1999.
Postrel, V. The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness. New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 2003.
Slater, D. (1997). Consumer Culture and Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997.
Stern, Jane, Stern Michael. The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.
Ward, P. Kitsh in sync: A consumer’s guide to bad taste, Plexus, London, 1991.
Williams, R. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
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