Question of the Day: What is Taste? (Or, does it matter where the fashion victim bought her plastic?)
Question of the day: What is taste? Please answer in the comments field!
I’ve been writing a lot about “taste” it seems; how I’m against it and all that. In the comment to my last post about the Poetry Foundation, Steve Burt writes that he believes in “personal taste.” That concept is very popular in poetry discussions, the idea that we all have our “personal tastes.” And I am sure I have said similar things on this blog.
However, I feel dissatisfied with this concept – both “taste” and “personal”. It seems to me too invested in an idea of personal agency and original essence and interiority – as if we all have this individual taste with which we then approach the shopping mall of poetry (where everything is free).
It seems this model doesn’t acknowledge the way our reading/writing is shaped by the writers, teachers, texts, criticisms we encounter; not to mention extraliterary conditions; and it doesn’t show the way our “tastes” in fact affect others (Steve Burt’s personal tastes are published in The Believer and The New York Times – are they still “personal tastes”?). Everything becomes personal, the public space is erased.
It also suggests a critical distance and an evaluative model of interaction that I don’t relate to. Again, a kind of shopping mall of free agents roaming for their favorite goods, unencumbered by discussions publishing practices etc.
At the same time, so much of taste’s rhetoric is opposition to the market place: the hipster is ridiculed for wearing fancy clothes (her/his poetry is like clothes, shallow), opposing poetry are denigrated as “fads” (Hoagland calling his grad students “skittery poets of the moment” etc). The key here: fashion sweeps you off your feet, ruins your agency and individuality, puts a spell on you.
Is this a different kind of taste? Taste-taste. Taste as contagion, taste as art that escapes from the pages of the book, the video screen and turns you into media. Makes the world into a wax museum. (Anybody who’s seen those wax museum horror movies from the 50s know that there are corpses beneath that wax!)
And that’s why I’m constantly holding up fashion as a model for Art rather than it’s opposite. Art should infect you, erase your critical distance. Poetry Magazine can have their refined and well-educated everyman who keeps both feet on his ground; I feel closer to the “fashion victims.”
Further, “taste” is related to “tasteful” and “tasteless,” which always seem part of an institutional situation and class systems, and always seems based on various kinds of “restrain” (you have to learn not to enjoy your poetry too much, that’s tasteless).
I think of Art as something that obliterates taste. Ie exactly not the “clear-headed” agents of taste and refinement that Poetry Magazine envisions as its readers.
I feel like my writing/reading is more closely bound up in certain zones or environment, with certain assemblages or relationships I’ve formed with texts and writers and teachers and students and, yes, institutions. And of course with things outside of the strictly literary (being an immigrant for example, or having different jobs, living in the rust belt etc).
BUT at the same time, it’s very hard to think of a model without taste. Ie I obviously love Aase Berg, Chelsey Minnis, Artaud, Genet, pageants, outfits, Kathy Acker, ghost stories, b-movies, Godard, Ringu, Max Ernst, Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, Hitchcock, Jack Smith, Kara Walker, Basquiat, Ryan Trecartin, Joyelle McSweeney and her necropastoral, Kim Hyesoon, Von Trier (who made himself an aristocrat by adopting that prefix ‘Von’, and who is always accused of being tasteless), Mary Shelley, gothic tales of sleepwalkers, stunted fantasias, deplorable bodies etc.
And some of these I’ve liked for a long time (since watching Hitchcock as a 4-year-old for example) and others were later discoveries and some things I liked and then I didn’t like it and then I liked it in a different way or I liked with a different “taste” or I liked from a different place with a different direction.
Perhaps the problem here is “like” – a terms which tends to become an endpoint in a lot of discussions of poetry, and thus mostly conservative (ie “I know what I like, don’t try to introduce me to something new,” ie “don’t challenge who I am”, don’t corrupt my essence/interiority/sovereignty).
It’s hard to think beyond “personal taste.”
But: How can you “like” art when Art eats your face?When Art tastes you?