Carolyn Korsmeyer:  Taste 

In Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2001) 


This document is a summary of Korsmeyer. 
My personal comments are in red. 
These comments have been added to help students understand her arguments.

We begin with the classic problem of taste:

  • People are held accountable for their tastes (we praise and blame people's displays of taste) so taste seems to involve shared social standards.
  • Taste is an individual's immediate aesthetic response and not subject to persuasion or personal control. Like one's preference for dark chocolate or milk chocolate, one's taste in art is not subject to criticism.

How can both of these ideas be sound?

The metaphor of taste

Although the idea that art appreciation is similar to food appreciation arose in European cultures in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, non-Western cultures have employed the same metaphor. In India, aesthetics is dominated by the concept of rasa or "taste."

Several aspects of the metaphor should be noted:

  • We evaluate something according to the pleasure or displeasure it offers. 
  • Evaluation depends on first-hand experience of what is evaluated. Evaluation is more a matter of sensibility than of understanding.
  • As with all perception, taste is natural yet subject to training: an educated taste will find pleasure where "vulgar" taste does not. 

Problem: If art appreciation is an exercise of taste, how can art be criticized? Pleasures and displeasures are ultimately personal responses, and my response can hardly be a basis for saying that the object is good or bad. How can taste generate standards for criticism? And why is a trained taste better than untrained taste?

David Hume contents that aesthetic taste, like ordinary taste for food, can be in good working order, or not in working order. (Food loses its taste when we are ill. Art lacks "flavor" when the mind is misdirected, uninformed, etc.) The best taste is delicate taste, capable of making fine discriminations that other people most people will overlook. Practice is required to get us delicate taste. [This applies to paintings by Monet, to Hong Kong action films, to the symphonies of Beethoven, or to the different dachshunds competing for a prize at a dog show.]  Good taste is the general agreement of critics with delicate taste.

  • To know a little bit more about Hume's view, click here.
  • To know a whole lot more about Hume's view, click here.

Immanuel Kant objects to the idea that good taste involves social agreement. That may be true regarding taste for food, but some aesthetic responses (genuine aesthetic judgments) are universal. By this, Kant means that every person can and should share the response. But bodily responses can never be truly universal. So aesthetic taste is not really a bodily response. It must be a mental response, but not one that assumes any concept of what the object is (for that again limits the number of people who share the response). So aesthetic judgment must be disinterested and pure. [To know a little bit more about Kant's view, click here.]

Contemporary Ideas 

Frank Sibley revitalized this 18th century topic by distinguishing between the aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties of works of art.

  • Non-aesthetic qualities are value neutral (their presence or absence is not in itself good or bad) and any normal perceiver will perceive them. For example, that there are four actors onstage at a certain time, or that Shakespeare's sonnets all have 14 lines.
  • Aesthetic qualities are the ones that make an object an object of criticism. These qualities are evaluative (e.g., elegance, stiffness). 
  • Aesthetic qualities depend on the presence of non-aesthetic ones, but knowledge of the presence of the non-aesthetic is not evidence of the presence of specific aesthetic qualities. [There must be fourteen lines in order to have a balanced sonnet, but having fourteen lines does not itself make it balanced, because other non-aesthetic qualities might unbalance it.] In other words, non-aesthetic are necessary but not sufficient for specific aesthetic qualities. Aesthetic qualities are ONLY known by perceiving them (through taste), not by inference from information that is true of the work of art.

What are examples of aesthetic properties? Sibley identifies three groups of such properties:

  • Evaluative terms such as "good" and "bad"
  • Descriptive merit and demerit terms such as "sharp" and "dull" when said of a knife
  • Evaluation-added property terms such as "elegant" and "garish" (These are both descriptive and evaluative)

Sibley also recognizes emergent properties in addition to these three groups of aesthetic properties, such as the sadness of a sad face. But since these do not involve any evaluation of the object, Sibley does not count them as aesthetic properties.

Good and Bad Taste

The social distinction between high culture (fine art) and low culture ("mass" art and popular entertainment) has been associated with the distinction between good taste and bad taste. [If not outright bad taste, then low art is associated with lowbrow taste.] 

But most people enjoy "low" art more than fine art, showing that good taste is not a means to greater pleasure. Many theorists have concluded that taste is simple a mechanism for making and enforcing social distinctions.

Generally, there is no clear link between pleasure and artistic merit. Individuals often prefer (have a taste for) stuff they do not regard as especially good. Some have attempted to save the link between good taste and pleasure by insisting on a difference between easy pleasure and difficult pleasure, in which case the accessibility of the easy ("low") pleasures explains why we prefer them on many occasions. [You know, because a bird in the hand . . .]


                        Last updated February 19, 2004