“Tradition, of course,” he responds curtly. “Think back about 250 000 years to when I believe the first archaic human in the Ancient Near East began sculpting items from ochre with no practical purpose other than to admire and fill crevices in his cave.
“When the neighbours noticed the pieces their comments – or at least thoughts – were disdainful: “The piles of bones and horns decorating the corners of my cavern were good enough for my grandfather and father, and they are good enough for me. Who would want moulded mud in their home? How kitsch/camp/vulgar/pretentious! Where is their taste?” That, I think, is what drove taste in art then, and I do not think that it has changed since.”
Not everyone is as precise in his or her response. For Cape Town gallery owner and art expert, Johans Borman the question of what drives taste is almost as problematic as any possible answer might be: “The wonderful thing about art, I believe, is that nobody is wrong. In other words, taste in art is so subjective that it is difficult to discuss it within any explicit parameters.”
Why though, do people like what they like, regardless of whether you think their taste is good or bad? Are trends in art the consequence of socio-political forces in society or are they derived from powerful, intensely independent thinkers?
Borman suggests that rather than being driven, taste in art is developed. In that sense, he concedes, tradition has a part to play. Tradition and association, he adds.
In the earliest instance, our taste is influenced by what our parents admire and what they tell us is good. At the same time, we develop positive and negative associations according to experience. Perhaps, for example, a Chris Tugwell oil painting of the KwaZulu Natal coastline reminds us of carefree childhood holidays. The association is positive and the painting is to our taste.
Not too much later, personal discrimination is influenced by peer groups and fashion. Decisions are swayed by what we believe will seal our acceptance by the popular set. This, say US art experts, is what has helped a number of sensational 21st Century artists – such as “it-girl” Cecily Brown, who paints sexually charged expressionist canvases – to such rapid success. Celebrity trendsetters, including Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Elton John, consider her the latest hot young thing, admiring her explicit, profoundly reactionary reputation more perhaps even than the excellence of her work. Their backing fuels fashion.
Tradition, association and fashion are obvious and relatively straightforward modifiers of taste. The influences of personal philosophies and ideologies are more difficult to understand, though no less persuasive. For example, collectors who are drawn to pieces that make potent statements about contemporary society might appreciate the work of artists like “terrorealist” Kendell Geers
Another more apparent and easily explained influence on individual taste is wealth – or the lack thereof.
Charlie Finch, art critic and author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula, writes: “When money flows, bad taste drives the market, and, as usual, the critical left becomes handmaiden to the wealthy, dusting off the kitsch in the attic and taking it to the auction market.”
Borman is not convinced: “Actually, I believe that South African art collectors are largely very private, unpretentious and subtle when it comes to taste in art. If you are the type of person who wants to show off your wealth, you are surely more likely to purchase a flashy car or something more noticeable than a valuable piece of art.”
He disregards art’s reputation for intellectual snobbery and believes that defining your taste in art is like establishing a taste for anything else, like wine, music and decor. The greater your interest and desire to learn, the more developed your taste becomes. And, as you acquire knowledge and deeper understanding, your confidence grows, you become more in tune with your taste, begin to follow particular artists and you are less likely to be influenced by the opinions of others. Perhaps this is where the “powerful, intensely independent” thinking evolves.
Psychologists describe taste as “a peculiar kind of emotionally inspired discrimination” that is largely influenced by human character. Tastes may, they say, vary because of intelligence and they may vary with experience. One thing they are sure about is that it certainly varies. Is there, however, such a thing as good taste? Many believe so, while others, like Borman, dismiss the subject with comments like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. The truth is that what generates pleasure in one brain, may or may not generate pleasure in another. People’s ability to understand a piece of artwork may also vary. Individually, we all like to believe that we have good taste but can we prove it? Does it really matter?
(First published in the Business Day Art supplement.)