I don’t like Death Grips. I find their sound interesting, but I’m not a huge fan of their lyrics. I’ve been pretty honest about my opnions on Death Grips, and I’ve taken a lot of flak for it online. For example, “That’s because you have shitty taste.” “Or maybe you’re just too stupid?” I think it’s short-sighted to claim that because one doesn’t appreciate an experimental group like Death Grips one is less intelligent or aesthetically inept. Many unintelligent people dig such music, whereas leading intellectuals do not necessarily listen to Death Grips –Do you think Noam Chomsky listens to Death Grips? The intelligence claim is obviously inane. There are also those with excellent taste who seldom do not appreciate works of art that everyone finds beautiful. Nonetheless, the claim that Death Grips or any kind of music is correlated to superior taste is very interesting and I believe it deserves much attention. Let’s try to tackle this issue: what is superior taste?
I think one’s preference in music often indicates one’s socio-cultural background rather than one’s superior taste. For instance, if I were born in India, I would have listened to music that’s foreign to many Westerners –perhaps even more experimental. Does this mean I have impeccable taste? As a Korean, I’ve listened to Korean folk music more often than your average White kid. Some of this music boldly blends traditional korean music, folk, rock, and electronic music. Am I superior for liking this kind of music? Surely not everyone in Korea appreciates such experimental music.
My preference of Korean folk music from the 60’s is dependent on facts such as my ability to speak Korean, growing up in Korea, and so on. It also demonstrates a set of preferences that is receptive towards such music. Not every middle-class person likes Korean folk music from the 60’s; it’s seen as tacky and lame for a young person. It might be possible that taste comes from both nature and nurture. So what does this say about superior taste? How is a particular work of art superior to another?
Both Kant and Hume believed that taste is subjective. Yet, they did not treat it as merely subjective. Kant noticed that we talk about Beauty as if it is a property of the artwork when it is really our feeling of seeing it. We also feel as if everyone should appreciate the works of art we find beautiful. Kant called this tension between the subjectivity of beauty and the quasi-objective judgment of Beauty the antinomy of taste. Kant also believed that beauty was a judgment followed by pleasure of a representation. Such a judgment was disinterested –our individual wants and needs do not come into play when we appreciate beauty. This means that if I listened to Death Grips to be cool rather than to disinterestedly judge its formal qualities, then I wouldn’t be experiencing beauty even if their music pleased me.
Unlike Kant, Hume was interested in taste. So, he laid down several characteristics that would make someone have better taste: knowledge of art history, delicate senses, critical thinking, and so on. This is strange because Hume ultimately believed that Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; yet he believed that works of art that stood the test of time were superior. Does this then mean that Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or is there a hierarchy?
Pierre Bourdieu, the famous French sociologist, believed that taste was reflective of social class. He found data that showed how works of art favored by the cultural elite were seen as superior, and that the lower classes were shamed for appreciating “low art.” Bourdieu saw this distinction between high and low art as a way for the cultural elite to demonstrate and justify class distinction. The upper class and the cultural elite are able to appreciate art from a disinterested point of view, looking at its form and place in art history, while the lower class used art for functional needs.
As I demonstrated in the first few paragraphs, I think one’s taste is also indicative of geopolitics. As a Korean, I would be more interested in Korean artworks than both upper and lower class White Americans. That difference doesn’t exist because of the upper class’s desire to suppress the lower class; it exists because Korea is on the other side of Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, I believe technology changed the landscape of art. Nowadays, a poor person can make music that is respected by even those in the upper class. Technology has, according to the musician Shin Hae Chul, given rise to a marxist revolution through capitalistic means: i.e., musicians now have the means of production. We don’t need producers, managers, or labels anymore. Just a computer. Similar things can be seen in animation, film, and digital art. Technology not only gives artists the means of production, but also gives them a chance to consume both high and low culture to their heart’s content. Perhaps there may come a day when one’s taste merely reflects one’s unique preferences.
So what makes a work of art superior? Delicate senses, the test of time, one’s social class, or popularity? If technology gives artists the means of production and opens a gateway to consume all types of culture, then we might live in a society where taste is demarcated by unique preferences. This fits in neatly with some of Hume’s characteristics of good taste such as delicate senses and critical thinking. Does taste then ultimately show our unique preferences? Well, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. We can’t naively assume that our art will not be affected by the cultures to which we belong. Nonetheless, there are many works of art, as Hume noted, that are appreciated by many generations –even by various cultures. There seems to be a standard of Beauty that both the upper and the lower classes; the East and the West; the North and the South; the Past and the Future share. Does the combination of popularity and the test of time then make the final call on what is superior art? What do you think?
Distinction : A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu
On the Standard of Taste by David Hume
Critique of Judgment by Immanuel Kant