Competitive Aesthetics

May 6, 2008 | 3 books mentioned 1 4 min read

Reading our recent graduate’s response to our book question #59 post, I’ve been thinking about taste and literature. Why is it, with bookish people especially, that taste (in books and film, and music, and other variables like visual art, food, wine, beer, architecture, interior design), is such a sensitive matter?

Our reader seemed somewhat aghast at having his reading list exposed – as aghast as I might have been, some time ago, had someone inventoried in public the contents of my kitchen while I was studying for my university orals (gin, red wine, coffee, Equal, macaroni and cheese, chocolate pudding, soy burritos, cigarettes, Xanax, multivitamins), or my video rental history from the summer I took my qualifying exam (Mandy Moore’s A Walk to Remember – oh, how I wept – Britney Spears’ Crossroads, Blue Crush, How High, The Skulls). Granted, my response to the culture of aesthetic oneupsmanship in which I live is to wallow in what many of my peers would call – with a slight grimace of distaste or a shiver of disquiet – mass culture. I think it’s alright, myself. Some of it. (There’s plenty of shit too.) And I think a diet of only “great books” and auteurs – Wagner, Goddard, von Trier, Proust, Marx… pick your poison… leaves one a bit milquetoast-y.

I’ve read Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, subtitled “Notes from Damaged Life”, in which he, a German Marxist intellectual living, at the time, in Los Angeles, reflects with pungent horror on modern popular culture and the deceptive comforts and conveniences of modern life. Adorno’s fragmentary pensées are one of the most visceral, moving portraits of alienation you’ll ever encounter. I look at the book sparingly and seldom because its sense of horror and melancholy is infectious. It’s also insane: how could anyone so full of despair and repulsion not have shot himself four or five fragments in? The wonder of the book is that the consciousness that produced it was able to survive itself for several hundred pages. While the book moves me, it is also a cautionary tale about psychic price of absolutist snobbism.

Since Milton’s epic invocation to the muse in Paradise Lost

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden

Taste has come to mean much more to us than what we like to eat. For Milton, salvation hangs in the balance. As Denise Gigante, the author of Taste: A Literary History (and my advisor), has written, Milton’s sense of “taste is more than a physical sensation or appetite (though that is critically implicated too): it is a highly freighted philosophical concept with serious consequences for the creation of selves in society.” Eve’s eating of the apple was more than metaphor, and since her – or at least since Milton’s description of her – we have all been a little uneasy about what we consume. What if we are what we eat – and what we read? What if my watching all of the “O.C.” (not the fourth season – I do have some standards) has had moral – and mortal – effects? And has it just had its way with my aesthetic soul or my immortal one as well?

An 18th century moral philosopher whom I’m quite fond of – Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury – believed that our capacity for morality is like aesthetic taste, and that beauty in nature and art is aligned with goodness. He believed that goodness is beauty of a moral sort, and that in the same way we recognize beauty in the proportions of a statue, or harmony in the colors of a painting, we recognize moral goodness in human actions. While he claimed that this faculty was innate in human beings, he hedged his bets a bit in insisting on the need for a good education. And the troubling suggestion he leaves us with is that those who aren’t properly educated in art and the classics and history, might be a little morally iffy as well.

If you’re around people with babies, it’s sometimes easier to notice this conflation of food for the body and food for the mind and soul. Only organic home-made baby food, no TV, carefully selected books and toys. The underlying idea is that the care the parents take in maintaining the quality of what the baby consumes will ultimately make it a better person. Smarter, stronger, more coordinated. Sadly, David Shipler’s The Working Poor suggests that this caution is well-founded. The lack of micro-nutrients in the diets of children raised in poverty often affects cognitive development. A child who starts life malnourished can become a child who’s behind in math and reading several years later; just as a child who suffers from emotional neglect in infancy is more likely to suffer from emotional and behavioral problems in later life.

I am far afield from my original point, I fear. Having meant to soothe our reader with a meditation on the universality of his anxiety about taste, I find myself in baby food, by way of Milton and Adorno. My own feeling is that the game of competitive aesthetics is a wicked one. One I have played – one I will likely play again – I cannot help myself – but an unwholesome one nonetheless. It can give an electrifying surge of self-satisfaction, when you know the good things better than anyone else. But it won’t save your soul:

A now-lost friend of mine, when he visited San Francisco a few years ago, went straight for my CDs. “You’ve got some good stuff here,” he said (pointing specifically to some Cat Power and Chet Baker), and he seemed to relax once he’d seen that, taste-wise, I hadn’t “lapsed.” His attitude towards people had always seemed to suggest that the people worth knowing were exquisite objets, and I was still up to snuff. (I’m not exempting myself – It takes a snob to know a snob: Or, at least, when you’ve known one too many aesthetic moralists, you, if not become one, often develop an inner one and don’t mind praise from an outer one.) The thing that made this visit more interesting as a case study for an aesthetics vs. morals debate is that my friend had just been excruciating rude to my roommates (one of whom was letting him sleep on her couch; the other of whom had just offered him a glass of whiskey). My visitor, while my roommates were watching “Will and Grace” had described its stupidity in detail: The word “crap” was used a lot and there was a sort of sneer employed in his disquisition on its crappiness. Many people, I think, would keep their mouth shut in such a situation: So, “Will and Grace” is dreadful: these people are putting me up for the night, I can keep my opinions to myself. But he couldn’t – as though there was, in the religious sense of the word, a moral imperative to condemn the damnable.

A bigger lie was never written than this: De gustibus non est disputandem.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.

One comment:

  1. My gf was watching "The Hills" last night and we eventually moved into a similar discussion. Admittedly, I'm an aesthetic snob (mea culpa) though I try desperately not to be, if anything for the sake of being civil and caring for the sanity of others (especially my gf). But years of sitting in front of the television not reading has left me with unrestrained regret and an insatiable desire to make up for lost time. It's a tough battle and one that I'm not entirely sure I fight all that well.

    Well, I came to say that I loved your muse on aesthetics and hope to see the discussion that develops. If anything, for therapy :-)

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