Can We Practice Taste?

A term which often gets thrown around, is whether someone has “the eye” or has “taste”. What is this? Is this some natural force that a lucky few are born with, destined to live a life where everything they touch turns to gold? Or is this something we can learn and practice? Or do we just accept we aren’t born with any magical judgement and give up?


I generally disagree with the nature standpoint on most things and this particular case is no exception. I believe taste is something which can totally be cultivated and practised just like any skill, and what will prove one of the most important skills we can learn.


If we play a sport, it’s quite easy to see if we’re bad because we’ll be missing the shots, right? And it’s from this discovery we can refine and get better at our game. But in art, whether that’s music or design, everything is subjective. One person loves it, the next person hates it. So how can we know if we’re getting better? Who do we listen to, and what gives that person an authority anyway? 


First and foremost, you should only really strive to impress yourself, but it’s what stops us from saying “good enough”, “this is finished”, or “I need to start over” which ultimately decides what the finished thing is, and it’s this all-important decision which can be called: Good Judgement.


So if we are only striving to impress and surpass ourselves and it’s our judgement determining the output, surely it’s becoming a good judge which give us “the eye” or “the ear” or whatever people want to call it. So the real question is: how do we become a good judge?


Becoming a good judge


Looking at any great artist’s career trajectory we see stages of pure obsessive consumption. This stage almost always comes before any well-received works are created.


This stage cultivates taste. It’s in this stage we become articulate in ‘why’ things are good and ‘why’ things are bad. This ‘why’ is what makes a good critic. And this good critic will have achieved what we call ‘taste’.


When we listen to a favourite musician of ours talk about music, we seem to hang on their every word because they talk with such passion and conviction. When we hear an acclaimed novelist talk about which books inspired them, it seems as though they can talk for hours on the subject. This is because they have a strongly cultivated and refined taste, a taste which they believe in, a taste which is their beacon to good art.


It’s a lack of this sort of consumption that makes some artists ‘blind’ to the work they are making; ceaselessly continuing to create works that are simply in… bad taste… and more importantly, with no wish of improvement. 


If I recommend a new film to you by an unknown director describing it as “Tarantino-esque”, you’d probably have a good idea of what that film would be like: A work so similar to a taste so refined that it can be best described by using a creators name as an adjective for description (surely the mark of a distinctive and enduring artist).


Looking at Quentin Tarantino’s career though, years before any movie making began, Tarantino worked in a video rental store. It was here where he was not only subject to an endless library of films for his consumption but was exposed to an environment where he could talk endlessly about the art of cinema; having to back up opinions, discuss filmmaking in a deeper context, and ‘sell’ and approve movies to any casual film watcher who’d walk in. This not only saw him cultivate a taste but refine his taste very specifically – he became a good harsh critic of films, something which has clearly seen him strive hard to appease these tastes when making his own films. 



“At first I was a customer. I would stop entire evenings to talk to the owner, great cinephile. He had all kinds, classic, foreign works. Impressed by my Department gave me a job and saved me. It was a very busy time for me. I didn’t know what to do with my life. Earn little, but when you’re young is not important. That became my heaven”

– Quentin Tarantino


It’s not just mindless consumption though, look at critics, study them, see what they reference. These professional writers have studied heavily in the ‘why’ of something. See what comparisons they draw, hear what parts of the painting are important and why. It’s here we can start to understand what we need to see when we create. It’s here we start to cultivate taste.


Because in reality, if someone seems to exhibit a natural flair for something such as composition, it just means they have been subject to good work and intuitively picked up what a pleasing composition has – without being aware of it.


But it’s a balancing act


The ‘why’ isn’t the be-all.


If we hear a classical piano piece and understand the ‘why’, such as why the harmony and counterpoint are important to the emotional output, and then we sit at a friend’s piano to create something in response but realise we have no idea ‘how’ to play the piano… we’ve only become a good critic.


From the ‘why’ we come to the ‘how’, as in ‘how’ it should be created. This is more mechanical than the learning of the ‘why’. The ‘how’ is usually trained from repetition of an activity whether that’s an extended exposure to the practice of watercolours or playing the oboe.


The ‘how’ is more of a science which can be replicated again and again.


We’ve seen people who are an absolute whizz on Photoshop yet create totally uncompelling work. They simply have more ‘how’ than ‘why’.


So yes, we should always be our own toughest critic, but to ensure we are a good critic we need to continually push and educate ourselves in the ‘why’, ensuring we are our own most respected judge. We wouldn’t ask a rally car driver to design our house, and we wouldn’t ask a Michelin Star chef to recommend a dog food, because in reality, when we look for the expertise in someone, we are looking for their knowledge of ‘why’ but exemplified and proved through their ‘how’.