Can We Practice Taste?
A term which I often see getting thrown around is whether or not someone has “the eye” or has “taste”… But what exactly 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 it something we can learn? Something we can cultivate? Something we can move toward? Or do we just accept we aren’t born with any magical talents and simply… give up?
Taste is something which can be cultivated and practised just like any other skill, and what proves one of the most important “skills” in the arts you can learn. But how can we attain such vision?
If we play a sport, it’s quite easy to see if we’re bad because we’ll be missing the shots. It’s from this distinction of what good and bad is, we can refine and get better at our game.
In the creative fields, however, whether that’s music or art, there are no such rules, everything is subjective — one person loves it, the next person hates it, so how can we know where to improve? The only thing we can do is strive to surpass ourselves.
But, if we are only looking to compete with our own competence, how do we know if we’re getting better? How do we discern what we’re doing is actually good?
Any creative project is difficult to finalise, there’s always an EQ that needs tuning, a colour that needs blending, or a sausage that needs spicing. As ossifying as it sounds, you can look at the creative process as a string of actions that require little judgments along the way. This bit is good, this bit is bad, this bit needs more work, etc. And in the end, it’s these judgments which stand by the final piece as either good… or bad.
If we are only striving to impress ourselves, and it’s our own little judgments throughout the creative process which determine our final output, surely it’s becoming a good judge or critic which gives us “the eye” or “the ear” or whatever people want to call it.
If we become a deep critic in the field we pursue, our creative process will be guided with an intuitive sense of taste, projects will be iterated by this taste and they will be finalised by this taste.
So, reformulated, the question isn’t, how do we achieve good taste, but rather, how does one become a good critic?
Becoming a good critic
Looking at any great artist’s career trajectory we see broad stages of obsessive consumption. This stage almost always comes before any well-received works are completed. This stage cultivates taste. It’s this stage we get to become a complete nerd about something and simply, geek out.
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 collectively call ‘taste’.
When we listen to a favourite musician of ours talk about music, we seem to hang on their every word as they talk with full-blooded passion and conviction. When we listen to an acclaimed novelist talk about which books inspire them, it seems as though they can talk for hours on their deepest influences and why. They have a strongly cultivated and refined taste, a taste which they believe in, a taste which is their beacon to good art, a beacon they step toward, time and time again.
It’s a lack of this sort of consumption that makes some artists blind to the work they are making; ceaselessly creating works that are simply in… bad taste. Sure, they like it, but intuitively, we see no historical context in the work, there’s no finesse or depth, it simply hasn’t been grounded in a deep knowledge of the past, and as a result, contains little wisdom and little cultural understanding.
Looking at Quentin Tarantino’s career, years before any movie-making began, we see him working in a video rental store. Now, the stuff of legend, it was here where Tarantino was subject to an endless library of films and belonged to a tribe where he was free to talk about cinema all day, backing up opinions, discussing filmmaking, and ‘selling’ and approving movies to any casual film watcher who’d walk in.
This not only saw him cultivate a strong taste but refine his taste specifically — he became a good harsh critic of film—something which has seen him strive hard to appease these tastes when making his own films.
This is what we need. To become a deep fan of something, and then look to appease our own tough critiques with hard, backbreaking work.
“At first I was a customer. I would stop by entire evenings to talk to the owner, a great cinephile. He had all kinds, classic, foreign works. It was a very busy time for me. I didn’t know what to do with my life. Earn a little, but when you’re young it’s not important. That [place] became my heaven”
— Quentin Tarantino
It’s not just mindless consumption though. Look at people whose job is being a critical writer of the arts, see what they reference in their writing. These professionals have studied deeply in the ‘Why’ of something. See what comparisons they draw, hear what parts of the painting are important, learn why the dialogue is among the best written in the 20th-century.
Because in reality, if someone exhibits a natural flair for something, such as composition, timing, or an intuitive ease with writing, it simply means that they have been subject to many examples of good work and unconsciously picked it up. It becomes intuitive.
It’s a balancing act…
The ‘why’ isn’t the be-all-end-all.
If we hear a piano piece and understand why the harmony and counterpoint are important to the emotional output, then sit at a piano to create something only to realise we have no idea ‘how’ to play the piano… we’ve only become a critic. And that’s not enough.
From the ‘Why’ we come to the ‘How’, as in ‘How’ something is created. This is more mechanical than the ‘Why’. The ‘How’ is trained from the repetition of an activity (roughly speaking), whether that’s an extended exposure to the practice of watercolours, playing the oboe, or slicing a salmon.
If you go on Freelancer or Fiverr, you can find hundreds if not thousands of people who are an absolute whizz on Photoshop, yet they create completely uncompelling and tacky work. They simply have more ‘How’ than ‘Why’.
As the adage says, “there are no statues erected to critics”. Though we may find peace in reading well-ordered reviews of products or films from esteemed well-known critics, their ‘How’ lies in journalistic writing. We would be sceptical of them releasing a film themselves—they’ve no track record. Conversely, we would trust Scorsese or Spielberg if it came to recommending us films. From their work, we understand how critical they must be. We know they’re masters of both ‘Why’ and ‘How’.
This then, is the golden rule, the merging of ‘How’ with ‘Why’. It’s these two engines of the creative professional which are continually tuned and upgraded. It’s not enough to simply know how. It’s not enough to simply know why. They strive for both. In synergy.