Taste comes in many forms and disguises. As well as taste in the things we eat and drink, there is taste in just about everything we do that involves decision-making, which is more or less a binary process. We like something or we don’t. The mystery of it all has to do with how and why we arrive at our decisions. And what bearing does taste have on the way we relate to other people? How much does our taste in other people depend on the tastes of those people? All of these questions involve subtle complexities and nuances that we don’t normally reflect upon very much, if at all. We accept our tastes instinctively, much as we accept the instincts that motivate our physical movements.
To a fairly great degree, our tastes define who we are and how we are viewed by others. As the French gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” This sounds a bit extreme. Can we really tell that much about people by what they eat? Probably not. Any more than we can define people by what they wear. Or what they read, or the TV shows they watch. Artists, for example, don’t often wear suits and ties. But they can, and do, sometimes.
We are all aware that fashion, which attempts to influence taste, can be shallow and frivolous. When I was in college in 1960 I took a course in existentialism, taught by a young Frenchman who had degrees from the Sorbonne. On the first day of class I looked around the room and noticed that most of the fifteen or twenty students were wearing beatnik apparel: black turtleneck sweaters, frayed blue jeans, sandals, etcetera. When Professor deGeorge entered the room he scanned his new students and announces, “Contrary to what you might think, existentialists do not wear blue jeans and sandals.” A girl raised her hand, stood up, and said, “Well then, sir, could you please tell us what they do wear?” Fashion and taste are important to subcultures. Those who wanted to be a part of the beat subculture felt obliged to cultivate a taste for cheap wine, cool jazz, and poetry with strong elements of protest and
absurdity. To be a part of the hippie subculture one had to develop a taste for such things as long hair, colorful clothes, nudity, astrology and brown rice.
If, then, tastes are acquired as a result of the desire to change identity, what does this say about the nature of taste? It’s like the question of whether we are more influenced by heredity or environment. Do I really believe in astrology, or is it just a pretense? Issues of this kind create confusion about the nature of taste. What, for example, is the difference between taste and belief? What does taste have to do with our choice of political party, or choice of religion? No doubt there is an intimate relationship between our tastes and our belief systems. People who believe that aliens are visiting planet Earth probably have tastes in some areas that reflect this belief.
Taste is often considered a measurement of sophistication, a notion that leads people to cultivate unusual tastes in order to stand out from the crowd, to be unique, to keep their would-be judges guessing.
There is probably nothing logical or scientific about taste. A highly educated person may have a taste for junk food. An uneducated person may have an exquisite taste in painting. Whatever taste may be, we are all likely to make judgements about people when we enter their homes and observe the decoration of their rooms. Whatever we decide about people on this basis, we are still aware that tastes are dynamic, changeable, and always evolving many times for reasons that will forever remain a mystery.