When I think of what it means to “have taste,” my mind immediately conjures images of outward refinement: a shirking of excess, an elevated coolness, and a curtailing of expression, culminating in just the perfect amount of artistic and intellectual snobbery to satisfy one’s professional and social circles. I don’t particularly like that my mind goes there. To engage with such a plastic, pinkies-in-the-air notion of “taste” is to do the process of cultivating and refining one’s sensibilities a terrible injustice. Additionally, I try not to conflate taste, elegance, and etiquette, although they are interrelated concepts, and equally necessary for living a creative life. I also don’t care to spend time around people who put on airs in the name of “taste” (or anything else). It makes me wonder what, precisely, they understand the word to mean.
It seems to me that we speak of the genesis of taste, primarily, in one of two ways: in terms of its relationship to social standing and “high culture” and in innate terms. For instance, we might say that some people dress, eat, or act in a manner that appears “tasteful” simply because it’s exclusive, expensive, or has an air of sophistication. To me, that isn’t taste. Taste is not something you can buy. And it is not a skill that one develops simply as a result of being exposed to beautiful things over time. Taste is not passive. In terms of creative capacity, we talk of those who seem to have been born with an instinct: “an eye,” “an ear,” or “a palate.” The artists. The makers. Those who have a quizzically heightened ability to derive and create complex and nuanced meanings from the information gathered from one or more of their senses.
As for me, I like to think of taste in terms of responsiveness. For some, it is an undeniably innate ability. Some artists really do have an incredible eye and some writers and musicians “an ear” for picking up on and responding to their environments far more deeply and discriminately than the average person. That’s a sensitivity that can’t be taught. And that ability may be, in many cases, what separates the mediocre from the great. But, I also think that the rest of us—the non-Picassos of the world—can hone our sensibilities to such a degree that we can each cultivate our own manner of taste.
Here are some thoughts on what it means to “have taste” and some ways to increase our capacity to see and act tastefully.
Taste is the ability to achieve balance.
This is what separates taste from elegance. To me, the hallmark of taste is the ability to achieve balance, or harmony, among disparate elements. It is knowing how to create poignancy through contrast. To be tasteful does not mean to be modest. It, rather, means to generate power by combining the modest, or the refined, with the blunt, or base. Taste does not turn up its nose at any aspect of human nature or culture. It is not “refined” in that sense. Taste embraces the carnal, the lewd, the vulgar, the violent, and the obscene, and then envelops it in sophistication. Taste is, largely, a process of elevation.
I’ll give you an example. As you may know, I like to write erotic fiction and poetry from time to time, but I actually spend a great deal more time reading other genres. When I do read erotica, I prefer to read Anaïs Nin. Why? Because she transforms her sumptuous, elegant, descriptive prose into a blunt force by mixing it expertly with the base, the dirty, the simple, and the lewd. She is a master of balancing contrasts. It is for that reason that I consider her one of the most tasteful erotica writers of all time. She knows when to give, when to pull back, and when to cross the line…often by a hair.
Taste is a form of appreciation.
Taste, to me, is cultivated, foremost, from an attitude of appreciation. Taste is not critical or closed-minded, but it is discerning. In an amorous sort of way. It is “the eye,” “the ear,” or “the palate” that seeks beauty and wonder. And finds them in the most unlikely places, or through seemingly bizarre combinations. It is, then, also childlike. Taste is open to new experiences and, having sought, perhaps, the extremes of the good, the bad, the disturbing, and the awe-inspiring, finds itself constructing its own pleasantly nuanced reality from that with which it becomes enthralled.
Taste is a form of intuition.
It is a way of seeing and understanding the world and ourselves by feel. I know that some folks are naturally more intuitive than others. But, I do think that honing the capacity for self-awareness—for paying closer attention to what feels right and what feels wrong in an array of situations—can can help all of us use our intuitive abilities better. In conjunction, I think that exposing ourselves to a breadth of experiences and teasing out the similarities and differences between them on the basis of feeling can help us broaden our perspectives, leading perhaps, to a deeper understanding of the role of intuition in everyday decision-making. What, after all, is “taste,” if not the intentional gradation of feeling?