i like it – but is it any good?

by julie posted June 14, 2007

Before I launch into my ramblings, I’ll illustrate the source of the idea:

This blog post linked to this discussion, and in particular, this quote from Ben Lifson:

BUT WE MUST BE CAREFUL not to judge the value of a work either way, good or bad, by two things: ONE, How much or how little it costs and TWO Whether we like it or not, i.e. our taste.

REMEMBER W. H. AUDEN’S FIVE VERDICTS, which express the difference between taste and judgment.

1. I see that this is good and I like it.

2. I see that this is good but I don’t like it.

3. I see that this is good and I don’t like it but I understand that with perseverance I could come to like it.

4. I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.

5. I can see that this is trash, but I like it.

The main points that I’m trying to understand are:

1. What is meant by “liking” something?

2. What is meant by something being “good”?

I am, by my own admission, seriously na√Øve when it comes to this whole art thing. I haven’t read up on all the greats, I haven’t studied the history of the different art movements and their inspiration/influences. What I know has mostly come from reading random books, articles, blogs, discussions with friends and just simply making it up as I go along. This makes me feel sometimes as if I may be missing out on a great amount of enjoyment that might be derived from reading more into the work of those great masters, than I can percieve with my untrained eye. But there’s also a rebellious streak – in fact it’s more than a streak – that says “Why should you have to be trained to appreciate something? Isn’t that awfully contrived? Where’s the natural, instinctual enjoyment?”

I see this as being the main source of my problem with a line like “I see that this is good and I don’t like it but I understand that with perseverance I could come to like it”. That makes me think of the times when someone tells you a joke that you don’t get because of the references in it being unknown to you, then they explain it and you laugh half-heartedly. I think it’s different from the situation where you have to look at something for a longer time to appreciate it, rather than being able to glance for 5 seconds and immediately ‘get it’, and all it has to give is given up in that 5 seconds.

But back to those definitions:

Does liking something necessarily mean finding it visually appealing? Could you say that you like a photograph of a wartime atrocity, without having people think you are seriously mentally disturbed? How does that differ from ‘appreciating’ an image – or is that what it really means in this context?

Then, what constitutes a ‘good’ photograph, if not being something that is visually appealing, appreciated, or liked? (I’m sure I’ve ranted about this before…) Can you put aside opinion in terms of judging the merits of art? I think it’s all completely subjective. I really can’t justify a ‘final ruling’ on the quality of an image, beyond what a certain person or group of people happen to think of it. The only thing I see is the opinion of a certain person or group of people being taken as more important than others, and treated as fact. So in saying that you think something is good, but you don’t like it, does that mean that maybe you accept that general definition of it being good as decided by this important person/group? Can you decide something is good in terms of considering the time, skill, technology or tenacity of its creation, and still not appreciate it?

I struggle with this one, I really do…

2 Responses to i like it – but is it any good?

  1. I think that you don’t need to be classically trained to like something. I think that’s just more ‘poo poo’ that the academics spout! If I see something and I like it, that is, it appeals to me on whatever level, then … I like it. Regardless to whether the academics/critics/populace, etc. say that it is a good piece of art.

    Saying that: “with perseverance I could come to like it”” is to me akin to saying: “It’s an acquired taste.”

    My question would be: If I tasted it and didn’t like it, why would I continue to consume it?! The answer, of course, is because it is ‘sophisticated’ and that’s what sophisticated people are supposed to like! Balderdash! Probably most of the sophisticates don’t like it either, but they have too much cowardice to say so for fear of being thought of as less. Eating the swill and being thought well of is better than the alternative.

    I’ve seen some art that I thought was total trash, for example, there was an exhibition years ago at the Dallas Museum of Art. Some guy had on display, ripped, king sized bedsheets splattered with motor oil! This was his art. People were walking around remarking at how it spoke to them. I just thought that the sheets needed washing.

    I couldn’t judge it as being bad or good, but for sure, I knew that I didn’t like it and that I was not going to acquire a taste for it. Bad or good are not absolutes, they are just based on my judgment/evaluation.

    Why would I go and look again … it simply reminded me that I needed to go home and wash some clothes! :-)

  2. Paul, you have a point about ‘sophistication’ and sometime elitist tastes which compliments the knowledge of the observer and reassure them by reasserting their difference with other people. In that respect erudite taste is often fed by a strong distate. If someone likes everything then they have no taste. Therefore taste can be defined by what you like less or don’t like. And this distate often conveniently moves to what likes those who they want to set themselves apart.

    However not all acquired tastes are necessarily ‘sophisticated’ or unnatural.

    When you say “If I tasted it and didn’t like it, why would I continue to consume it?!”, there is a very simple counterexample to that: have you ever tried to give a second chance to some food you usually never eat because you didn’t like it the first time. For a long time I have avoided olives because I found them disgusting in the past. I had to try again and get used to the taste to finally manage to appreciate it.

    I guess that even without putting some effort into it, personal tastes can continue to evolve anyway through small variations or imperceptible steps. Popular music is a good example as there is constant evolution. For someone regularly listening to contemporary music and new releases, their taste can evolve in parallel to some trends within a genre. But most tracks don’t break completely with previous output. They mostly adhere to an existing pattern and add their own personal touch which in turn can be reused and make the genre progress.

    Now if you regularly listen to that type of music for 10 years you could end up liking something which would be very different from what you tolerated at the beginning.

    So this is acquired taste too but probably less consciously and on a much longer time and continuous manner.

    I personally think that by making an effort to understand, contemplate a piece of art, learn about its history and its intentions you can sometimes start to appreciate something which you didn’t immediately enjoyed (and vice versa!). Same goes with meeting new people, first impression is sometime misleading. If you decide not to see them again because of the first impression, you can be right. But you can also miss an opportunity to have a very rich relationship.

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