The Problem of Taste

When we are free only as consumers, the market replaces all other forms of contestation and valuation. Conflicts that might have been resolved at other times through violence and coercion, or consensus and negotiation, or voting, or other political processes, are now adjudicated entirely through cost-benefit analysis and the mechanism of prices. This also means that the only form of judgment is aesthetic judgment. Questions of empirical fact and of the understanding (Kant’s First Critique), together with questions of morality (the Second Critique), are displaced into questions of taste (the Third Critique). And since questions of taste have no objective basis, they can only be resolved by seeing how the sum of individual choices plays out in the marketplace. It could scarcely be otherwise, once we assume, with Virginial Postrel, that the market can provide for everybody’s wants, and that we can simply “look away from the stuff we don’t like.”

However, the great fantasy of market adjudication rests on what Kant would call a paralogism. Kant cites two great “commonplaces about taste”: first, that “everyone has his own taste”; and second, that “there is no disputing about taste.” These would seem to go along with the premises of free-market theory. But Kant goes on to tell us that aesthetics is not merely subjective; it is about more than just personal preferences. Indeed, for Kant, a question of mere preferences, like my choice between vanilla and chocolate ice cream, isn’t really an aesthetic question at all. The difficulty of aesthetic judgment comes from the fact that we demand “other people’s necessary assent” to our aesthetic claims — even though we also know that these claims have no objective basis. My aesthetic judgments are irreducibly singular, but at the same time they appeal to a sensus communis. Although they are groundless, they are “put forward as having general validity (as being public)” — they are never merely a private matter. The result, Kant says, is that we continue to quarrel about taste, even though we know we cannot dispute over it.

The difference between disputing and quarreling, Kant says, is that, in the case of disputing, “we hope to produce\ldots agreement according to determinate concepts, by basing a proof on them, so that we assume that the judgment is based on objective concepts.” That is to say, disputes can be adjudicated by reference either to facts, or to agreed-upon norms. But quarrels cannot be resolved in such a way. They are indeterminate, irreducible, and without higher appeal. They offer no built-in path of reconciliation. This is precisely why Postrel counsels us to “look away” from our aesthetic disagreements, instead of continuing to argue about them. And yet, such arguing never goes away. Even as atomized consumers, we do continue to quarrel over our tastes — “and rightly so,” as Kant remarks. We must quarrel, because our aesthetic judgments, however singular and ungrounded they may be, are nonetheless public and communicable. Every expression of aesthetic taste thus makes the presumption that society does indeed exist, and that it is more than just an agglomeration of “individuals and families.” Aesthetically considered, the social is not a matter of identities, but one of differences and singularities. It is guaranteed, not by any supposed norms of “communicative reason,” but by the very fact that we quarrel in the absence of such norms.

The upshot of all this is that the question of “taste” remains a problem for the aesthetic capitalism that is premised upon satisfying it for everybody. In spite of personal differences and ostensible market indifference, not all tastes are equal. Some tastes are in fact more socially prestigious — today we would say cooler — than others. Veblen long ago remarked that social judgments of taste involve “invidious” distinctions. Today, Scott Westerfeld, in his novel So Yesterday, reminds us that “most people aren’t cool,” and “will never be cool,” no matter how avidly and expensively they consume — and the way they dress proves it. Even that great democrat Andy Warhol, who claims that “I never met a person I couldn’t call a beauty,” nonetheless finds some expressions of taste interesting, and others just corny. “When I see people dressed in hideous clothes that look all wrong on them, I try to imagine the moment when they were buying them and thought, ‘This is great. I like it. I’ll take it.’ You can’t imagine what went off in their heads to make them buy those maroon polyester waffle-iron pants or that acrylic halter top that has ‘Miami’ written in glitter. You wonder what they rejected as not beautiful — an acrylic halter top that had ‘Chicago’?”

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