The concept of “taste” is central to both the gustatory and aesthetic realms. Taste, when defined as one of the five senses of the body, is not typically engaged in discussions of media theory, though it is particularly relevant to such discussions by virtue of its location in the tongue and mouth, the organs of taste and speech. In contrast, theorists widely engage the concept of taste as aesthetic judgment within media discourse, analyzing the process of the discernment of the relative artistic worth of specific media, as well as the ultimate trustworthiness or danger of these discernments.
The bodily sense of taste has historically occupied a low position within the hierarchy of the five human senses. Aristotle’s classical hierarchy of the senses deems “sight” the highest of the senses, followed in order by hearing, smell, taste, and touch (Jutte 61). Philosophers have privileged the “distance” senses such as sight and hearing over the “bodily” sense of taste due to notions that distance from the object perceived yields objectivity (which in turn might lead to knowledge), and proximity to the object perceived yields subjectivity (which implies the risk of self-indulgence) (Korsmeyer 361). This sense hierarchy is not uncontested. Theorists have argued that this hierarchy is not a universal “given,” but a social construct influenced by philosophy, human evolution, and technological progress (Jutte 61). Certainly, taste’s place within the hierarchy of senses is prone to change as aspects of culture and forms of media change.
Gustatory taste is necessarily tied to the organs of taste, the tongue and mouth. Taste is the “faculty or sense by which that particular quality of a thing…is discerned, the organs of which are situated chiefly in the mouth” (OED). The “organs of taste,” are not only mediums through which to discern the flavors of particular foods, but are also mediums for the articulation of sound. In his “Course in General Linguistics,” Ferdinand de Saussure notes the importance of the vocal apparatus in language and speech.
In his outline of the speaking-circuit, Saussure details the speech act, emphasizing the intimate relationship between the psychological, physiological, and physical aspects of communication. The vocal apparatus, including the mouth and tongue (those apparatuses most central to “taste”), play a key part in this speaking circuit. The vocal apparatus is the physiological component of the circuit where “the brain transmits an impulse corresponding to the image to the organs used in producing sound” (Saussure 12). The vocal apparatus is inseparable from the technology of speech; it is necessary to “sound” and “oral articulation,” and cannot be defined apart from “acoustical impression” (8). Interestingly, some non-Western cultures relate speaking directly to sensing. Kathryn Linn Geurts notes that the Anlo speakers of West-Africa emphasize the “sensorial aspects of speech” (175). Speaking is part of “a broader category of experience they call sesetonume (feeling in the mouth) (175), a category which also includes such taste-related experiences as eating, drinking, and kissing.
Although philosophers deemed gustatory taste too subjective and primal for employment in the rational study of aesthetics, it has served as a metaphor for aesthetic judgment since the sixteenth century. This metaphor captures the “immediacy of the aesthetic phenomenon of savoring and enjoying experienced qualities” (Korsmeyer 360). The concept of taste as a faculty of aesthetic judgment is nuanced.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of taste that best captures its meaning within philosophies of aesthetics is “the sense of what is appropriate, harmonious, or beautiful; esp. discernment and appreciation of the beautiful in nature or art; spec. the faculty of perceiving and enjoying what is excellent in art, literature, and the like.” “Taste” may also refer merely to the preferences of individuals; taste in this sense is “the fact or condition of liking or preferring something; inclination, liking for; appreciation” (OED). This definition of taste corresponds in part with the theories of Enlightenment philosophers, who posited that taste is a “feeling”; a “taste for something just is the subjective pleasure that one takes in it” (Korsmeyer 358).
Theories of taste first gained prominence in 18th century Great Britain in the same documents often credited for the rise of modern aesthetic theory, Joseph Addison’s Spectator papers On the Pleasures of the Imagination (Dickie 565). The theory of taste that proliferates in this century is concerned with the individual’s “experience and appreciation of beauty in art and nature” (566), especially as opposed to platonic notions of the experience of beauty “as an objective property of things” (565). The most notable 18th century philosophers of taste include Addison, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, and Immanuel Kant. These philosophers, with the exception of Shaftesbury, all adhered to Locke’s Empiricist tradition; viewing perception as a passive act which “simply reveals the nature of the perceived world” (568).
The concept of “disinterestedness” is central to 18th century formulations of aesthetic taste. Critics credit the Third Earl of Shaftesbury for developing the notion of disinterestedness, a type of attention or impartial attitude characterized by lack of desire or concern for personal gain (Korsmeyer 360). In his Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant develops a theory of aesthetic judgment which privileges “disinterested pleasure” as the “first moment” in the judgment of beauty. This “disinterested pleasure” is based on a subjective feeling of pleasure, unique in that it neither holds nor breeds desire for the object (Ginsborg). French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu critiques Kant’s concept of disinterested pleasure, asserting that it fails to provide a universal basis for a standard of taste, as Kant claims. Bourdieu argues that Kant’s conception of aesthetic judgment is culturally-specific, viable only for those wealthy enough to spend time on “contemplation” and the practice of “disinterestedness” (Korsmeyer 361).
The notion of disinterestedness has implications for the ways we view media; scholar Jerome Stolnitz compellingly argues that disinterestedness has “transformed habits of seeing and judging” (Dickie 607). We now conceive of and view works of art as “autonomous” and “self-contained” due to our awareness of the disinterested attitude (607). Interestingly, the concept of disinterestedness has an inverse correspondence to the gustatory sense of taste. While disinterestedness requires an emotional and physical distance from the object, the experience of the sense of taste implies direct bodily contact with the object.
McLuhan’s theory that the technology of the “electric age” extends the whole human sensorium and central nervous system has implications for personal disinterestedness and the ability to perceive and judge art. He argues that the extension of the sensorium will involve us in an intimate relationship with all of humanity, so that it will be “no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner” (4). If dissociation becomes impossible, the ability to engage media in a “disinterested” fashion, and the very definition of “disinterestedness,” may also shift.
Art critic Clement Greenberg plays a central role in the twentieth century discourse on taste. In “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg provides “ideal types” for high and low art; “avant-garde” and “kitsch” begin to function as a way to classify culturally valuable and culturally worthless media. Greenberg portrays the small avant-garde community as the protector and defender of “high art.” The masses, in contrast, gravitate towards “kitsch,” a form of media characterized by its crass pillaging of canonized culture (12). Perhaps the most important aspect of avant-garde media in Greenberg’s analysis was its purity.
In “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” Greenberg expresses the notion that the most culturally valuable, avant-garde art is that which is most pure. Pure art is not a vehicle for an idea or a subject, but is an end in and of itself; it is a medium which serves to reveal and realize the qualities of its particular medium (28). For Greenberg, the avant-garde painting at the time exemplified pure art; it strove not to conceal its medium or give the illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional plane, but to “progressively surrender to the resistance of its medium” (34).
Pure art also makes an immediate impression on the senses. It strives always to “express with greater immediacy sensations, the irreducible elements of experience” (30). In Greenberg’s estimation, the nature of the impressions on the senses should correspond to the nature of the medium; thus; pure plastic art will produce “the emotion of ‘plastic sight'” (34). Greenberg uses notions of purity as well as 18th century ideals of “disinterestedness” in order to construct a theory of “discerning taste.” This process of discerning involves the immediate experience of art, followed by a detached evaluation of the felt impact of the experience (16). The emphasis on immediacy and detachment recall early hierarchical classifications of the senses; philosophers had associated taste with immediacy and the ability to feel, while vision and sight related to distance and the ability to reflect (Korsmeyer 361).
Greenberg’s insistence on pure art as that which is “immediate” and privileges the “medium” over content, parallels Marshall McLuhan’s famous line, “the medium is the message.” In fact, McLuhan notes that cubism (an example of Greenberg’s “pure art”), exemplified the notion of “the medium is the message” (13). McLuhan, like Greenberg, warns that a medium’s content may potentially “blind us to the character of the medium (McLuhan 9). For Greenberg, the repercussions of a blindness to medium entail the deterioration of a discerning taste, while for McLuhan, repercussions of blindness are a numbness and an inability to properly discern the effects of media on society (9).
Marshall McLuhan’s ideas regarding media’s influence on sense ratios are relevant both to a discussion of taste as a gustatory faculty and taste as a critical faculty of aesthetic discernment. McLuhan postulates that technology, indeed all forms of media, at once “extend” and “amputate” the senses (44). To the extent that a person is engaged with a technology, the strength of her senses in relation to one another will also change. For example, that “if sound…is intensified, touch and taste and sight are affected at once” (44). Thus, according to McLuhan’s theory of sense ratios, the gustatory sense of taste is altered according to levels of engagement with various media.
The changes in sense ratios and the extension and amputation of the senses which technology brings about will necessarily affect perception and aesthetic judgments. For instance, in the latter part of the 18th century, philosophers considered taste “a response to associations provided by the external senses” (Korsmeyer 358). In this conception, if external senses change, tastes must change accordingly. The dependence of taste upon changeable senses will ultimately influence any attempt to form an “objective” or all-encompassing hierarchy of media, or a cultural canon.
Some contemporary theorists have asserted that classifications and hierarchies of media are merely social products and social tools. In his ethnography of French culture, Bourdieu argues that an individual’s notions of what is “tasteful” are determined more by her social standing than any special ability to experience and appreciate the sensory, aesthetic, or social world (Bourdieu 1). Greenberg also acknowledges the socially constructed nature of artistic discernment, noting that “superior culture is one of the most artificial of all human creations (19).
Notions of gustatory and aesthetic taste are intimately bound with theories of media. The organs of taste function as mediums for the articulation of sound; the tongue and mouth are the technology of speech. The faculty of aesthetic taste serves to discern between the culturally superior and inferior media. Furthermore, this discernment, or faculty of taste, engages the human sensorium as its medium of perception. Ultimately, as McLuhan hypothesizes, the experience of gustatory and aesthetic taste will be determined by media.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Dickie, George, and R.J. Sclafani, ed. Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977.
Geurts, Kathryn Linn. “Consciousness as ‘Feeling in the Body’.” Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader. Ed. David Howe. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2005.
Ginsborg, Hannah, “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), URL = . 8 March 2006.
Greenberg, Clement. The Collected Essays and Criticism. Ed. John O’Brian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Jutte, Robert. A History of the Senses: From Antiquity to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2005.
Korsmeyer, Carolyn. “Taste: Modern and Recent History.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics: Volume IV. Ed. Michael Kelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.
“Taste” Oxford English Dictionary Online [computer file] (2nd ed.1989). 10 February, 2006.