From the Chronicle of Higher Ed, a blog post from Prof. Laurie Fendrich. Some choice bits, then comments.

Freshmen arrive on campus with their own taste in everything from music to clothes, food, and electronic equipment. Consciously or not, they also have developed certain tastes in art. Taste being what it is, and young people being what they are, freshmen usually arrive with either no taste or very bad taste — not just in art, but in everything — but in either case, they’re very comfortable with their tastes. They don’t expect or want to change them. The paradox is that it just so happens that their taste, which they consider to be something that’s very particular and individual, is, in most important respects, exactly the same as that of most other college freshmen.

If college students have any opinion about art, it’s usually that M.C. Escher and Salvador Dalí are two great artists. Those who have “advanced taste”—i.e., have taken AP art history—love Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Only the rare bird likes Cézanne or De Kooning.

But it’s not just college students who often have narrow or bad taste (these differ, I admit, but they frequently overlap). I’ve known many powerhouse intellectuals, academics, bankers, doctors, and lawyers whose taste was execrable, or just plain ordinary, or who were completely oblivious to taste. How can smart, successful people hang tired, perfunctorily chosen landscapes on their own living room walls, or permit porcelain ducks with little bonnets on their heads to waddle across their coffee tables? Are they lacking some aesthetic gene that we artists have? Or are they just too busy to notice how things look in their own homes?

There are many who would argue that because of the subjectivity of taste, it follows that no one, including a college teacher, has the right to challenge the taste of another person, including students.

But taking my cue from the wise David Hume (whom I’ll explore further in a future post), I see another side to taste. For all the impossibility of defining good taste, good taste tends to precipitate out over time and then solidify. “Say, that Manet painting sure is beautiful,” is almost as much a fact in its universal application as, “Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.” In fact, good taste easily ossifies, which explains Martha Stewart. The idea that taste is radically subjective is an utterly inadequate explanation of aesthetic matters.

Plainly, Prof. Fendrich has not read Crowley’s Composition in the University or Faigley’s Fragments of Rationality. Both texts take composition’s forebears to task for seeing their task as inculcating standards of appropriately middle-class, bourgeois aesthetics. For example, Faigley’s analysis of writing evaluation practices reveals an enduring interest in idealized student subjectivities by contrasting the results of the College Entrance Examination Board’s 1929 English exam with those of editors William Coles and James Vopat’s What Makes Writing Good, a 1985 collection of student writing. In the 1929 exam, Faigley finds that the evaluators privileged familiarity with canonical texts and penalized students for displaying interest in popular literature; moreover, the evaluators highly prized student work that reinforced assumptions that readers of popular texts were intellectually inferior (118-9). Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Faigley argues that this attitude perpetuates “an asymmetry of literary taste” (119) that works to safeguard elite socioeconomic status from those deemed unworthy.

Granted, Fendrich has some vested interest in question: the authorial blurb describes her “a painter who lives and works in New York, is a professor of fine arts and the director of the Comparative Arts and Culture Graduate Program at Hofstra University. Her writing has focused on the place of art and artists in society and the education of young artists, but she has also written essays questioning the viability of beauty in a post-Darwin era, the meaning of abstract painting, and the tyranny of outcomes assessment”. Perhaps she and I might find some common ground on that last point, but I think what she seems to be about to propose here (this post is the first in a planned series on the question of taste and its teachability) seems retrograde and counter-productive.

If, as a compositionist, I am pledged at least in spirit to students’ rights to their own language, why should students’ engagement with creative language use and other discourses be subject to similar institutional tampering? What remains most problematic for me, perhaps, is that the justification for her proposal doesn’t seem to be grounded in any sense of purpose other than the perpetuation of “taste” for its own merits: students need to learn about good taste because if they don’t won’t know what is tasteful. So? Who gives a rat doot?

I’m trying to think of the question rhetorically: what might be gained from an education in taste? As presented here, it’s a matter of being able to listen to the right music or decorate one’s home in tasteful (that is, bourgeois) style.

The comments that follow the original post break down along predictable lines. I tend to agree with the comments submitted by two posters, Marcus and Maria. Marcus writes: “I am just struck by the arrogance and elitism inherent in that notion that college students have ‘bad taste’ and it is our job as the enlightened caste to fix their silly, misguided notions of aesthetic merit”. And Maria: “If I am a professor of early American history (which I am) and I have a very sophisticated understanding of, say, colonial legal and diplomatic history . . . why should anyone give a damn if I decorate my house with porcelain ducks?” And an irresistible summary of Fendrich’s essay from “Shortfingered Vulgarian:” “Banal bourgeois-bashin’, kid-hatin’ Bloomsbury-lite with a click-trawling promise of more to come? Now THAT’S tasteless.”

Fendrich promises more. I’ll be eager to see where this goes.


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