‘No accounting for taste,” the best-known words on the subject run, and indeed it turns out that not all that many people have actually attempted to account for taste. Apart from that pertaining to gastronomy, taste has not been a subject much explored. Yet what a significant subject it seems, for there is taste in books, art, ideas, humor, companions, clothes, and just about everything else the world has to offer.

De gustibus non est disputandum—“there is no disputing taste”—is the longest-standing aphorism about taste, though of course people dispute it all the time. “You say there can be no argument about matters of taste,” Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science. “All life is an argument about matters of taste.” Without disputes over taste, criticism would be out of business. The avant-garde is about changing taste, sometimes radically. Arguments about taste may be the most passionate arguments of all. I, for one, should rather be told that my political opinions are wrong than that my apartment is drab or my favorite poets third-rate. I have the support here of La Rochefoucauld, who wrote, “Our self-love can bear less to have our own tastes than our opinions condemned.”

Taste can mystify understanding, and often does. For example, I cannot grasp the aesthetics of tattoos, or understand why anyone finds them attractive, yet their popularity has greatly increased in recent years. Nor do I understand the pleasure derived from rap music or why men, many famous athletes among them, find that wearing earrings is elegant. Neither can I work up much interest in Bob Dylan, whom I am prepared to let blow in his own rather pretentious wind. None of his songs seems to me authentic; all seem pseudo-profundities acquired secondhand from Woody Guthrie and others. Taste—go figure!

Along with Nietzsche, David Hume was among the major philosophers who wrote about taste. Hume chiefly attempted to establish an objective basis for taste. Opposing taste to passion, he held that the former enlarged “the sphere both of our happiness and our misery, and makes us sensible to pain as well as pleasures, which escape the rest of mankind.” He set out the standards for fair-minded taste. According to Hume, the problem of taste is that “among a thousand different opinions which different men may entertain of the same subject, there is one, and but one, that is just and true; and the difficulty is to fix and ascertain it.” Hume is less incisive on how to acquire true taste than he is on those things that get in the way of establishing it, with prejudice high among them. 

“Prejudice is destructive of sound judgment,” Hume wrote, “and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties: It is no less contrary to good taste; nor has it less influence to corrupt our sentiment of beauty.” Good taste, for Hume, is bound up with a sound understanding. Both go into making what he calls “delicacy of taste.” This delicacy of taste “is requisite to make him [the critic, or anyone else with genuine good taste] sensible of every beauty and every blemish, in any composition or discourse.”

Many things stand in the way of attaining true delicacy of taste: one’s nationality, one’s social class, one’s age, one’s temperament, the time in which one lives. Of the last, Nietzsche wrote: “One has to get rid of the bad taste of wanting to be in agreement with the many. ‘Good’ is no longer good when your neighbor takes it into his mouth.” The taste of the majority, Nietzsche is saying, rarely if ever qualifies as good taste. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that taste finally eluded definition. “The further we go in search of a definition of taste,” he wrote in Émile, his study of the education of youth, “the more we are bewildered; taste is only the power of judging what will please or displease the greatest number. Go beyond that and no definition is possible.” 

Tastes of course vary, widely and wildly. “One person is more pleased with the sublime,” Hume writes, “another with the tender; a third with raillery. One has a strong sensibility to blemishes, and is extremely studious of correctness: Another has a more lively feeling of beauties, and pardons twenty absurdities and defects for one elevated or pathetic stroke.” Hume concludes: “Such preferences are innocent and unavoidable, and can never reasonably be the object of dispute, because there is no standard, by which they can be decided.”

Then there is fashion, which often plays a significant role in the formation of taste. The fashions that prevail at a given moment mark their time as surely as its ideas or anything else about it. Fashion can pervert taste. When fashion leads, Rousseau felt, “the object of taste changes: Then the multitude no longer has judgment of its own. It now judges only according to the views of those whom it believes more enlightened than itself. It approves not what is good but what they have approved. In all times, see to it that each man has his own sentiments, and that which is most agreeable in itself will always have the plurality of votes. Here people often defer in their tastes to those they think better informed than themselves, approving not what they think superior but what others do.” Hence the power of persuasive critics to form taste. 

“The rich, in order to display their wealth, and the artists, in order to take advantage of that wealth, vie in the quest for new means of expense,” Rousseau wrote. “This is the basis on which great luxury establishes its empire and leads people to love what is difficult and costly. Then what is claimed to be beautiful, far from imitating nature, is beautiful only by dint of thwarting it. This is how luxury and bad taste become inseparable. Wherever taste is expensive, it is false.”

Not entirely true. Many expensive things can be in good taste: splendid houses facing water, pleasing paintings, artistically designed jewelry, elegant automobiles, certain items of clothing. One, of course, may have a taste for many things one cannot afford. Rousseau, a thinker who never seemed to mind going too far, adds: “A taste for ostentation is rarely associated in the same souls with a taste for honesty. No, it is not possible that minds degraded by a multitude of futile concerns would ever raise themselves to anything great. Even when they had the strength for that, the courage would be missing.”

As for how tastes change, Nietzsche felt that change in taste is more powerful than a change in opinion, and that what changes taste is the views of powerful and influential men who “announce, without any shame, hoc est ridiculum, hoc est absurdum, in short, the judgment of their taste and nausea; and then they enforce it tyrannically.” When people talk about taste-makers, they are really talking about taste-changers, with the obvious proviso that not all changes in taste are changes for the better. What is a tasteful opinion? In The Gay Science, Nietzsche cites one: “Above all, one should not wish to divest existence of its rich ambiguity: that is a dictate of good taste, gentlemen, the taste for reverence for everything that lies beyond your horizon.” A distasteful opinion, one with a wretched history, would be anti-Semitism. 

The evidence of changing taste is ubiquitous, perhaps never more so than at present. In television interviews, athletes now commonly use such phrases as “kick ass” and “pissed off”; on some cable-television shows, the f-word appears more frequently than many common prepositions. A current television commercial invokes you to “put your keister in a Honda.” In the middle-class suburb in which I live, men in their fifties and beyond go about in cargo shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops—clothes my father, not a notably formal man, wouldn’t have worn to take out the garbage.

Taste runs the gamut from bad to good, vulgar to exquisite, sound to precious. We all like to think of our own taste as at least sound, with perhaps a few thinking theirs exquisite. But how can we be certain? Apart from examining our taste item for item, I’m not sure we can. “Taste,” Rousseau believed, “is natural to all mankind, but they do not possess it in the same degree. . . . The degree of taste which it is possible for us depends on our innate sensibility; its development and form depend on the societies in which we live.” The development of taste, Rousseau held, depended on living in large enough societies that allow us to make comparisons among things, and these must be societies that allow for amusement and idleness, “for those of business are not regulated by pleasure, but by self-interest.”

 In some realms, good taste is, or ought to be, precluded. Jokes, for one. A joke in good taste is likely to be an unfunny joke. Consider the following joke from the standpoint of taste:

Mr. Birnbaum comes to his rabbi to ask him to say kaddish for his recently deceased dog Buster. The rabbi tells him that Jews do not say kaddish over dead animals. Birnbaum tells the rabbi that all his relatives are now dead and that Buster was like family to him. The rabbi does not back down. Birnbaum then says that, if the rabbi will accommodate him, he will write a check for $10,000 for the rabbi’s special fund for the education of ghetto children. After a slight hesitation, the rabbi agrees, but says that it must be done next Wednesday, in the small chapel, before the morning prayers, with no other witnesses present. That Wednesday the rabbi says kaddish and speaks for fully 20 minutes about Buster. At the close, Birnbaum, tears in his eyes, hands the rabbi the check, and says, “I don’t know how to thank you, rabbi, for what you said about Buster. Until today, listening to you, I had no idea how much Buster had done for Israel.”

Told by a non-Jew, the joke is likely to seem in even worse taste. As it happens this joke was told to me by Sol Linowitz, formerly chairman of the Xerox corporation, over lunch at the F Street Club in Washington, D.C. As we emerged from the club, Sol remarked on the vulgarity, the bad taste, of the stretch limos lined up outside the club.

In their very personae, people can themselves seem in good or bad taste. Fred Astaire always seemed an emblem of good taste, aristocratic yet very American. A run of English actors—Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., David Niven—seemed to embody good taste, at least on screen. 

As for bad taste, one doesn’t have to go any further than our current and previous American presidents. Nearly everything about Donald Trump suggests bad taste, from his hairdo to his views about women to his crude put-downs of anyone who disagrees with him. The bad taste inherent in Joe Biden is perhaps less obvious but no less pervasive. Bad taste in Biden ranges from his endless recounting of his parents’ advice to him when he was a boy—“Joey, my father used to say to me. . .”—to his bringing up the death of his son Beau on every possible occasion to show his own sensitivity to the world’s sadness. (No Irishman, it is said, is ever taken in by the charm of another Irishman, but in Joe Biden’s case, one doesn’t have to be Irish to be impervious to his attempts at charm.) Beyond bad taste, both men, Trump and Biden, have been accused of being sexual predators. No one would ever accuse either man of even lapsing into good taste. Perhaps when people in polls declare they don’t like the direction in which the country is headed, what they really mean is that our recent presidents, our national leaders, in their differing ways, have been in appallingly bad taste.

Which brings up the question of what taste has, if anything, to do with character. One would like to think that a person of good character would also be a person of not necessarily flawless but at least generally sound taste. A man or woman of exquisite taste and bad character is easily imagined. One of life’s little disappointments is the discovery that some people can attain to high culture and in all other realms be without taste. Less easily imagined is a man or woman of good character but vulgar tastes. One of life’s pleasant surprises is that some people, quite without culture, can be generous and in every way good-hearted. 

Rousseau thought a distinction needed to be made between taste and morals. In Émile, he notes that “taste is no more than self-knowledge in regard to little things” and adds that “since it is on the sum of little things that pleasure of life depends, attention to them is by no means a trivial matter. From it we learn to drink deep of the good things which lie within our reach and go drain from them all the meaning which they can have for us.” He then proceeds to skid off the track by declaring that one should “consult the taste of women in physical matters, which pertain to the judgment of the senses, and that of men in moral matters, which are more dependent on the understanding.”


Do I, I ask myself, have what David Hume called “the delicacy of taste”? Here are a few of my own preferences. In the realm of culture, I prefer Mozart over Beethoven, Raphael over Michelangelo, Hazlitt over Emerson, Tennyson over Walt Whitman, Paul Klee over Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust over James Joyce. As you might have guessed after reading my animadversions about rap music and the songs of Bob Dylan, my taste in popular music runs to the singing of Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. La Rochefoucauld again: “Tastes in young people are changed by natural impetuosity, and in the aged are preserved by habit.”

After graduating from the University of Chicago, where an interest in material objects was regarded as opposed to an interest in truth, beauty, and goodness, I found myself purposely buying dullish cars—Chevy Malibus, Oldsmobile Cutlasses—lest I be thought taken in by the low-grade status conferred by the possession of a flashy or elegant auto. When the price of an Olds Cutlass exceeded $20,000, I shed my concern about such matters and bought a 3-series BMW. I next jumped up to 5-series BMWs, and thence to S-type Jaguars. Apart from gazing out the rearview mirrors of these cars, I never looked back. 

My clothes are a throwback almost to my high-school days. While I own no jeans, I mostly go about in chino, or khaki, wash pants, penny loafers, and polo shirts and (in colder weather) sweaters worn over them. I have had the good luck not to have had to work in an office since 1970, and suspect that such suits as I own have by now gone out of style. I have bought a number of items—a suede jacket, a winter coat, a double-breasted blazer—in vintage clothing stores. I have never had a beard or mustache, and tend to believe, with George Balanchine, who allowed none of his male dancers to have beards or mustaches, that there is something slightly false about them in the modern age. 

As for tasteful speech, in recent years I have attempted to eliminate the use of what Clifton Fadiman called the “coital intensifier,” or the f-word. The same goes for other readily available four-letter words. I try my best only to say “yes” and never “yeah.” I hope I am a good listener. Like many an older gent, I fear I too often repeat my repertoire of anecdotes. I may well tell too many jokes? I worry, perhaps not sufficiently, about being a bore.

How does one attain to David Hume’s “delicacy of taste”? Rousseau thought a first step was to go off to live in Paris. “Perhaps there is no civilized town where the general taste is worse than in Paris,” he wrote, “yet this is the capital where good taste is trained, and few books of note have lately been written in Europe of which the author has not been to Paris to form his taste.” Can Paris, or life in any other city, imbue good taste? I have lived much the better part of my life in Chicago, never a citadel of good taste. In Chicago, one can drive 10 miles down most of the city’s main streets and not encounter a person tastefully attired. New York has long been thought more sophisticated than Chicago, but also more aggressive—“Can you tell me how I can get to the Empire State Building,” a visiting Hoosier asks a native New Yorker, “or would you prefer I go screw myself?”—and aggression is not usually in good taste.

Good taste, David Hume’s “delicacy of taste,” if it is to be acquired, must be acquired on one’s own. The only way to do so is make a conscious attempt to eliminate all that is distasteful in one’s public presentation. Prejudice has to go. So, too, narrow views. One’s opinions must not be too firmly pressed; nor must one live to win arguments, political or other. Charm, if one can command it, may be taken on, and with it quiet elegance, though neither in a too obvious way. Any hint of vulgarity must be effaced.

Or perhaps no program of this or any other kind is needed. Good taste is instead to be had, more simply, by invoking one’s better instincts, putting other people’s feelings on a par with one’s own, being generous in one’s impulses, kindly with everyone, above all never hurting or humiliating others. Social sensitivity, generosity, kindliness, gentleness in all one’s dealings—here, surely, are the ingredients, the ultimate prescription, for the best of all good taste.

Photo: Studio publicity still of Fred Astaire for Daddy Long Legs (1955).

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