Taste, Part I: Schubert and Schoenberg
by Mike Johnston
I dont trust people who dont have strong feelings when it comes to taste.
Amend that. I dont trust creative people who dont have
strong feelings when it comes to taste.
Have you ever asked someone what kind of music they listen to, only to have them
answer, Oh, all kinds. I like everything?
Makes you wanna slap em. Oh, REALLY? You like Schubert and
Schoenberg? Biker thrash rock and Benny Goodman? DrumsnBass and
Bachs solo violin sonatas?
Dont have a preference between Sonny Rollins and Kenny G? Just love that nice,
atmospheric new-age sonic wallpaper, but also Sonic Youth? Have a special place on your
desert island for the Clashs Sandinista , but couldnt live without
those nifty Nimbus reissues of historical opera performances? You love the Archies and
bubblegum pop from the 60s, and gangsta rap? Bill Monroe and salsa? Accordion polkas
and Weird Al Yankovic? Billy Joel and Giant Sand? No preference between Barry Manilow and
Robert Plant? I wonder if there has ever been even one person who likes church organ and
kazoo equally. Or Caruso and Christina Aguilera. Trip-hop and string quartets.
Most people who really ove music have strong tastes even within
specific genres. Theyll adore Ashkenzy and dislike Michelangeli, or vice-versa.
Theyll be into Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee but not have much use for Robert Cray.
Or maybe theyll like Sonny, Brownie, and Robert, but not care for John Mayall or
early Yardbirds. Theyll like Medieval plainsong but not care for operatic warblings,
choirs but not a capella singing.
Just listen, sometime, to hardcore opera fans arguing over who has a good voice.
Youll have your hand nervously on the old cell phone ready to dial 911.
In any event, theyll be able to tell you. For instance, they might like Bach solo
instrumental music but not his Cantatas so much (okay, so thats me). Theyll be
able to tell you which Beethoven symphonies are the best (3, 5, and 6). Real country fans
know whether they prefer Conway Twitty or Travis Tritt. Real orchestra fans know exactly
where they stand with regard to period instruments. Personally, I think the man with the
horn is Clifford Brown more than Miles Davis, and yes, Id argue that.
Somebody Stop Me
Obviously, this could go on. But I think Ive made the point. Creative people, or
people who really like any of the creative arts, have strong tastes. Usually, the more
they care for the art form and the more involved with it they are, the stronger their
With photographs, as with many things, if you want good strong tastes youve got
to exercise em. In the latest issue of The 37th Frame , I included an
admittedly rather diabolical Photo Culture Pop Quiz with 50 tough questions
about photography. Question number 47 is, Who is your favorite photographer?
This is supposed to be the two points you get for free, like the ones you used to get in
middle school for writing your name on the exam booklet.
Yet I sometimes wonder. Do people really care enough to make distinctions?
Exercising your taste involves making aesthetic appraisals and, yes,
discriminations, all the time. (We forget that discrimination isnt a bad
word, except if its part of a compound term with racial or
hiring or some such. In fact, it used to be a very good word, something that a
civilized and educated person aspired to. Are you a person of discriminating tastes?)
Thomas Hoving used to say that he could walk into any room in any museum and be able to
tell you within three minutes what his favorite pieces in that room were. One nice way to
get your exercise is to pretend youre a collector. Ask yourself, if I
could buy only one, which one would I buy? (Actually being a collector is even
better, of course.)
Critiques and Artistes
For many years now, Ive thought that its desirable at least for a
guy in my position to make distinctions between what I do and what Im open
to. Being open to art, I think, entails not judging others in the context of your own
taste, but in the the context of the way theyve chosen to work. To be open,
youve got to get into their head, so to speak, or try to figure out what
theyre up to. Then, I think its a question of whether the art succeeds on its
own terms whether it convinces. Even if its something you dont
particularly get any pleasure out of looking at or isnt remotely like
anything you want to do yourself. The more you know about any artists work, the
easier this tends to be.
Theres a lot of benefit in this approach. It makes museums more fun. I means you
can learn from other artists and their work more readily. If you happen to be a critic, it
makes it possible to write about things you wouldnt make as an artist. It means you
can eat lunch with someone whose art you despise.
Yet, when it comes down to it, we all have our own tastes. I love the mental picture of
the aged Walker Evans, in his hospital bed, flipping quickly through a portfolio of
landscape pictures and saying brusquely (to Ralph Steiner), Nature bores me.
Evans was never one to mince words.
I think its difficult to be an artist and be a critic at the same time. The
critic is the audience distilled. Shes supposed to be open to a broad variety of
work, astutely able to distinguish the original from the derivative, the dynamic from the
rote, the effective from the merely earnest.
An artist, on the other hand, has tastes the stronger the better. Critics
cant afford tunnel vision. Artists can.
But even critics dont like everything. They almost always have strong
ideas about what they think works and what doesnt, whats important and
whats not. Their viewpoints are built up from responding and thinking and responding
some more. When a critic reaches first principles the Descartes moment
he or she might come down to something that you or I might think is total horse
manure. One critic might respond to the glamorous, another to the grotesque; one might be
grounded in modern painting, another in professional photography for paying clients.
Ultimately, their approaches are going to vary widely and are likely to be as individual
as anyone elses.
And if youre trying to build up your tastes, how hard is that, really? It just
depends on asking yourself a bunch of questions and seeing if you can answer them. Do you
like color or black-and-white better? In what form would you most rather see final
results? Is there a style of photography you like best? If you have an inherent weakness
for something, what is it? Where do you see pictures? What subjects are worth
photographing? Should a picture grab you, or grow on you? What genre comes closest to
addressing photographys greatest usefulness? Whos your favorite photographer?
But more than anything, it just means choosing. Pick one over another. Get into the
habit of discriminating. Be able to pick your favorite picture off any wall, from any
group, out of any book. Know what you like. And know what you hate because nobody
who really likes a medium really likes all of it.
So if you ever get ready to answer any question about taste by saying I like all
of it, just think, Mike would slap me if he were here! (Oh, okay, not
really. But you know what I mean.)