The Formation of Taste

In a book I once read about certain prominent individuals in various fields – which I believe were writing, classical music, visual art, and science – the author expressed astonishment at the fact that a high percentage of the musical works which were performed by a prominent symphony orchestra during a season were composed by a very small number of composers.[1] From this fact, he drew the mistaken conclusion that this must have been due to these composers’ greater artistic ability, or “genius,” in comparison to all other composers. This conclusion is similar to the common belief that the free market provides an accurate assessment of the merits of artistic works and other things, such as the foods we eat, the movies we watch, the books we read (or don’t read), the cars we drive, the things we buy, and so on.

The British of the Victorian era regarded Alfred Tennyson as a great poet whose reputation was believed to rival that of Shakespeare and Chaucer, an estimation that is not shared by most people today, including myself. These high estimations of the works of living persons is very common. The fate of the majority of them is to diminish into insignificance or oblivion, since future ages will primarily be interested in the works that are created by the artists living in those times. This is only fair, as the dead have had their moment in the spotlight, and must then cede that place to, or at least share it with, those who are born after them. In the case of ordinary people, once their lives are done, they too must cede their place to those who will be born and live in the future.

As the number of artistic creations of all kinds continues to increase at faster and faster rates, due to the burgeoning human population and to technological developments that increase both the rate of change and total production, it is simply not possible for one person to read, watch, hear, eat, absorb, or otherwise consume all the many different things that are produced by human traditions, industry, and ingenuity. Besides having to compete in order to distinguish oneself from all of one’s contemporaries, the present flood of new works also tends to drown out or submerge, in their clamour to be seen, heard, read, appreciated, and lauded, the achievements of past ages. Hence, the inevitable result is that fewer and fewer of these past achievements are appreciated by living people, many of whom don’t have the time to do all the things they want to do. In other words, only a small number of the productions of past ages, whether movies, music, artworks, books, or other creations, are watched, listened to, seen, or read by living people. Just as in other matters of taste, there develops a standardization in the case of these works, so that the many works that deviate from them are often ignored and omitted from the “canon” of works that are regarded by most people as the great creations of artistic genius.[2] Since they are free to do so, the members of each generation judge, interpret, and evaluate the past according to their particular standards, tastes, and preferences, which may differ considerably from the standards, tastes, and preferences of those who lived in the past.

In general, people prefer the things with which and the persons with whom they are already familiar, whether in the foods they like to eat, the authors they enjoy reading, the clothes they wear, the events they attend, the movies they watch, and the kinds of people they associate with. This also applies to the kinds of people they find attractive. This simple fact about human preferences explains why, for example, television series or book or movie sequels that feature the same characters can be highly successful, even when they are not very good. In the film industry, certain actors or directors have a large audience of many millions of viewers who are willing to pay to see their latest film. Because they grow accustomed to the actor’s appearance, tone of voice, and mannerisms, or the director’s way of telling a story cinematographically, they enjoy seeing them or their work again in slightly different formats. This also explains why, when a popular artist, writer, actor, or director attempts to break free of the mold or pattern into which one has been categorized by one’s early successes, many viewers may dislike or reject the attempt when it deviates too much from the things one has done before. Success in many areas of human endeavour can be summarized succinctly as “novelty, but within the bounds of a well-defined format, tradition, genre, or style.”

Most people, I think, are aware of the great importance of early exposure to something in determining their preferences, abilities, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and tastes. Although it is not wholly deterministic, since these things can be altered or acquired later in life, the things that we learn, prefer, believe in, are exposed to, and are able to do early in life are usually stronger or more fully developed than the things that we encounter, are exposed to, and learn to do later in life.

But mere exposure is no guarantee that a person will like something. Because we are imitative and conforming creatures, generally speaking, this exposure must be associated with a person or persons whom we admire, for otherwise it can have the opposite effect of disinclining or prejudicing us towards the thing in question. To give an example, if a child is taken by one’s father or mother regularly to see classical musical performances, whether one admires or scorns that parent will have an important influence on whether or not one will enjoy these performances, and classical music in general. In addition, if one attends school, where one is forced to spend much of one’s time in the company of other children of the same age, then the things they enjoy doing, such as the kinds of music they listen to, will also have an influence on how one perceives the classical music performances one attends in the company of one’s parent. This also explains why the attempt by some parents to teach a foreign language to their child by exposing the child to the sounds of that language early in life may fail to have the desired effect, especially if that language is not spoken by any of the other students at the school one attends, or by the other people one associates with regularly.

Admiration and contempt beget a hierarchy of values: the things and persons we admire are accorded a high value, while the things and persons we scorn are accorded a low value, or are shunned, despised, and avoided. In addition, the degree of admiration and scorn determines the value we accord to different things and people: the stronger one’s admiration, then generally the higher we value the thing or person, while the stronger one’s scorn, then the less we value the thing or person. When a person attempts to rank different things or persons, whether one realizes it or not, one is attempting to determine the degree of one’s attachment, or lack of attachment, to them, which can be coloured by one’s admiration or contempt for them. This explains why these rankings are different for different people, why they can change with time in the case of the same person, and why we sometimes have difficulty deciding which of two or more things we prefer.

It is obvious that different individuals feel different degrees of admiration and contempt for the same thing or person, which explains why there can be such a variety of different opinions or valuations of them. Not everybody enjoys listening to the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, or Wagner; there are many people who find Shakespeare’s plays boring and incomprehensible; and not everyone agrees that the Mona Lisa is the greatest painting ever painted, or one of the greatest. The same is true of all widely admired persons, artworks, foods, or objects: even if the majority of people like, admire, or approve of them, there will be some persons who dislike, scorn, or disapprove of them. And even among those who express admiration, some of them are merely imitating or conforming to the majority opinion.

It follows from these statements about the way our tastes, preferences, attitudes, and opinions are formed that the free-market capitalists’ belief that whatever becomes dominant in the free market is superior to all other alternatives, since individuals are presumed to be rational decision-makers and, moreover, they are completely free in the choices they make, is not necessarily true. For clearly there are many companies that seek to gain dominance and encourage in consumers a preference for their particular product or products. In other words, by employing the highly-developed and finely-tuned methods of mass advertising and clever marketing ploys, such as early exposure to their products, companies attempt to develop in as many consumers as possible a strong – and hopefully lifelong – preference for their product.

Hence, it cannot always be concluded that the free-market outcome is the best outcome, or that the product that is most widely purchased is superior to alternative brands. For this market dominance may primarily be due to better marketing or a larger advertising budget. Those who assume that “the free market is always right” or that the free market never errs, and therefore its operations should never be interfered with, including by the government, make the same mistake as the author of the book I mentioned earlier, who assumed that the dominance of certain artists at a given time is an indication of innate or intrinsic superiority.

For instance, the fact that many people smoke is no indication of the beneficial nature of smoking, since it is a foolish habit that causes many smokers to suffer serious health problems later in life, while it curtails a large number of their lives prematurely. Similarly, some of the food and drink products that many people consume regularly are not good for them, especially when they are consumed in large quantities, as most companies want their consumers to do, for it leads to problems like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and malnutrition. Pharmaceutical companies make money by selling as many of their drugs to as many people as possible. Besides being expensive, some of these drugs are ineffective or have adverse side effects, and they create in people a dependence on the pharmaceutical industry for maintaining their health and well-being. Furthermore, they encourage the erroneous belief that the solution to any or all of life’s problems can be found in a drug or pill. More generally, the consumerist lifestyle that is advocated and encouraged by capitalism has begotten a way of life that is selfish, highly materialistic, polluting, and destructive of traditional human societies, other living organisms, and the natural environment.

In a sense, capitalism can be regarded as a game or model of behaviour which dictates that each individual and company shall seek to gain the greatest amount of material wealth, by employing all the means at one’s disposal, while competing fiercely with everyone else. In spite of its many flaws, it has been widely adopted by many governments and peoples around the world because, first, it has amply demonstrated that it is very good at creating wealth, while providing people with the things they need in order to survive. Second, there is no alternative system that has shown it is able to solve the pressing challenges of satisfying people’s needs while providing employment for a large portion of the population. Communism clearly demonstrated, by its spectacular and tragic real-world failure, that its proposed solution does not work very well.

But unbridled capitalism has many features that, in my opinion, make it a threat to the long-term survival of humanity, not to mention the survival of all the many other species which are currently disappearing at faster and faster rates.[3] For the success of capitalism is predicated on evoking artificial desires for many things that are not at all necessary for human survival, which makes it a highly destructive system of production. And the constant exhortation to produce everything at the lowest possible price has many harmful effects on both people and the natural environment.

The key question, then, is “How can we retain the beneficial aspects of capitalism, which are innovation, abundance of material things, and the creation of a large number of jobs, while we correct its many flaws, among which are a high degree of inequality, a great deal of unnecessary production and consumption, speculative activities that can destabilize societies while causing a large reduction in total demand and therefore in production and income, the destruction or erosion of traditional ways of life, and increased automation that reduces the number of jobs, with the consequent rising levels of unemployment in many countries, as capital is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people?”

The gist of the answer is that we need to recognize that some of the basic assumptions of capitalism are wrong, such as the belief that selfishness and greed are good, and therefore they should be encouraged and allowed to produce, unchecked and uncorrected, their many effects, whether these effects are good or bad. The belief that a human system that is as complex as capitalism, which involves the actions of billions of individuals in many different countries doing many different things, and, moreover, whose actions are liable to change in unpredictable ways, can be succinctly summarized by a few basic commanding principles – privatization, deregulation, trade liberalization, unbridled competition, minimal government interference, and so on – from which one should never deviate, is a naive view that is so preposterously ignorant of the complexities of reality that it is hard to believe that so many people have embraced these principles as a sort of economic gospel, whose truth, according to its fervent believers, has been established for all time and in all places, and therefore they should never be questioned, opposed, modified, or corrected.

In the development of any complex piece of machinery, such as a car, computer, or plane, although there is indeed a body of scientific principles that guide the actions of their developers, there arise a large number of problems that cannot be foreseen, and therefore can only be solved as they arise one by one. In the case of mechanical devices, there is a clear and immediate test of success, namely whether the device is able to perform the function one wants it to perform, and in the manner one wants it to behave. So, for example, if a plane crashes, the engine overheats or catches on fire, the steering mechanism does not work, and so on, then clearly there is something wrong in the plane’s design that needs to be corrected. But in the case of economics, even when things go wrong, there are many economists who refuse to admit that there is a flaw in their beliefs, so that they continue to insist that the theory on which their actions and recommendations are based is correct. This way of proceeding is comparable to an engineer or designer who stubbornly insists that there is nothing wrong with one’s design of a car, plane, or computer, in spite of the fact that it keeps crashing or malfunctioning.

It is precisely the free-market economists’ stubborn insistence, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that their theory is able to explain the complex reality of human societies, which today involve the actions of billions of people worldwide, that has caused so much harm to a very large number of people around the world. Economists need to show more humility by admitting that the processes which they study and pretend to understand are more complex than they realize, and therefore they must be prepared to modify or reject parts of their theory, while they tailor their policy recommendations to the particular situation, traditions, and history of a country’s inhabitants, and not proceed like a bunch of blind and ignorant dogmatists, just as the communists did before them, in the conviction that they know what is right and how to fix the economic problems that afflict the inhabitants of many countries around the world. For it is precisely when people behave dogmatically, by not recognizing and admitting that their views may be wrong, that they are most likely to cause harm, and sometimes great harm, to others.

[1] I no longer remember the author or title of the book, and so it is possible that I may have misremembered some of its other details. (More recently, with the aid of the Internet, I have been able to find its title, which is Extraordinary Minds by Howard Gardner. The four individuals he considers are Mozart, Freud, Woolf, and Gandhi.)

[2] Of course, the opposite phenomenon can also take place, when an artist who was despised, ridiculed, or ignored during one’s lifetime is later celebrated as an unrecognized, unappreciated, or undiscovered genius. This happens because the artist is in dissonance with one’s times and the kinds of things that are created by popular artists then. When, for whatever reason, the fashion later changes, a future society that is more in consonance with the artist’s works will find them more appealing than the artist’s contemporaries did. This is what is meant by the saying that an artist or other person was “ahead of one’s time.” Of course, the widespread popularity of the artist’s works will then have an imitative influence on the nature of the society whose members rate these works more highly than their predecessors did.

[3] It would be wrong to blame all of humanity’s present problems, such as overpopulation, entirely on capitalism. But by encouraging the overconsumption of many things, and by increasing the separation between production and consumption, so that large amounts of energy are used to produce, package, market and transport a great many products that people consume today, capitalism very clearly does contribute to the harmful effects which humans are having on the natural world, from which many of us believe we have successfully separated ourselves, and over which we now regard ourselves as the uncontested masters, but on which we still depend in numerous ways for our survival, both in the short and long term.