Critique of Judgment

In sociology, taste is an individual’s personal and cultural patterns of choice and preference. It is drawing qualitative distinctions between things such as styles, manners, consumer goods, and works of art. Aesthetic preferences and attendance to various cultural events are associated with education and social origin. Different socioeconomic groups are likely to have different tastes, and social class is one of the most prominent factors structuring taste. The concept of aesthetics has been the interest of philosophers such as Plato, Hume and Kant, who understood it as something pure and searched for the ‘essence of beauty,’ the ontology of taste. But it was not until the beginning the early 19th century that the question was problematized in its social context.

In his aesthetic philosophy, Kant denies any standard of a good taste, which would be the taste of the majority or any social group. For Kant, beauty is not a property of an object, but a judgement based on a subjective feeling. He claims that even if a universal, non-relativistic ‘good taste’ does exist, it can not be empirically identified, or found in any standards or generalizations, and the validity of a judgement is not the general view of the majority or some specific social group. Taste is both personal and beyond reasoning, and therefore disputes over matters of taste never reach a finite conclusion. Kant stresses that our preferences, even on generally liked things, do not justify our judgements.

However, every judgement of taste, according to Kant, presumes the existence of a ‘sensus communis,’ a common sense of taste. This imagined consensus enables judgements of taste. It does not take for granted that everyone agrees with it, but invites the community to share in the experience. There is a proposition of a universal communal voice in judgements of taste, which calls for a shared feeling among the others. Kant’s idea of good taste excludes fashion (popular, and often fleeting, trends in taste), which can be understood only in its empirical form, and has no connection with the harmony of ideal consensus. Fashion in a Kantian sense is an aesthetic phenomenon and source of pleasure. For Kant, the function of fashion was merely a means of social distinction, and he excluded fashion from pure aesthetics because of its contents’ arbitrary nature.

20th century philosopher Pierre Bourdieu argued against Kantian view of pure aesthetics, stating that the legitimate taste of the society is the taste of the ruling class. This position also rejects the idea of genuine good taste, as the legitimate taste is merely a class taste. This idea was also proposed by 19th century philosopher Georg Simmel, who noted that the upper classes abandon fashions as they are adopted by lower ones. Simmel, following Kantian thought, recognizes the usefulness of fashionable objects in its social context. For him, fashion is a tool of individuation, social distinction, and even class distinction, which are neither utilitarian or aesthetic criteria. Still, both Kant and Simmel agreed that staying out of fashion would be pointless.

Taste and consumption are closely linked together. Taste as a preference for certain types of clothing, food and other commodities directly affects consumer choices in the marketplace. In economics, consumption presumes that ‘supply creates its own demand.’ In other words consumption is created by and equates itself to production of market goods. A more complex economic model for taste and consumption was proposed by economist Thorstein Veblen. He challenged the simple conception of man as plain consumer of his utmost necessities. Veblen did not disregard the importance of the demand for an economic system, but rather insisted on rejection of the principle of utility-maximization. He understood man as a creature with a strong instinct to emulate others to survive. As social status is in many cases at least partially based on or represented by one’s property, men tend to try and match their acquisitions with those who are higher in a social hierarchy.

In terms of taste and modern consumption this means that taste forms in a process of emulation: people emulate each other, which creates certain habits and preferences, which in turn contributes to consumption of certain preferred goods. He took his thesis of taste as an economic factor and merged it with the neoclassical hypothesis of nonsatiety, which states that no man can ever be satisfied with his fortune. Hence, those who can afford luxuries are bound to be in a better social situation than others, because acquisition of luxuries by definition grants a good social status. This creates a demand for certain leisure goods, that are not necessities, but that, because of the current taste of the most well off, become wanted commodities. He further argued that distancing oneself from hardships of productive labor has always been the conclusive sign of high social status. Hence, upper-class taste is not defined by things regarded as necessary or useful but by those that are the opposite. To demonstrate non-productivity, members of the so-called ‘leisure class’ waste conspicuously both time and goods. The lower social stratum try their best to imitate the non-productive lifestyle of the upper classes, even though they do not really have means for catching up.

In different eras consumption and its societal functions have varied. In 14th century England consumption had significant political element. By creating an expensive luxurious aristocratic taste the Monarchy could legitimize itself in high status, and, by mimicking the taste of the Royals the nobility competed for high social position. The aristocratic scheme of consumption came to an end, when industrialization made the rotation of commodities faster and prices lower, and the luxuries of the previous times ceased to be an indicator of social status. The era of mass consumption marked yet another new kind of consumption and taste pattern. Beginning from the 18th century, this period can be characterized by the birth of fashions that cannot be accurately explained only by social status. More than establishing their class, people acquired goods just to consume hedonistically. This means, that the consumer is never satisfied, but constantly seeks out novelties and tries to satisfy insatiable urge to consume. Whereas before, taste was seen as something that presupposes consumption, which exists before consumer choices (i.e. a property of a consumer or a social group), in this new paradigm taste is no longer merely an attribute but an activity onto itself.

Consumption, especially mass consumerism has been criticized from various philosophical, cultural and political directions. Consumption can be deemed as overly conspicuous or environmentally untenable, and it can also be a mark, perhaps ironically, of bad taste. For example, McDonald’s can be seen as a monument to the cultural imperialism of the West. ‘McDonaldization’ has come to describe the process by which a massive and homogeneous corporate entity expands into every quarter of the world, wiping out smaller ethnic enterprises and food cultures in the process. The efficiency and convenience of getting the same hamburger all over the world can easily surpass the interest for ethnic experiences. The Western culture of consumerism is particularly reviled for its uniformity. While the culture industry promises consumers new experiences and adventures, people in fact are fed the same repeating pattern of swift but temporary fulfillment of needs. Here taste can be seen as a means of repression that does not fill people with aesthetic and cultural satisfaction.

Despite these new developments, class dynamics is still understood as one of the principal mechanisms structuring taste and the ideas of sophistication and vulgarity. But it is not just that patterns of taste are determined by class structure. Also, people may strategically employ distinctions of taste as resources in maintaining and redefining their social status. When taste is explained on account of its functions for status competition, interpretations are often built on the model of social emulation. It is assumed, firstly, that people desire to distinguish themselves from those with lower status in the social hierarchy and, secondly, that people will imitate those in higher positions. Members of the upper classes therefore act as the initiators of new trends. But upper-class taste is soon imitated by the middle classes. As goods, appearances, manners etc. conceived as high-class status markers become popular enough, they lose their function to differentiate. So the upper classes have to originate yet more stylistic innovations.

Bourdieu asserted that the tastes of social classes are determined by the possibilities and constraints of social action. Some choices are not equally possible for everyone. The constraints are not simply because members of different classes have varying amounts of economic resources at their disposal. Bourdieu argued that there are also significant non-economic resources and their distribution effects social stratification and inequality. One such resource is cultural capital, which is acquired mainly through education and social origin. It consists of accumulated knowledge and competence for making cultural distinctions. To possess cultural capital is a potential advantage for social action, providing access to education credentials, occupations and social affiliation. By assessing relationships between consumption patterns and the distribution of economic and cultural capital, Bourdieu identified distinct class tastes within French society of the 1960s. Upper-class taste is characterized by refined and subtle distinctions, and it places intrinsic value on aesthetic experience. This particular kind of taste was appreciated and acknowledged by the other classes as well. Consequently, members of the middle classes appeared to practice ‘cultural goodwill’ in emulating the high-class manners and lifestyles. The taste of the middle classes is not defined as much by authentic appreciation for aesthetics as by a desire to compete in social status. In contrast, the popular taste of the working classes is defined by an imperative for ‘choosing the necessary.’ Not much importance is placed on aesthetics. This may be because of actual material deprivation excluding anything but the necessary but, also, because of a habit, formed by collective class experiences (e.g. an unwillingness to engage in wasteful practices even if they are economically feasible).

Theories of taste which build on the ideas of status competition and social emulation cannot explain all phenomena associated with the idea of aesthetics. For example, tastes and lifestyles are not always diffusing downwards from the upper classes. In some situations the diffusion of tastes move the other way, as when the upper classes in America appropriated blue jeans from the working class. It has also been argued that the association between social class and taste is no longer quite as strong as it used to be. For instance, theorists of the Frankfurt School claim that the diffusion of mass cultural products has obscured class differences in capitalist societies. Products consumed passively by members of different social classes are virtually all the same, with only superficial differences regarding to brand and genre. Additionally, consumer tastes are being influenced less by traditional social structures, as individuals play with free-floating signifiers to perpetually redefine themselves with whatever it is that they find pleasurable.

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