Monday, February 28, 2011

Acquired Taste


When a friend of mine came into some money several years ago, he immediately set about acquiring a taste for all the fine things that were suddenly affordable to him. He visited wineries in California and bought expensive red wines by the case. He visited tobacco shops that had their own humidors and took up smoking expensive cigars.

On a trip to Spain, he stopped off in Morocco and bought an expensive rug. When the rug arrived at his home in Iowa, he contacted an appraiser to examine it and tell him its fair market value. Fascinated, I watched him as he waited anxiously for the appraiser to call him back with his verdict. I thought that he bought the rug because he thought it was a beautiful object that would adorn his beautiful home.(1) He seemed more concerned that he may have been cheated by a Moroccan rug dealer. When he learned that the rug was worth considerably more than what he paid for it, the look of relief on his face made me chuckle.

Then he decided that he should learn, with my assistance, to like single-malt scotch whisky. We chose a suitable-looking 15-year-old scotch, and every day he poured a go into a glass and we both drank it slowly, wincing all the way. We repeated this painful exercise for three more days before he gave up, disappointed that a taste for expensive scotch was beyond his powers of acquisition.

Throughout my life, I too have sometimes tried to like some things that I thought I should. Spinach and mashed potatoes. Guinness and India Pale Ale. Brahms and Schumann. Abstract Expressionism. Jean-Luc Godard and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. After all these years, I'm no closer to liking them than I was when I started. In some cases, when an aesthetic standard isn't involved, I can simply call my inability to like them a difference in taste and not worry about being right or wrong. It's only when an aesthetic scruple collides with a political one that a matter of taste gets complicated.

Norman Rockwell, The Saturday Evening Post illustrator, probably knew a thing or two about Jackson Pollock when he painted "The Connoisseur," shown above. A well-dressed older gentleman stands smack in front of a painting that looks for all the world like one of Jack the Dripper's works. Rockwell makes us wonder what the man holding his hat and gloves behind him must be thinking. The title suggests that he might be admiring the painting. But, if so, why is he standing so close to the canvas? Pollock worked with his canvases flat on the floor. Is Rockwell's connoisseur absorbed in scrutinizing a particular area of paint droppings? Or is Rockwell trying to tell us something about the absurdity of an art enthusiast looking totally out of place before a work of art that has substance but no identifiable purpose? Was he saying that he simply didn't like such a labored and overrated abstraction? (2)

Speaking of Schumann, Samuel Butler commented in his Notebooks in 1919:

"I should like to like Schumann's music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all."


(1) My friend did something clever when he visited his local art gallery and saw a painting that consisted of three slabs of solid color of equal size. He went to a paint store and got a book of swatches and went back to the gallery to match the colors the artist used. He then bought a blank canvas, bought cans of the matching paint and made a perfect copy of the gallery artwork. I was only happy that he hadn't seen Mark Rothko's painting "White over Red".
(2) I recommend Randall Jarrell's essay "Against Abstract Expressionism" - "A great many people are perfectly willing to sit on a porcupine if you first exhibit it at the Museum of Modern Art and say that it is a chair. In fact, there is nothing – nothing in the whole world that somebody won't buy and sit in if you tell him that it’s a chair. It’s the great new art form of our age."

1 comment:

Frank said...

Have you seen the movie "Mona Lisa Smile"? There is a horrible scene of Julia Roberts taking her students to a gallery and one of Pollock's big canvases is unveiled. Roberts walks up to it like she's been pole-axed and puts her face about a foot away from the surface of what looks like Pollock's vomit.