Reality Check: Good Taste is Good for You

Amanda Shepard, Vice President & COO

Recently, I was asked to reflect on the term “good taste” in art as it relates to the spiritual life by a friend who had just come to own a work of art for the first time. Though creatively sensitive, he wasn’t sure how to look at his new piece or appreciate it on a deep level. He asked me if I thought good taste was just a mark of elitism, or if it could be something more positive and meaningful, like a facet of the spiritually aware person.

This concept of good taste is an easy thing to write off in American culture, many eschewing the term to avoid becoming an “art snob” or aesthetically fussy. Given the options (fussy vs. completely clueless), it follows that many choose neither and often end up rejecting a rewarding experience with art altogether. I want to propose a third way to approach this concept. We don’t need to throw it out altogether and never cultivate our visual palate, nor do we need to use it as a way to set ourselves apart as culturally superior people. What we do need is to consider good taste an essential element of the development of our inner world, that place where our spirit resides.

Many people are already well-practiced in this pursuit; others are intimidated by it. Almost daily I hear the well-meaning defenses “I don’t know anything about art,” or “I’m about as creative as a cardboard box.” In my response, which always involves a gentle absolution from this perceived character flaw, I smile inside because I have just met the FWMoA’s favorite customer: the person who says they don’t know anything about art.

It’s not that I don’t believe someone when they say this, it’s that I don’t believe one needs to know about art (in the way we know facts about a subject) to appreciate it or understand it. I’ve spent 13 years at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art working to convince thousands of people every year that the art that we collect and exhibit is for everyone, and this message has special emphasis for those with no background or training in art. And yet, many are still unsure if we really mean this personally, if they are included in the “art for everyone” message. I have a hunch that many people compare themselves to an imaginary art expert with a club membership to the special, insider circles of “people who know a lot about art,” and that museums are the clubhouses of such people.

I never grow tired of showing people that this simply isn’t true, but that doesn’t mean I’m not met with some food for thought along the way. I often hear the opinion that not only is beauty in the eye of the beholder (that it’s relative), but that to have “good taste” in art is to be exclusive and elitist. In fact, simply because in my job I actively play a role in determining what we exhibit implies that I am defining some art as “good” and others as “bad” — and therefore acting as a cultural gatekeeper with my own personal opinions as my guide. Though I have my favorites, good curation doesn’t reject art based on a simplistic emotional reaction. Good viewership doesn’t do this either.

FWMoA visitors interact with an exhibition. Photography by Bambi Guthrie. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

I feel compelled, therefore, to make the case for good taste, since two of the most common attitudes toward art are either elitism or total ignorance. Though difficult to quantify, developing good taste in art will yield countless spiritual riches, and knowing good art when you see it is a gift and a great joy. Good taste, as I define it, is not the ability to reject something as “good” or “bad,” but to be able to observe and appreciate the medium, mastery, and meaning of a work of art. This isn’t a move to distinguish you as an especially cultured person apart from everyone else. This pursuit should be ordered to developing a greatness of our inner world that leads us to contemplate the unseen.

If art is born of the private room in which an artist alone explores their mind, soul, and relationship to the visible and invisible world, then I believe the rest of us, who have all these things, have what it takes to tap into the very things that will lead us to developing a taste for art.

What is good taste? Let’s start with beauty. We shouldn’t have a conversation about art without it, and it’s important to acknowledge that countless philosophers have sought to pin down this concept with definitions. Greek philosopher Pythagoras saw the connection between beauty and mathematics, suggesting that beauty is characterized by proportion, symmetry, and balance. Plato elevated beauty as the ultimate idea, and Aristotle linked it to virtue. Later, Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century expanded on these philosophies as he described beauty as one of three “transcendentals”—things that describe being itself. For Aquinas, the attributes of beauty are wholeness, proportion, and radiance. Here, we come to a puzzle in our discussion: beauty transcends what can be found through the scientific method, yet it has recognizable properties. This phenomenon can best be illustrated by describing an experience of beauty: in its fullness, beauty has an arresting quality that stops us in awe. We know it when we see it (and we don’t need to agree to discern it).

Certainly, not all art stops us in our tracks with its great beauty. In fact, many examples of art of the last century might even be called ugly. This does not mean that there aren’t beautiful qualities of such work, nor do we need to dismiss it out of hand. What we should do is learn to appreciate the elements I just mentioned of medium, mastery, and meaning. In doing so, we spend time learning how something was made and attempt to discern what the artist means when they make a particular thing in a particular way. With this process, we move beyond the hasty exercise of putting art into the “like” or “dislike” category.

Let’s start with medium. By this I simply mean the material with which art is made. Examples include wood, bronze, acrylic, graphite, film, and so on. You don’t need an art degree to find out the medium of a work—the next time you visit FWMoA check out the artwork label and look for the medium. Spending time with the medium of the work is important because the artist has chosen this particular material for this work, which is essential to the successful conveyance of meaning. For example, a wooden sculpture does not say the same thing as it would in bronze, and a watercolor expresses an aesthetic message that oil paint simply can’t. The voluptuous body of oil paint is inherently distinct from the free-flowing fragility of watercolor, and so when an artist chooses one type of paint over another, they are consciously aware that one might better convey their intentions than another. An artist chooses their medium for a specific purpose and takes this decision seriously.

The second element of looking at art is learning to appreciate mastery.Mastery, as I’m using it, describes how an artist chooses to execute certain artistic processes according to widely accepted properties of aesthetically mature art. I know there’s a lot of room for subjectivity there, and the nonconformist will want to rebel when I say things like “widely accepted” or “aesthetically mature.” In fact, so much of modern art can be seen as deliberately defying those conventions or attempting to rewrite them altogether. The number of volumes written on the complexity of modern art is well beyond the scope of my commentary, and I don’t mean to judge the quality or value of modern art in using it as an example. When we talk about mastery, we should instead be focusing on the choices the artist makes with their chosen medium, and then attempt to judge how appropriate those choices are to the medium. For example, we can tell when an artist is not as advanced when they fail to understand that charcoal is messy and therefore must be controlled in a way that doesn’t obscure or distract from the subject. Another example is a photographer who fails to understand focus or exposure and thus ends up creating an image that falls short of our aesthetic expectations. An artist must know their medium well, and the extent to which they can master it to use it for their ultimate purpose of conveying meaning is key to art that satisfies us with its profound power.

I tend to think about meaning in art as the reality that the artist wants to share with us. Growing up, I remember experiencing intense moments of different images coming together to form a painting in my mind. You’ve probably heard other artists describe this experience—of being seized by an idea and feeling so compelled to make it a tangible reality that they would almost stop at nothing to make it so.  These moments are intense, fleeting, sometimes life-altering, and very often serve as the spark for creative activity.

An artist is really no different than the average person who wants to experience and create meaning. This is why it’s so important for us to try to understand what it is the artist wants to say and how they are saying it. The funny thing, though, about meaning in art is that it can be so elusive and hidden from us. Art can be confusing, even maddening. It takes work sometimes to discern its meaning, but that’s what makes art so much more fulfilling than fast entertainment. Now, art can be criticized as an elite person’s pursuit, and art museums can sometimes be rejected by some as places that foster esoteric knowledge for specially trained art experts. But this is only true if we place the most emphasis on knowing facts about art: its history, its patronage, its sociopolitical context, and so on. What I want to suggest is that knowing these things has little to do with the revelatory experience that you, in this time and place, can have with a wonderful work of art from any time or place.

Sure, having a background in art might make your experience more intellectually rich if that’s what you enjoy, and I will concede that we should educate ourselves to some degree on the basics of art, with an emphasis on understanding materials and processes that will pull back the veil for us on how great work is made. Understanding how something was made is an introduction to knowing why something was made. Still, artists don’t create a work of art intending that its viewer needs to have a lot of factual data under their belt to enjoy it. In fact, most artists would be heartbroken if they knew that this would be a barrier between their art and the world.

What you do need to experience meaning in art is a willingness to engage with it, and to stay there for a while. To use your own senses to take in its properties and pay attention to and explore the reactions you have when you look at it. Learn to have a dialogue with a work of art. Empathize with the subjects. Imagine yourself in the scene or imagine yourself as the artist making the work. Look intently at the material and observe how it’s been used. Be humble. Be willing to stand before something and listen for what you might hear when you do.

This is difficult to do with art because it challenges us to be vulnerable to the fact that we might not have the answers or an immediate response to a work of art. We are worried that if we don’t immediately “get” it, then we’re not doing something right or aren’t qualified to look at it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The artist wants to share something profound with us, and we should be open to that, however inexperienced we may seem to ourselves.

FWMoA visitors interact with an exhibition. Photography by Bambi Guthrie. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

How does meaning relate to good taste? I’ve suggested that good taste can be developed by understanding some objective criteria about materials and such, but I’ve concluded by saying that meaning is experienced on subjective terms. After all, many fair-minded people could each come to different conclusions about the same work of art. For many artists, this is a good thing. I hear all the time that artists make their work from their deepest personal place, but they are delighted when they know that their work means different things to different people. They don’t want their art pigeon-holed by absolutes. Though unique our experiences of art may be, we still must be ready to look at the choices of the artist and understand how powerful they are in leading us to encounter meaning in their work.

I think this ability might come more naturally to those who spend time in their inner world contemplating the mysteries of life, human existence, and our relationship to the eternal. These mysteries can hardly be adequately described in plain English, which is why art is the consummate medium for conveying these opaque experiences. The knowledge we come to learn through events, nature, and the tiny, intuitive voice of our conscience is analogous to the language of colors, shapes, material, and form that artists use. Good taste, more than anything, is an understanding of this language that is learned through our willingness to commune with art and coming to understand what the artist did and why they did it. The key to this is engagement, rather than expertise. You don’t learn to develop the language of artists without spending time with their art.

Once we can do this, we are in a better place to judge how far the artist has pushed material and mastery to share meaning with us. How far have they pushed the envelope in pursuit of excellence? Have they shown us something we’ve never seen before? Are we in awe of this work? Are they using their material in a way that astounds us?  Learn to read these reactions. We want to be able to recognize artistic excellence when we see it. But why? Because just as we strive to rise out of mediocrity, so an artist climbs the perilous mountain toward making great work. When an artist fights for great work, and we learn to recognize that, we are mirroring our own desire for the growth of ourselves.

What we want for our lives is what an artist wants for their work. Throughout our entire lives, we are continuously being formed into the person we will become. An artist does this with their material—wrestles with it, carves away the excess, wipes it away, fires it in the kiln—all to bring about a unique, unrepeatable, and precious new creation. These new creations, loved by the artist so completely, are ready to bestow beauty and goodness on the world.

Originally written and given as the keynote speech at the Catholic Creatives Virtual Summit. Original speech was edited and condensed for the blog.

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