What Is Good Taste?

There’s a 90 minute video essay by CJ The X called Subjectivity In Art. At one point they have a discussion with Fantano (a well-known music YouTuber) on what is taste anyway. There’s a point there I found interesting.

Actually, the essay is definitely worth a watch (link). You probably shouldn’t just read what I have to say about a very specific point in an interesting take on the subject. That is if you can take the hypermanic style CJ The X has. It took me a while, but it was worth getting past that, because he does research his stuff very well despite the seemingly barely controlled chaos of the video.

So, the point I want to dwell on here is basically this: If we somehow have two people, who like exactly the same things, one of them might have a good taste, while the other has a bad taste. How? Depends on how you came to a specific conclusion.

Let’s say these two people both like Blazing Saddles. One of them sees it as a funny takedown of the corruption in political systems by capitalism and the systematic as well as very concrete racism that permeates the society. The other likes it because farts. Of course, both viewpoints are valid. Who doesn’t enjoy a nice fart. (See how I didn’t even pose that as a question.) Sophistication on these matters does count. It’s just up to you whether that’s what you are interested in.

But Fantano goes further. He requires a deeper understanding of the music as an artform for ones taste to be good. He talks about being able to identify and understand different sounds in the music. I think that’s a limited point of view. I think there’s a whole different world out there. I think understanding contexts is also important for good taste.

Take Black Girl (La noire de… in French, you can find it on YouTube) for example. It’s a pretty simple movie where technique doesn’t really come into play. It’s about Diouana, a young girl from Senegal, who thinks she has scored a nice gig with a French couple as a nanny, but as she moves to Europe with them, she discovers that the children are away and she basically becomes a domestic slave with no opportunity to leave.

This was actually the first feature length movie ever made south of Sahara. There isn’t much in the way of sophisticated filming techniques or great acting… and yet, enough people among film professionals love it that it made the top 100 in the Sight & Sound Poll of 2022. It’s also the third highest rated African movie on the list (or second, if you don’t count Battle for Algiers, the other higher movie being Touki Bouki).

Are these people wrong, because the movie doesn’t offer really anything from a technical point of view? The story and the character of Diouana (and possibly the ending) made enough of an impression on a bunch of people to elevate into this status. They can see past the lack of interesting shots (not that the movie is completely devoid of those), emotional music or Oscar-speeches and see the heart of the movie. Based on Fantano’s rule (or how he explains it in the essay), this would be wrong. I doubt he would maintain his rule if actually confronted by it, because he does seem smart.

But I am elitist enough to buy into the idea that not all taste is equal and the difference between tastes is not in what you like, but why you like it.

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