A List Apart

Nishant Kothary on the Human Web

Good Taste Doesn’t Matter

A couple of days after Macklemore took home this year’s Grammy for Best Rap Album, Slate pop critic Jack Hamilton wrote a scathing reaction titled Don’t hate Macklemore because he’s white. Hate him because his music is terrible. Somewhere between comparing Macklemore to Upworthy—“Macklemore is the rap game Upworthy: He hawks hip-hop that switches out faked emotion for real intellect and faked intellect for real emotion”—and putting anyone that enjoys Macklemore’s music in one of three categories—shallow, dull, or even immoral—Hamilton listed the reasons why Macklemore’s music was bad: his beats and melodies are cliché, his lyricism is weak, and Macklemore is blatantly profiting off his white privilege and hypocrisy. (I have to confess that I had no clue that Upworthy had already jumped the shark.)

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What was most interesting about Hamilton’s piece was the unfortunate, but abundantly common, message hidden between the lines: if you enjoy Macklemore, you have terrible taste in music.

So, let’s talk about taste.

Anything you can do (I can do better)

Hamilton’s reaction is pretty representative of our individual attitudes toward subjectivity (or, if you prefer agnostic terminology, unknowability). We acknowledge that our tastes, whether they be religious, political, musical, aesthetic, and so on, are uniquely ours. But simmering just below the surface is the magma of reasons for why my tastes are better than yours. And given the right circumstances—such as an award ceremony that promises to determine the best music across today’s genres—the magma rages to the surface.

Hamilton almost catches himself mid-eruption with his nod to “a Times piece far more levelheaded than this one,” but it’s short-lived. Once the eruption is underway, there’s not much you can do except watch its bubbly awesomeness incinerate rhyme and reason.

I think we all could relate to Hamilton’s dormant rage, if not specifically for or against Macklemore or even with regards to musical selection. But when it comes to the reasoning provided, it doesn’t take a philosopher to deduce that his is circular and shaky, and barely makes a dent in trying to prove that Macklemore’s music is objectively terrible.

What is abundantly clear, though, is that Hamilton sees no beauty in Macklemore’s music.

And that’s OK. We are all entitled to our Celine Dions.

Hume-r me

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder is a notion that we take for granted. But often our words and actions give away our true feelings. Deep down (or actually, just below the surface), we don’t seem to really believe that beauty is subjective.

Tomes have been written about this question across the arts and sciences. One of the most holistic, succinct, cited, and relevant analyses that has stood the test of time is an essay by the 17th century philosopher David Hume. Titled Of the Standard of Taste, Hume’s essay was one of the first to explore the existence of an objective beauty. And it continues to lay the foundation for the debate even today.

Like a brilliant politician, Hume managed to (almost) convincingly argue both sides of the debate—that beauty is subjective and it is objective—in one eloquent breath. “To seek in the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter,” he wrote, just a few paragraphs before making the seemingly contradictory assertion, “A true judge in the finer arts is observed, even during the most polished ages, to be so rare a character; Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

The gist of Hume’s essay seems to be that beauty does lie in the eye of the beholder, but that some beholders are better able to identify that elusive, but existent, true beauty. Hume even provided a five-part litmus test—strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice—for identifying these truly skilled beholders.

It’s the final condition that exposes the chink in his argument’s armor, even today: cleared of all prejudice.

The elephant in the room

Three centuries since its publication, what we do know for fact thanks to advances in too many fields to list (but here’s a sampling), is that prejudice runs so deep that you’re never cleared of all of it. Sometimes our prejudices develop firm roots over time nurtured by the abundance of cognitive biases that affect our thoughts and actions every second. In other cases, as this excellent Upworthy video demonstrates, you can change what you find beautiful in 60 seconds flat. The result in either case is the same: our reasoning, no matter how sound it may seem or eloquent it may sound, is always tainted.

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt brings together research from a variety of fields to unequivocally conclude, “Reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth. Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.”

Taking it one step further, Haidt also provides a poignant metaphor for how our minds truly work:

The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.

The implications of Haidt’s conclusion to the question at hand—Is there such a thing as true beauty?—is that the answer will never be a “yes” if supported only by reason.

Ironically, to prove that something is objectively beautiful, you will need to furnish more than just reasoning. Whether it’s seemingly objective (like Hume’s) or suspiciously subjective (like Hamilton’s) is mostly irrelevant.

In conclusion: kill your idols

This brings us to the obvious question for product designers: what does all of this mean to me professionally? How does it apply to designing products that are aesthetically pleasing? Does it even matter?

Even though it doesn’t sound like it, I am a believer in the notion that taste is a supremely important characteristic of good product design. But it seems clear to me the effort to acquire good taste, something that we’re very enamored with in our current design culture, is a mostly futile enterprise. In fact, it’s downright counterproductive. This is because good and virtuous taste, by its very nature, is exclusionary; it only exists relative to shallow, dull, and apparently, immoral tastes. And if good design is about finding the most appropriate solution to the problem at hand, you don’t want to start out with a solution set that has already excluded a majority of the possibilities compliments of the unicorn that is good taste.

Good taste is a myth. A story our rider creates to serve the needs of the elephant. And the sooner you kill your good taste idol, the sooner you’re going to give yourself a chance to be a better designer. It frees you up to add taste as another tool in your designer’s toolbox. Consequently, instead of focusing on good taste, your focus becomes the right taste for the problem at hand. There’s a subtle but profound difference.

An added benefit of killing your good taste idol is one that’s characteristic of all types of idolatry homicide: it is emotionally freeing. Where you once spent your time protecting the fragile shrine you built for your preferred sensibilities, whether they are excited by flat colors, skeuomorphism, tight grids, loose grids, subtle shadows, three-dimensionality, or countless other things, you are now freed up to dedicate those brain cycles to the quest for solving your problem as broadly and well as possible. And the best part is that you don’t end up riding the emotional roller coaster that’s part and parcel of all idol worship. If someone doesn’t like something, you don’t take it personally because, well, it isn’t personal to you anymore. It’s just feedback, and most often, it’s useful.

As for the Grammy for Best Rap Album? Here’s what’s fair in my opinion.

If you tell someone that Kendrick Lamar should have won instead of Macklemore, that’s completely justified. But if you erupt with the reasoning that his music is objectively better than Macklemore’s, don’t be surprised when they respond with something along the lines of Lamar’s own lyric: Bitch, don’t kill my vibe.

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