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)#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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.

14 Reader Comments

  1. A great read, Nishant.
    Taste. It’s indefineable. Steve Jobs said (in the 90’s) that Microsoft had no taste. That was his view. Some interpretations of taste are more widely held than others. I like that you’re suggesting we go for a version of taste that we hold for ourselves.
    Also: the Pacific Northwest is a secretly tasteful place to live!

  2. This rings true for me as a student since everything I design is based on preceding design.

    I’m a huge music critic, but you’ve got some valid points. Uneducated listeners still drive me insane when they qualify top 40 as innovative though.

  3. Nishant, I enjoyed your article. Though I have my own take on the subject—I believe good taste is not only real but necessary—that’s not what got me writing.

    What got me writing is Hume. The quotes you’ve pulled from the introduction to his essay certainly seem to support what you’re saying, but there is a fair amount of text beyond, and those constructions above do not accurately reflect his position.

    When he says “free of prejudice” he does not mean free of preference, which is how I interpreted your words (and please correct me if I’m wrong); he means the intellectual capacity and good sense, attained through practice and experience, to judge an object on its own merits, by comparing “between the several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other.” A rare quality, yes, but so is good in art.

    In fact, Hume’s supporting example to the quote above details EXACTLY what good design does: it speaks to its audience.

    “We may observe, that every work of art, in order to produce its due effect on the mind, must be surveyed in a certain point of view, and not be fully relished by persons, whose situation, real or imaginary, is not conformable to that which is required by the performance. An orator addresses himself to a particular audience, and must have a regard to their particular genius, interests, opinions, passions, and prejudices; otherwise he hopes in vain to govern their resolutions, and inflame their affections. Should they even have entertained some prepossessions against him, however unreasonable, he must not overlook this disadvantage; but, before he enters upon the subject, must endeavour to conciliate their affection, and acquire their good graces. A critic of a different age or notion, who should peruse this discourse, must have all these circumstances in his eye, and must place himself in the same situation as the audience, in order to form a true judgment of the oration. … A person influenced by prejudice, complies not with this condition; but obstinately maintains his natural position, without placing himself in that point of view, which the performance supposes.”

    So I think Hume might argue that your issue is with Hamilton as an inferior critic, because he did not recognize that Macklemore may very well speak more directly to the Grammy voters and the Grammy audience than Lamar (which is true). So if Hamilton’s reaction is the foundation that your argument builds on, it seems an issue of sense and sentiment, not taste. To Hume, anyway.

    Well, Hume would probably dismiss the Grammys entirely as an award of public sentiment, and not at all a subject worthy of a discussion on taste. But that’s a different article. Part 2, maybe?

  4. “Where you once spent your time protecting the fragile shrine you built for your preferred sensibilities [taste], whether they are excited by flat colors, skeuomorphism, tight grids, loose grids, subtle shadows, three-dimensionality, or countless other things, …”

    But the examples you’ve listed are “styles” – which can be executed in good “taste,” or be mishandled by poor judgement (or “taste”).

  5. The fact that you credit the DNews video on images and beauty as an Upworthy video demonstrates part of what is objectionable about Upworthy — that they get (take?) credit for other people’s content. Crediting Upworthy for that content is like crediting your local movie theater for producing the Hollywood blockbuster it’s showing.

  6. @MJ — Thanks for a very thoughtful comment, Michael. I’m going to do my best to respond to each part.

    What got me writing is Hume. The quotes you’ve pulled from the introduction to his essay certainly seem to support what you’re saying, but there is a fair amount of text beyond, and those constructions above do not accurately reflect his position.

    I struggled in picking the right quotes (if there is such a thing), but I thought those two provided a fair representation of his argument. At least how I interpreted his essay.

    When he says “free of prejudice” he does not mean free of preference, which is how I interpreted your words (and please correct me if I’m wrong); he means the intellectual capacity and good sense, attained through practice and experience, to judge an object on its own merits, by comparing “between the several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other.” A rare quality, yes, but so is good in art.

    This is where our takes may diverge. I actually did not mean preference. I meant prejudice. Cognitive bias, to be precise. I believe that no amount of practice and experience can clear us of prejudice.

    I am heavily influenced by the work of folks like Ariely, Ramachandran, Taleb, and Eagleman to name a few. I think that Haidt, whom I referenced in this piece, did a great job of taking all of my influences and constructing an argument about morality that I buy, but it applies wonderfully to everything from design to music criticism. There are just too many studies today that, in combination with my personal experience of “Being Wrong” (another great book loosely related to this topic), make it hard to take critics seriously these days. Specifically, criticism that attempts make some point about objective beauty and taste. It always comes back to the The Red and The White dilemma for me.

    In fact, Hume’s supporting example to the quote above details EXACTLY what good design does: it speaks to its audience.

    — Hume quote —

    Hume and I are in complete agreement here.

    So I think Hume might argue that your issue is with Hamilton as an inferior critic, because he did not recognize that Macklemore may very well speak more directly to the Grammy voters and the Grammy audience than Lamar (which is true).

    Indeed. But I would counter, “What is a superior critic?” Every answer I’ve received to that question slides down the slippery slope to arrive at the fictitious (to me, anyway) critic who has overcome cognitive bias. In some circles, that would be equivalent to calling someone super (or sub, depending on your perspective) human. I wonder if Hume would change his view on prejudice in light of all the evidence we have now that wasn’t available in his time.

    So if Hamilton’s reaction is the foundation that your argument builds on, it seems an issue of sense and sentiment, not taste. To Hume, anyway.

    Probably, but I’m arguing that they go hand in hand. I think Hamilton just argued his case less eloquently than a skilled and experienced critic of impeccable sense and sentiment. Part of good criticism is good politics, after all. And I’d be more inclined to accept that criticism so long as it didn’t attempt to bring objective and true and mathematical certainty into the argument. That’s where criticism starts missing the forest for the trees (unless, of course, you make a living as a critic, then it’s a great strategy).

    Well, Hume would probably dismiss the Grammys entirely as an award of public sentiment, and not at all a subject worthy of a discussion on taste.

    Probably. There were far better criticisms (published on Slate even) of the whole Macklemore debacle.

    That said, even if you take away my interpretation of Hume’s essay, the gist of my argument remains: a subject worthy of a discussion on taste is a means to an end (at least for us product designers). I don’t think the true meaning of Hume’s essay (and from what I’ve read, even his life’s work), my interpretation of what Hume may have meant, your interpretation, or the most popular interpretations of it are in disagreement, though. I think we all agree minus some pedantry that a discussion of taste is an integral part of the design process; that good design utilizes taste to make solutions more approachable to the audience; that it’s very rare to find truly unprejudiced critics because we are slaves to our passions at a deep, neuronal level.

    But that’s a different article. Part 2, maybe?

    Haha, I don’t know. I get the sense that even these 1400 words are at least 800 words too many on the topic. I think we should save it for an in-person conversation over a drink sometime. Thanks again. Really got me thinking again (and I still am) 🙂

  7. @Nate — I’m not sure anyone would credit Upworthy for the original content. They attribute the content right there on the page. I see your point: they need to hold themselves up to a higher bar and disseminate the content with better attribution, share ad revenue, etc. But on the flip side, a lot of that content would never get any airtime without Upworthy. Trust me, I know about unsexy content not getting any airtime because I create a lot of it myself (I’d list this article as a case in point). ALA gives me a platform.

    I guess I just don’t feel that mad about it, and I’m speaking as a content creator here whose name is constantly detached from his work as it passes through curation channels. It is what it is. This is part and parcel of working on the Web. I’d rather save my rage for Celine Dion fans who have objectively terrible taste in music 😉

  8. Thanks for the debate, Nishant.

    This is where our takes may diverge. I actually did not mean preference. I meant prejudice. Cognitive bias, to be precise. I believe that no amount of practice and experience can clear us of prejudice.

    I want to be clear about what I mean by preference versus prejudice. Preference suggests a self-awareness, a recognition of valuing one thing over another for the self. But the usage of the word also leaves space for the possibility to dismiss one’s preferences if objective, critical judgement is required. Prejudice implies an ignorance, especially in today’s usage, which you inflamed a bit by drawing attention to Macklemore’s race, intentionally or unintentionally, but this is not really what Hume was getting at, insofar as my interpretation goes. Preference can only happen by learned comparison. Prejudice—and I agree with you—is a locked-in bias. But the inherent difference is in the operator’s intelligence and openness to experience.

    Either way, at the core of it we agree, in that exclusion—a closed mind—even in the name of refinement, is a harmful habit for a designer of any stripe or color.

  9. @MJ, when Jasper Johns said, “To be an artist you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist,” I think he was speaking about avoiding a closed mind, even in the name of refinement, as you so aptly put it.

  10. Being both artist and designer, I assert that it is important to understand the difference between art and design. Both are creative endeavors and may employ similar means. However, where they differ is in their purpose. Design is about solving a stated problem for a given audience and context, that is typically defined by a sponsor other than the artist. Its success can be measured against that stated purpose. Art is likewise for a purpose, but one defined by the artist and measured by the artist using whatever scale the artist chooses. Any further assessments than this will be a blending of the two.

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