I firmly believe that good taste is not innate; it is cultivated through education and opportunity. Admittedly, this belief is self-serving, since as a child I papered the walls of my bedroom with calendar art featuring unicorns, and I like to think I’ve progressed. Chance and opportunity have rescued me, and even family members otherwise inclined to regard me as dangerously volatile admit that I have a good eye for clothing and color.
You may not be able to contract an early, rash marriage to a conceptual artist or score a year-long on-the-job-training course as theater critic for a daily paper. The former, in particular, may seem like a steep price to pay for an appreciation of dematerialized art objects. If your taste remains unformed or uncertain, there are less painful alternatives.
First, a warning: good taste consists largely of developing your critical faculties. If you believe that learning the principles behind aesthetic objects will rob you of innocent pleasure and transform you into a snobbish sourpuss, then, as the Athenians would say, you need to go home and stick to your spinning. Self-styled poets who resist literary theory and history are objects of contempt to thinking people, as are mild types who condemn themselves and others for judging. Reasoned disagreement is one of life’s great pleasures, so I say, let the judgment roll.
1. Seek out the tastemakers in your extended family, and, to the extent possible, apprentice yourself to them. My paternal grandmother was a remarkably stylish woman, and her exquisitely chosen clothing and furnishings gave me a deep appreciation of midcentury modern design. She made many of the errors common for the times — shocking eyeglasses and, in her later years, insipid abstract art — but years after her death, my grandmother remains my standard of modernist style. Older relatives often consider it their responsibility to initiate nephews, nieces and younger cousins into the art of good living, so they are often an excellent place to start.
2. If your family tree has produced drab fruit, it’s a time-honored and noble technique to pick up town bronze through dating. You’re meeting a wide range of people and presumably spending a good deal of time attending public events and discussing them over dinner or coffee. What better opportunity to expose yourself to exotica like jazz, opera, and experimental electronica? Many single people try to find a partner who likes the same bands and pursues hobbies identical to their own; much better, I say, to seek out gentlemen and ladies who will teach you something while auditioning for the role of life partner.
3. Read taste-making publications. For us, that means the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker (my parents inherited a subscription from my grandmother, and later extended it), and, in Ken’s case, Architectural Digest. I still pick up Vogue whenever I’m in an airport. I don’t intend to squander $400 on a bag or a pair of shoes, but I do like to learn about new designers and artists.
4. Attend gallery openings and go to museums. Theories and techniques from fine art eventually filter down to fashion and interior design, so time spent in the presence of artwork is never wasted. I’m always flabbergasted when my coworkers travel to L.A. and drive by the Getty exit on the Sepulveda Pass without a pang. Come on, people: Galleries are free and many great museums are, as well. Van Gogh is not best experienced through the medium of refrigerator magnets.
5. Take time to learn the theories behind different schools of design. Many objects are but a poor, fallen expression of excellent principles. If your experience of Modernism begins and ends with suburban tract homes, you’re not giving a great movement a fair chance.
6. Immerse yourself, and sample things indiscriminately. At different times in my life I walked through every open gallery in L.A., attended every theatrical production in my hometown for a year, and, in the summer of my thirteenth year, saw every science fiction or fantasy movie released. For two full years, I went to every exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. After mature consideration, I think Jeff Koons’ art is stupid, and I haven’t found Sigmar Polke’s paintings particularly memorable. I also know from personal experience that Gerhard Richter is the greatest living painter. I’m secure in my judgments because I’ve seen the objects in question.
7. Don’t apologize for your lapses and quirks. I hate reggae, and find classical music to be vaguely annoying twiddling. Jazz leaves me cold. Home furnishings intended to look Southwestern excite almost aggressive hostility in me. These feelings are purely personal and fundamentally irrational. Taste is exclusionary by its nature, and you can’t value some things if you don’t firmly reject others.
8. Along these lines, embrace your guilty pleasures. I don’t expect others to enjoy playing The Sex Pistols and Marilyn Manson at high volume, but I’m not going to apologize for my innocent, essentially nostalgic enjoyment of both. But don’t make the mistake of crafting an ornate theory to justify your irrational fascinations. I went to grad school with a guy who wrote a 75-page Master’s thesis about Madonna. I’m sure it was erudite and well-reasoned; I’m also certain that professors educated at the Sorbonne and Oxford found it to be the academic equivalent of an encounter with a flasher at a bus stop. Except that they would have had to firmly repress any impulse to laugh, scream, scold, or call the cops.
Americans are oddly timid about becoming connoisseurs, whether of wine, perfume, or art. Most are no likely to die of excessive refinement and cultivation than they are to be hospitalized for anorexia. Far from judging excessively, we tend to live in intellectual and domestic squalor. Educated taste is a lifelong source of amusement, enjoyment and indignation, and grants you a measure of independence from technology and contrived, costly entertainment. It’s unlikely to impress your friends or coworkers, but developing good taste will give you an orderly, rich inner existence no matter what your circumstances.