1.17 / Glass Houses

Re: Taste

By Elyse Mallouk June 17, 2010

The original version of this article appears in Talking Cure Summer 2010.

Taste is not a skill or an achievement; it is an innate capability that every person has to recognize a mutual exchange, a relationship without hierarchy or aim. Everyone has a sense for situations in which they are being considered, just as all viewers know when they are being intimidated or patronized. An almost instant recognition of respect or mistrust, hesitancy or connection, apathy or engagement, happens routinely in every interaction. It happens between two people, between artworks and viewers, between exhibitions and museum visitors, between a band and its fans. 

I had an idea for you

so-o-o good

wait, it will come back——1

Equality in an aesthetic experience is an idea that comes out of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He proposes that when a person finds something beautiful, there is an ideal balance between the imagination and understanding.  For Kant, the imagination is the faculty that produces coherent pictures of the world. The understanding categorizes these constructions and sets them aside. In everyday experience, millions of times a day, the imagination is subordinated to the understanding, as we classify things we perceive, and respond to them accordingly. In an aesthetic experience, these faculties are in “free play”: the imagination is not in service of cognition, and the mind is not overwhelmed by perception. The two are in a state of harmony that nonetheless resists resolution, sped up by each other in the struggle to understand the information being processed. This theory of internal equality has sparked a recent resurgence of Kant’s aesthetics in contemporary thought. Taste, however, another central aspect to the Third Critique, is often skipped in the reworking, in part because of the divisive presupposition that some people have better taste than others. Kant sets out to understand the conditions that make humans capable of aesthetic judgment, and in doing so, creates a rubric to sort and separate good taste from bad. The idea that taste is learned, worked at, and only sometimes achieved sets up the same kind of hierarchy that Kant’s aesthetics, in positing free play, also has the ability to undermine. 

Taste, on the other hand, can and must be developed.

We are constantly judging people, excluding and including them, sifting and collecting them, based on the way they value other objects: T.V. shows, clothing, brands, bands and movies. Creative re-reading of Kant is required in order to jettison a seemingly arbitrary system of hierarchy, without neglecting the relevance taste might have in contemporary conversations about social relation. Kant’s internal equality that has so much potential as a standard of judgment within a subject needs to be applied externally—to the changing encounters between viewers and works, and to the invisible way we rank people based on their evaluations. If the radical freedom a person feels when forming a judgment of a work can be applied more widely, across and between subjects, there is an opportunity to raze taste hierarchies that foreclose community and conversation.

For Kant, taste is “merely a critical, not a productive faculty.”2 In this statement, he sets the critical (or receptive) and the productive at odds: “For estimating beautiful objects, as such, what is required is taste; but for fine art, i.e. the production of such objects, one needs genius.” Genius is a talent, not an aptitude, and as such it cannot be learned or taught.3 It is, for Kant, a “natural endowment”—a person is either born capable of producing fine art (which he sees as true creative production), or born capable of only imitation (of studying to hone an ability). Taste, on the other hand, can and must be developed. The difference between taste and genius is analogous to a separation between reception and production: there are viewers, and there are producers. The viewer’s job is one of evaluation, not of construction or translation. This assumption has been reflected in more recent texts, and is reproduced all the time, every time a writer mourns a general public’s passivity in the face of the spectacle.

Reception, however, is not passive, and it’s not secondary. We can see this in the Third Critique: reflection is more creative than perception. It makes an object exist as an artwork, as a thing worthy of engagement and remaking. We also see the creativity in reception in the second moment of Kant’s aesthetic experience, what he calls its “necessary communicability.”  In translating a judgment of beauty to another person, a viewer is always re-interpreting the object, or re-creating it. Kant writes that it is a quality of our fundamentally social nature that we take pleasure in communicating our ideas about what we see.4 The reverse is also commonly felt: when you have a solitary experience of something beautiful, you often wish someone were there to share the experience, because you find value in it. Wishing someone else could be there to feel what you feel when you value what you see is one way of understanding the social aspect of the aesthetic: the part of a subjective, individual experience that bleeds to include other people. Communicating through language after the fact is a way of trying to share the aesthetic experience (one way that usually falls short).

hey buddy,


oh, it’s not you.

Some works, like some people, don’t address you at all—they don’t invite, and don’t prohibit. They are indifferent, and so are you. You pass by each other like you pass a stranger on the street. This missed engagement isn’t a flaw in the work or in the viewer; it’s just a means of selective attention, a way of protecting oneself from the crushing amount of things to look at, from the vast amount of possible conversations to start. The objects of attention vary from person to person, and change over time.

A piece appeals to your taste when you and the object are co-productive

Taste doesn’t improve—it shifts. All receptive productions are equally legitimate, no matter how or why they make a work exist as a work. A piece appeals to your taste when you and the object are co-productive: when you each interpret and create the other to the same extent that you are subject to interpretation. The things you loved before were open to you when you loved them. They offered an exciting, accessible amount of complexity that could be constructed over and over, reworked and rearranged. When you exhaust the possibilities of a work, you move away from it. The conversation loses its balance when the work becomes too legible, bereft of its mystery—when imagination is subordinated to understanding.  At this moment, your relationship to it stops being aesthetic. By dismissing it, you construct a new hierarchy, but it is particular to you and this work. Separating oneself from a work does not make it any less valuable to another person, whose relationship with it is not higher or lower, before or after, more or less sophisticated, just other. Another conversation cannot be evaluated temporally, or ranked. The value of a work is not inherent, not fixed, but only comes into being in relation with a person. 

This recognition makes taste and value relative, but it does not prohibit disagreement or debate. It doesn’t preclude a claim that a work is beautiful or boring; instead, it opens up this space of contestation.  Acknowledging the equal worth and legitimacy present in disparate taste judgments creates the opportunity to talk endlessly about the things we value and the reasons we value them, without trying to reach resolution. The field for conversation is leveled with the understanding that others will disagree, having made their own constructions of meaning in conversation with the work.

Artworks cannot be aesthetic or social in and of themselves.

The ability of a work to open a social, aesthetic space is a quality not of the object, but of an experience, which happens between the object and a person who comes into contact with it. Artworks cannot be aesthetic or social in and of themselves. The following case study is not a model for a new or exemplary socially engaged artwork, or a judgment that demands agreement. Instead, it illustrates aesthetic ambiguity, a space in which individual subjectivities can struggle without the aim of resolution.

The endnotes of this essay appear in one of Paul Chan’s 11 Alternumerics fonts, which can be downloaded for free from his website. In one, The Future Must Be Sweet—After Fourier (2001), each typed letter is comprised of a map of words. It is based on a system of key-for-key substitutions:

If you download this font and use it on your computer, as you type, each of your letters is transformed into a small system of words that connects by way of open-ended lines to the ones above, beside, and below it. The words that replace your letters are based on the philosophy of Charles Fourier, a utopian socialist who, according to Chan, “believed everyone should have equal access to justice, affection, and fine foods.” 5,i As a person types, a diagram is produced that takes (invented) fragments of Fourier’s thought and arranges them into what Chan calls a multilinear narrative. Or, a:

It is multi-linear because there is no assumption that it will be read in any particular order. There is also no way to prescribe that the connections between words signified by dashes will be translated the same way by any two readers. Because this work evades institutional context, and because there is no singular illustration of the font’s proper usage, there is no correct way to use or read it.

As the font is used, meaning twists and escapes from both artist and participant. 

A viewer’s experience of this piece is most likely solitary. But its implications for communication are social. The typist/participant drives the production of the work, but his or her intended meanings quickly escape, absorbed into bits and pieces of a faux-utopian fiction. Chan conceived the plan for the project but has negligible control over its outcome, which can be infinitely and indefinitely reconfigured. In his 1977 essay “The Death of the Author” Roland Barthes wrote, “A text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, and contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.”6,ii Whereas Barthes saw in this mutability and multiplicity “a systematic exemption of meaning,” Chan’s project proffers an overabundance of content. Every time a participant types, more and more substance is generated.

Meaning can be manipulated within this system, but only to a point. As the font is used, meaning twists and escapes from both artist and participant. In doing so it also suggests the promise and the frustration of communication, and of aesthetic encounters. In rereading one’s own typed texts, meanings shift, interpretations become plural. Each relationship is allowed to slip, to make way for another idea that leads elsewhere. As the font continues to “spill,” it simultaneously undermines understanding and presents new possibilities for construction in the process of reading. This project does not presuppose that “objective transmission” is possible—that an idea can remain intact as it passes from the artist, through the work of art, to the viewer.7,iii Instead, it makes visible the multiplicity of meaning already present in every expression, every time a word is used. I can never assume that what I write will be interpreted by you in the way I intend. In using this font, the potential for translation and misapprehension that already generally exists in written or spoken dialogue is experienced by one person, who is positioned on both sides of the encounter. The gap between cause and effect, between intended meaning and its manifestation on the page, creates the possibility of an aesthetic space.8,iv

Although everyone has the capacity for aesthetic judgment in equal measure, varying levels of self-consciousness and confidence either encourage or preempt its expression. Shortcomings in systems of display and in arts education can lead people to believe they do not have the language to evaluate and discuss artworks. When a person feels disqualified or inferior when they come into contact with an artwork, it can create a two-way dismissal instead of a conversation.  Daily dismissals compound, furthering the breach between artists and viewers, between those who know that they are in the know, and those who know that they are on the outside. The force of alienation at work is the presupposition that some people are essentially better at viewing than others, and can therefore speak louder when they interpret what they see. This idea is reinforced over and over by artworks, critical texts, and institutions, every time they delimit and restrict a space of reading, instead of expanding it.

This is not institutional critique in its most commonly understood sense

Art is not only a topic of debate, but also a set of conditions that restrict or allow debate. An artwork does not just depict a world; it functions within one, and proposes another. A viewer’s experience of these worlds is mediated by context, and the aesthetics of a work cannot be considered without thinking about the conditions that frame a viewer’s interaction with it. Many of the institutional frameworks within which viewing takes place have for too long aimed to convince the viewer that there is in fact a gap in intelligence, a gaping space between what the viewer does not know and what the museum aims to teach. Curatorial models that explicate a work provide a seeming right answer to the puzzles it sets up, privileging one meaning over another. They suggest that the institution has expertise; a kind of knowledge the viewer doesn’t have, and doesn’t know how to obtain outside of the institution.9

As more works aim to invite, rather than to transmit, impose, intimidate, or require, they might begin to change the institutions that house them, beginning from the inside. This is not institutional critique in its most commonly understood sense; these pieces do not pose a direct criticism to the museum or gallery, or have an ironic relationship with the institutions in which they are shown. They instead focus on the viewer, on the subjective constructions that take place over and over with each new person. In doing so, they wrest the right to make meaning away from the privileged position of the museum, and instead underscore the way information is generated on an individual scale. Every person who comes through the space to engage and recreate the work produces a valid interpretation, regardless of seeming expertise or lack of training. By verifying the equal worth of each construction as a kind of production, viewers, curators, artworks, and artists can redistribute institutional hierarchies through activity rather than critique.

——words lob for you

to catch and re:           













*The illustration for this article is drawn as a rebus, and based on a Laurie Anderson lyric.10 A rebus is a word play in which images are used to represent syllables. Each image is chosen solely for the sound of one of the many words it could represent, regardless of the picture’s symbolic meanings. The idea comes out of a show called Rebus, curated by Vik Muniz at the New York MoMA in 2008, which used the word game as a system for arranging artwork. The show set up a puzzle — an obstacle course of visual stimuli culled from the collection at the New York MoMA. It privileged formal connections over thematic, chronological, or art-historical ones—viewers were challenged to create narrative threads between the works by recognizing similarities between them, without the aid of wall labels that would provide an authoritative read.

There was an implicit assumption present in the show’s logic; the works were arranged like words on the page of an English-language book, left to right in a line around the wall. Once this premise was accepted, the works could be read textually, like any sentence, full of holes and gaps. Each piece of a rebus is multistable: each part contains multiple referents, each creating coexisting and sometimes conflicting meanings.11 A multistable image works like a multilinear narrative. Many meanings coexist, and each viewer is continually making choices about which interpretation to privilege. The fun in working on a puzzle is the activity of suspecting one solution, while allowing for the possibilities of others, detecting incipient conflicting, coexisting narrative possibilities in the process. The puzzle (taken as a verb rather than a noun: the activity of open reflection, not a riddle to be correctly pieced together) is a structural means of codifying without determining an end, creating the possibility for multiplicity and antinomy.




  1. Conversation with Tom Comitta about truth and beauty, December 16, 2009.
  2. Immanuel Kant,  The Critique of Judgment, (New York: Hafner Press, 1951), 37.
  3. Ibid, 35.
  4. Ibid, 12.
  5. Paul Chan, “A Font Infomercial,” www.nationalphilistine.com/alternumerics/fontmovie.html.
  6. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image—Music—Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).
  7. Jacques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator,” lecture, Frankfurt, August 2004.
  8. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (New York: Verso, 2009), 51–82.
  9. Jacques Rancière,  “The Misadventures of Critical Thought” in The Emancipated Spectator,  trans. Gregory Elliot,  (New York: Verso, 2009), 27.
  10. Laurie Anderson.  “Born, Never Asked.”  Big Silence.  1982.
  11. Vik Muniz, Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer, ed. Lesley A. Martin. (New York: Aperture Foundation Inc., 2005).

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