1.16 / Louise

The Question of Taste: A conversation with Bill Berkson

By Jarrett Earnest June 2, 2010

This is an abridged version of the conversation; the full version appears in Talking Cure Summer 2010.

Jarrett Earnest: To begin, what interests you about taste?

Bill Berkson: That the word goes in so many directions. It breaks down according to what experience is at hand. If it’s food, you say, “This hamburger doesn’t taste right,” “This pineapple tastes too sour.” So it’s not to your “taste.” And that seems categorical. If you say “This pineapple is definitely too sour, it may be over-ripe,” or if it’s “too sour for me,” that’s categorical—so much for food. Otherwise, a friend of mine has a country house—it’s really for his wife and their children, he doesn’t go there very much—but he says about the house, its location, and furnishings: “My wife has excellent taste.”

Those considerations seem quite distant from taste in art, because when you raise the question of taste in art, the term spins off wildly in many directions, many of them contradictory.  For instance when I was, so to speak, growing up in the New York art world, and New York art was paramount, with a self-proclaiming dominance, a work might be dismissed as being “tasteful”. For instance, Art News reviews in the ’50s—a typical short short review might read in its entirety: “X shows tasteful watercolors of summers in Maine”—and that’s all you need to know about what X has been doing lately. Then one reader will think, “I love tasteful watercolors of summers in Maine,” and go and buy some and have a bunch of them over the toilet in the bathroom. 1950s contemporary French art was dismissed as “all cuisine,” which meant “tasteful.” Certain artists—Motherwell was one—were suspect to their colleagues in the New York School as being too tasteful. Or else, writing of deKooning or Hofmann—I remember this wonderful phrase Thomas Hess said of deKooning, I believe it was, “He has the bad taste of genius.”

If you get the full painting education at the San Francisco Art Institute, most of your professors are going to criticize what you’re doing at one time or another as “too decorative.” Those people are like eighth-generation Clyfford Still. We all grew up in this ethos of toughness, whether it was conceptual art or painting or theatre, that art had to be tough, challenging, not decorative, not over the couch—which brought any assertion of taste or “tastefulness” into question.

Clement Greenberg did a very odd thing: his sense of aesthetics was that the “good” work hits you in your gut and that establishes its quality and accordingly its importance. For Greenberg, the job of the critic is to rationalize that involuntary gut feeling. I guess you can say that is a kind of taste, the taste of gut feeling. But then that is your hidden taste, or latent or even “deep” taste, which is other than your conscious or declared taste. On another occasion, Greenberg spoke to the effect that good art shouldn’t “meet your taste more than half way.” If your taste is easily satisfied it probably verges on “easy,” academic in its own terms. That’s a funny number.

JE: Art that looks like Art!

BB: Yeah, so that, historically, this distasteful quality became a sign—a veritable touchstone, in fact—of Modern art. Gertrude Stein said that things that are truly modern and important appear ugly at first. It may even have been true of Giotto, Masaccio, and other innovators, but their violations of common taste were ultimately theological. The Baroque―the term itself indicates unease where taste is concerned. When Poussin, who wants to hold to traditional values, says of Caravaggio that he meant to kill painting, he means that Caravaggio is jettisoning classical taste. Then Manet, the “ugliness” of Olympia is a hallmark, a typical Modern gesture.

I find it very irritating in a way because it’s become such a routine. I was on a critics panel in New York and Vincent Fecteau’s recent exhibition was up for discussion. Robert Morgan said that he saw Fecteau’s sculpture as “symptomatic but not significant” and I sort of exploded; I mean, what if it is beautiful, you get pleasure from it, and it is neither symptomatic or significant, but just that. In fact, a week or so before the panel Roberta Smith had written a piece for the New York Times that said pretty much what I was feeling: she was baffled by the work but found it intensely pleasurable—a rare admission on Roberta’s part. But in some ways these perfectly simple terms are not even part of the conversation, so the moderator just sped on to the next topic.

Pleasure is still a conversation stopper—a crazy state of affairs to me. On the other hand, I wouldn’t make a general principle of pleasure as significance, either. People are too principled when it comes to evaluating art. There’s a rush to judgment every time. It’s interesting when something comes along that violates and proves more interesting, more provocative and generative than anyone’s principles. I suppose that is close to what Greenberg had in mind, although he kept drawing lines in the sand, a whole desert’s worth of scorecards!

JE: I'm interested in the way something that is categorically bad taste for the “mass” is totally converted into good taste, and what that means as a gain or a loss in the encounter of a work of art.

BB: Well, what Stein followed up with is that after a while this great Modern Thing isn't so ugly. It risks domestication, I suppose, right there on Gertrude’s salon wall. A little earlier all those Monets, Manets, Pissarros became comfortable household objects, especially in the happy homes of American financiers. Then the double irony of T.J. Clark’s turning the Manet so that it shows all these terrible things that capitalism is doing to the countryside—you thought it was all about pleasure but it was really about alienation! [Laughs] All of sudden, Manet is telling, say, Mrs. Havemeyer the same thing Picasso said to the German officer when he asked about Guernica―“Did you do this?” and Picasso said, “No, you did.”

JE: When did we start talking about the difference between good versus bad taste? Because even around Andy Warhol, I feel that some reasons for liking Andy are “Good Taste” and some reasons are “Bad Taste.”

BB: [Laughing] You know the term I used to hear, that in a certain way sustained the dream of democracy, which now is gone, the term is “educated taste.” To a certain extent we all have educated taste. Ours is not educated in the way Thomas Jefferson probably intended, or our teachers, because most of us educated our own taste. The idea of education was that you come in with no taste and instructors show you the way. The museum was a corrective device for the mob chaos of democracy. One selling point for the National Gallery in England—as opposed to the Victoria and Albert—for the National Gallery in Washington, and eventually the Met too, was that people who come into this Temple of Art will be elevated to essentially “our” level of taste and therefore will rise to become functional citizens of the Republic, e.g., they’ll vote the ticket. It’s a terribly perverse argument for critical method. Because the terror of democracy has always been that those people will be making decisions en masse. Better bring them along!

A very interesting thing because you have to look very hard at the five-foot shelf, what is being taught in the Great Books curriculum, what Johnny needs to know to be a good citizen. Well, champ, what is civics? Interestingly, I doubt there’s a civics class in the land that includes a rundown of how the banking system works. You just might like to know what pays your tuition; start with the check ready for deposit and work backward.

JE: I guess the question is that given the differences between the art world even fifty years ago and now, does “taste” exist, or what is in its place? I don't think one could say, “This is bad taste,” and get away with it in relationship to a work of art now.

BB: I don’t hear it. I think the operative term, and what became a sort of escape hatch, is the word “interesting.” Most of the art that new collectors have―types of big installation art, which actually can be accommodated in the happy home—once they’re there, they are conversation pieces. Much of this art exists functionally as an aid for expenditures, a demonstration of wealth, power, and being to some extent “with it.” Of course you can say that’s true to a certain extent of a lot of art through the ages. It’s just that lately the cover has blown away―there’s no pretense at religious, mythic purpose or simple grandeur, or entertainment or even fun. It’s raw power showing you what it’s got. There’s a whole discourse around this conundrum of meaning and placement.


Image (top): Marion Gray. "John Cage/Beethoven," 1987. Photo: Marion Gray.

BB (cont.): If you look at a Barnett Newman, or Ellsworth Kelly, or Ryman, there may be a kind of program that goes with it, like with Mondrian, supposedly, but finally you are left flat-footed facing this thing. If you look close enough, openly to what is happening to your senses—the synaptic events—there was a spark of possible meaning you could talk about endlessly because it were all unplanned and uncertain, no matter how intelligently worked.

On the other hand, the way that conceptual art, if that is what it is, has come to be, is that the conversational terms about it are already set, there in the wall notes: “The price of bananas in Honduras today.” OK, I get it. There’s nothing more. Dennis Oppenheim said that the crisis for the original conceptual artists two or three years into it in the 1970s was the realization that what they were doing was, as Oppenheim put it, devoid of visual interest. Most video today is void in that department due to a lack of care for the image, even to the point of allowing these shoddy projections of low-resolution DVD matter where you can barely make out anything but the subtitles.

JE: I’m totally horrified by Marina Abramovic, who had this wonderful body of work and then for the past fifteen years seems absolutely hell-bent on destroying everything that was respectable or interesting about her. Culminating in this ridiculous reenactment.

BB: I don’t understand what she’s doing. I mean up to the live-in-the-gallery project, the only time I ever saw her live was in Venice where she did her piece about Kosovo, sitting there washing a heap of blood-caked bones, and it was really marvelous, powerful. But this remake business sounds awful, and it also sounds as though everyone has slammed her for it. The response hasn’t been good.

JE: But what is the disconnect, between these big corporate museums, which basically are what museums are—corporations that need to turn a profit?

BB: Well, they have to break even, anyway. They have to pay excessive salaries, insurance, shipping charges, world-class architects, and all that and then somehow or other break even.

JE: But is there a disconnect between museums now and what their “role” is supposed to be as a historical entity? And that has to do with taste, because they hold the DNA of culture, which future artists have to deal with.

Marion Gray. "Censored Portrait of George by Robert Arneson," 1981. Photo: Marion Gray.

BB: The trouble is, it’s not about taste anymore. If you’re at the Met or the Frick or the Morgan Library you’re still charged with exercising some taste and presumed to have some to exercise. But if you’re at the Modern in either town, New York or here, it just doesn’t have to do with that. You have a sense of history and significance and you may be held to that. All of these places, including the Met, are deep into marketing, which isn’t about anything but bringing people in. And for no ostensible purpose, just to bring them in, just to keep the institution going.

The public justification for probably the last twenty years or more has been that, in order to have public funding, museums cover themselves with an educational mission. Now we have the museum as combination arts institution and community center with atriums about as friendly as the interiors of your average big banks. It figures because the money now is CEO money of the kind that defines the institution as a business to be run accordingly to measurable standards―membership and ticket and gift-shop sales in this case. I’m struck by the fact that if I go to SFMOMA or the Legion of Honor, either way, if you’re dealing with contemporary, modern art or old masters, there just isn’t any operative taste.

We have this thing called “museum quality” art. The Rothko now at SFMOMA was $6 million, it’s the non-identical twin to the picture in Berkeley. Before it arrived, I asked a dealer friend, “What about this Rothko we’re getting?” “Well it’s a museum-quality Rothko,” he said. And I thought, “Museum quality, what is that?” It’s like the FDA; the art has an institutional stamp of approval, it’s certifiably a Rothko, albeit of a certain size, period, and provenance, and as a painting, it’s OK. Sometime after it arrived, I went and sat with it for an hour. I got up and looked closely at how it was made. That is how the sublimity of a Rothko often gets to you―you look at how the thing is painted and the hairs on the back of your neck begin to tingle. Before I left, I addressed this work as if to say, “You are a very well-painted picture, but I do not love you.” There’s a difference; the one in Berkeley has the edge. 

But if you go around the country and go to museums—as I have had the opportunity to do over the past year doing readings in places like Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Louis, Boston, etc.—especially the contemporary and modern museums, their collections consist mainly of “examples.” Examples are not a matter of taste. It’s just a fucking “Rothko.” There was a curator at the Fine Arts Museums some years ago who told me, “There are still some things we would like for the collection.” “Like what?” I asked. “Well, we’d like to have a Poussin.” Who wouldn’t, but what does that mean? That any Poussin that comes down the pike would do? No master is that faultless. The topic of taste is very interesting in that way, but what if there isn’t any, and what if nobody cares? And in the museum world that used to be the criterion, that a curator has “distinctive” if not “superior” taste.

JE: Does that have to do with a loss of history, or a broader cross-disciplinary knowledge?

BB: It has to do with the absence of poetry. I maintain that the art world reads only trash. They read Eurotrash theoretical literature hastily and probably sloppily translated, middlebrow fiction, and probably no poetry and no serious philosophy, either. There are few exceptions to this loss of general culture and its concomitant, easy brassbound sense of history. Very weird business, because on the one hand there is the belief that the developmental progressive view of history that culminated in Modern art ended. Once that game is up, a strange game anyhow, created within the academy to rationalize what had happened—if that’s rejected we are left, happily, I think, with a kind of delta that just spreads out into a field called art, where different things happen, different modes appear and circulate, in no demonstrable sequence. Someone at San Diego State University in the back of the room asked “How did 9/11 affect your poetry?”—a very interesting question. But the weird thing is that the people who believe there was a culmination to history keep insisting on next year’s product. Been there, done that—where do we go now, as if there’s still some kind of progression. All it is, really, is good old modern boredom, the Inertia of the New.

JE: For me, the most significant show that deeply troubles me is the New Museum triennial “The Generational: Younger than Jesus.”

BB: There you have it. Such tasteless trash. [Laughs] I mean “tasteless” and “trash” in quotes but not sneer quotes. My feeling was that the curators made the show look the way it did and probably some of the artists are perfectly OK. It was a cumulative trash scene. It was mostly going for this pervasive tone of resentment. There was nothing even of the Beautiful Losers ethos. There was nothing of Beautiful Losers “heart,” or anyone that was interested in going for anything that could be called beautiful or communicative. But I’ve talked to people who enjoyed it. I never found out why. Then you could say, as I have been saying with alarming frequency of late, “It’s not for me.” That’s an older guy’s taste limitation.


Bill Berkson is a poet, art critic, editor, and curator who has been active in the art and poetry worlds for many decades. He is the author of eighteen books and pamphlets and poetry, including most recently Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems, Gloria (with etchings by Alex Katz) and Goods and Services, as well as an epistolary collaboration by Bernadette Mayer entitled What's Your Idea of a Good Time? He is a corresponding editor for Art in America, and his criticism has appeared there and in Artforum and other journals. A collection of his essays, The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings, appeared in 2004, and Sudden Address: Selected Lectures in 2007. Not an Exit, a suite of poems with drawings by Léonie Guyer, will appear from Jungle Garden Press this summer. He was Distinguished Paul Mellon Fellow at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture for 2006. Berkson taught literature and art history at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1984 to 2008.

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