Re-engineering “taste”

One way I’ve found helpful to think about “culture,” at a more manageable scale, is through the metaphor of an unending variety show, with many theaters and stages (think music festivals—GovBall, Coachella). This neverending show presents a class of problems to any audience member attempting to grok an act, or to any act attempting to establish communication with its audience. One problem, familiar to festival-goers, is that all the day’s sets cannot be seen. Another problem, familiar to oldtimers of chatrooms, chans, and superorganisms everywhere, is rolling admission: the young’uns showed up yesterday, and they don’t get your inside jokes, and they want to talk about and do things that, well, everyone you know got bored of in the 90s. A third problem in this class is that the interest and engagement and exposure of audience members varies: some are full-blown festival-heads, others are weekenders, and some show up for Easter Sunday. And while some acts cater to ‘heads, and some acts cater to weekenders, there’s no sign that says “Weekenders be warned”—and besides, most weekenders would be indignant at claims they “wouldn’t understand.”

One term we use a lot in this society of ours is taste, and I want to defamiliarize our felt sense—our intuitive understanding—of cultural production and consumption, in hopes of routing around this loaded, heavy-on-connotation term. After all, if our neighbor in the mezzanine is snoozing when one act delivers a joke, and, later, laughs appreciatively when a new act performs a canned version of the original, we wouldn’t consider this neighbor to have “bad taste”—just that he missed part of the necessary input or experience which would lead him to find the second, inferior telling to be “uninspired” rather than “original” and “clever.” Alternatively, an act itself might choose to make explicit a reference to a previous act, contextualizing it for relatively recent entrants or casual visitors who might not otherwise understand it—we would call this choice “democratic” before we called it “tasteless.”

Assembling a few statements I think are concrete and non-contentious enough we can treat them as premises:

  1. Acts in a variety show are trying to do something (they are functional; they want to achieve effects, e.g. making the audience laugh). They have both conventionally and idiosyncratically known means at their disposal to achieve these effects.
  2. Audience members have varying desires and needs which they hope to satisfy in experiencing an act; these desires are for the effects the acts hope to create.
  3. Audience members differ, for reasons stated above, in their interpretive frames—that is, their sense, based on past experiences and encounters, of what acts’ actions “mean.” Acts must build in a model of these frames to their performance if they wish to achieve communicative or affective ends. (E.g., if an audience is comprised of Spanish speakers, an English comedian won’t get many laughs—he doesn’t know how to “speak” to them. The same is true of musical or artistic gestures.)
  4. There is a rough social ranking in the prestige of roles (e.g. ‘head vs. weekender) and individuals, which dynamically informs and is informed by the ranking in prestige of performer effects and audience desires.

I’ll try to speak only from this scope—on the functions of acts, the desires of audiences, and the fashion field of reputation and association which reflects and reifies these prestige rankings. I’ll also assume a kind of “radical reciprocity” or “dualist correspondence” nature to the art encounter, following the John Dewey and predictive processing. This is just to say that the phenomenology of the art encounter—like all other phenomenologies—is a product of the ongoing interaction between a structure in our heads and a structure in the world.

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An experimental creative practice has the ostensible function of continually generating new sets of live possibilities for a discipline. It is trying to solve the problems of stagnation and boredom, as well as push back on the limits of currently known tactics and effects (in a word, its aim is diversity, not in the macro sense, but in the sense of discovering an unexploited niche). Those individuals who are in the art or literary or theater worlds are most concerned with their field’s status and future, and are also most affected by the problems of stagnation and boredom. In addition, this demographic has consumed much more of the field’s production history than average festival-goers. They themselves are in, or manage, a band; they have been to the festival since the 80s, and they are very interested—in both the “biased” and “intrigued” senses—in new information, approaches, and styles among the festival’s acts, as a way of combating their own consumption fatigue. Because this demographic has the most experience in the field, its members’ opinions are most trusted, and they are accordingly relegated prestige. Prestige here I understood as an asymmetrical watching—that is, many individuals pay attention to the thoughts and opinions of Robert Christgau, and he does not pay attention back.

For those outside such inner circles, a very different triage of desires exist: they come to the discipline not out of an inherent interest in the discipline itself (its history, its future, its self-contradictions, its failings, its hypocrisies a la institutional critique…) but because the field’s productions offer something they find valuable. These are fans not interested in the festival per se (and accordingly, are not interested in interrogations or subversions of the festival’s norms, which are not a part of their “reality field” in the same way they might be for insiders). Rather, they are interested in experiences of escape, beauty, insight, etc. First-order vs. second-order contents. The music vs. the metadata. An “integrated fullness,” or non-iterated Pareto-optimal state, relative to these desires is more important than the act’s place among the larger context of the festival (its history, its future…).

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What are some of the means by which acts achieve their functions and gratify our desires?

Gabe Duquette and The Sublemon have done something like conceptual engineering in aesthetics, coming up with “maps” and “chords.” A work’s “maps” are its informational content: examples, stories, compressions, representations. These are interesting relative to the audience’s schema in a way that information theory crudely accounts for: redundant information will be boring, information for which an individual has no context will “fall flat” or “go over their head” or “fail to land.” There is a sweet spot where a work is telling you something for which you have the right amount of context and priors to update from. You are not there, but you are close, and importantly, you are not beyond “it.” The telos which begins with the artwork’s presentation of its map, and the way the map is received by the individual’s interpretive schema, is emergent from both contributing parties.

Next is the chord, something like an affective or structure rightness, or “fit.” Chords are both inside the work and inside the head; there are structural regularities we can point to within the stimulus but also regularities in how a brain responds to the regularities in the work. Note though that chords, while pre-verbal and largely sub-conscious, are not entirely free from social construction and context, just like maps. Peli Grietzer’s work on vibe goes into this in more depth, but suffice it to say that the aesthetic connection between a New England boarding school in autumn, plaid skirts, mulled wine, and John Milton is not a purely formal one. And of course, systems like the chromatic scale are some combination of mathematically ordered and dependent on human auditory equipment, in addition to the way we are socialized into anticipating (predictive processing style) the next note or chord change based on repeated exposure to common cultural patterns. It’s all tied up.

My feeling is there is a needed addition (a suggestion which Duquette has rejected). That addition is the effect-idea. Instead of an example, pattern, or story which “maps” the world, it is a charged provocation—equally situated, and yet entirely different in mechanism of action, and in my opinion much more dominant in contemporary visual arts than the representational map. A rhetorical question, a charged association, a paradox, a troll—an effect idea works via the felt sense and the recursive self-watcher, an individual measuring his own response to the work. From this recursive second level—the reflection in the wake of the response—is an idea birthed. The doubleness is reflected in the name: “effect-idea.”

This gives us our basic triad of higher order effects, though of course there can and are many tactics or styles for conveying a map or chord or effect idea.

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Lastly, there is a need for some kind of acknowledgment of a “subcultural ideology” which inhabits, as a dominant haunting, any one of this festival’s many stages. A certain kind of act performs, and is rewarded; the audience which congregates there is drawn to it because of the current geist inhabiting it, and often more for this than for the larger formal or historical considerations of the tradition. A different type of audience and artist alike are drawn to the visual arts today, and likewise with music, than was attracted to visual art and music in the time of Boucher and Handel, and this ongoing loop of identity and attraction is central to how all institutions work.

Because prestige inside and outside the field is rewarded in a way that is non-random, relative to the hauntings and preferences and exposures and ideologies of audiences, and also to the artists who cater to them, the aforementioned ranking emerges. The scale which emerges among the devotees becomes the governing frame for the entire festival, because it is the devotees who write about the festival, who proportionally dominate its acts and creative decisions, and who generally invest the most time and personal capital into the entire spectacle. This frame is the extrapolated rule-of-thumb for sophistication among the festival-heads: the default assumption is saturated exposure; being bored from lack of understanding is preferable to be bored by understanding too much; etc etc. Because these festival-heads are a disproportionate contingent of support and drive, in addition to dominating the written (and thus “public,” or “legitimated”) opinion, and also field individuals for many of the performing acts, there is a tendency for feedback loops to emerge in which the acts increasingly cater to, and reflect, the tastes of this group; this process drives away casuals and newcomers, which in turn skews the proportion of insiders to outsiders further. The visual arts and poetry appear to be in this cycle now, which involves a state-shift into what Bourdieu calls an “autonomous field.” The Venn diagram of artists and audiences collapses into a single circle, as insiders produce for insiders.

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