Taste: can things be good if they are not popular?

I know that sounds like a tacitly stupid question. Of COURSE I can judge something to be good, I can love something, that most people don’t find good. My standards will always be different from other folks’ standards, and what I’m looking for (in a piece of music, a book, a way of entertaining myself, a friendship) will probably be different from what someone else looks for.

That’s not what I mean by asking this.

What I mean has something more to do with “good” as a supposedly value-free and universal standard.

As a humanist, as someone who considers herself an anti-snob [please hear that: not all academics value exclusivity and self-inflation… in fact, MOST of my professor-colleagues don’t (that seems to be the purview of certain anti-intellectual, racist, gold-plating, orange-skinned/toupeed presidential candidates); the one colleague who does value those things is thought, by most of the rest of us, to be rather stupid and kind of an asshole and a terrible professor using snobbish standards to cover up his personal stupidity (sort of like that presidential candidate). I balk a bit at the idea that something might be “good” simply because it adheres to a set of arbitrarily-produced aesthetic standards which don’t appeal to or give pleasure to the majority of people. What do those standards mean, then?

We all take pleasure in different things. An aesthetic standard tells us what we “should” take pleasure in, or what is a superior kind of pleasure. I’ve found myself, on too many occasions, defending something as “junky but really good”–like a certain kind of potato chip; or chocolate without fancy nuts or shenanigans or single-origin cocoa beans; or a trashy, addictive TV show. Or when I find myself singing a Ke$ha song after hearing it over a gas station PA.

I guess my question is: if it doesn’t tend to bring pleasure to most people, can we call it “good”? This, in my mind, is really different from saying “I think it’s good” or “I love it.” I mean, I absolutely adore Brussels sprouts when they are roasted with garlic and olive oil until they get kind of crispy-brown on the outside and start to taste a bit nutty… in my book, they are Superior. But I know there are lots of folks who hate them. Heck, I hated them when I was younger (this may have had something to do with my parents’ tendency to boil them until they were gray and soggy and yell at me until I ate them). And it has nothing to do with them being “good for you” (the way we ate them when I was a kid was probably not “good for” me; since all the nutrients were probably boiled out, it was probably as nutritious as eating wet toilet paper).

The problem with “good,” for me, is that it still makes reference to some universal aesthetic/moral standard, and I don’t tend to believe in those. Even the “do unto others” credo (like “first, do no harm” and my simpler college motto, “don’t hurt people”) isn’t really universal. I mean, what about tough love? What about protecting yourself from a dangerous or toxic person? As a professor, I’ve had to give a bad grade—even fail someone—because that person didn’t meet my standard, even though they met their own (or had other stuff about which they were more concerned); sometimes, as a result of a bad grade from me, a student’s GPA dropped enough that they were unable to play on a sports team, or lost the chance to do something else they wanted to do. What about, on a more mundane note, choosing one person as a bestie instead of another? Aren’t those standards in direct opposition, sometimes, to the needs of the many, or of yourself? Won’t enacting some of those standards hurt someone?

I had a student once who used to say, loudly, in response to almost anything, “Don’t judge!” That used to infuriate me: judgment is what keeps me from walking into traffic or putting my hand into fire; it’s also what keeps me from befriending people who are going to treat me badly, or paying almost $20 to watch a film that will give me no pleasure of any sort but put money in the pockets of someone whose values and behavior are deplorable to me (ahem: Mel Gibson, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST).

My point is, those standards don’t always apply, and neither should aesthetic standards, right?

When I make choices as a writer, when I aim for some particular effect or choose to create in a particular way, I’m setting an aesthetic standard that applies to that piece, and I’m trying to stick with it. Then, when it’s finished, I can evaluate (1) if I managed to achieve that aesthetic standard and (2) if the standard produces something I think is good and thus (3) if the standard itself is something I think is good.

I think we each do that when we consume and evaluate something, too (a meal, a book, a piece of art). Maybe it would be helpful to think about this as we read that book or listen to that song:

1.How is this piece defining “good”? What’s it shooting for?

2.Did the piece achieve its goals?

3.Do I like the piece? Does it bring me some kind of pleasure? (Pleasure can be aesthetic, moral, intellectual; outrage can be a kind of pleasure; so can be perplexity, or feeling conflicted; pain can be pleasure, even watching something painful to the eye (too bright an image, for example, or the too-quick cuts in many films), and  anyone who likes horror films can attest that controlled terror is a kind of pleasure…)

4.Do I agree with the standard? Can the standard be applied to other things? Do I want to adopt it as my own standard?

In other words, perhaps my (and your?) engagement with art, ideas, and other kinds of production is about two things: finding pleasure of some sort AND testing out a standard of “good” in order to add to my own definition.

But back to that initial question: can we call something “good” if most people don’t like it? Can it be called “good” if only certain types of people (white people, or rich people, or Americans, or anti-gun folk) like it?

I’m still dubious about such universal standards, and I’m beginning to convince myself that not only are they improbable, they are also unhelpful. Maybe the better question to ask myself as I write is not “is it good?” but “do I like it?” That may be, for me, at least, more important.

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