Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The difference between taste and judgment

We are very quick to pronounce our judgments on works of art: a book, a movie, a picture. I don't like this book. I love that movie. And so on. The point is, as long as we have a basic respect for a work of art, it is OK to express your opinion about it.

This and many other interesting points make Rick Gekoski's piece, It takes judgment, not taste, to pick a Booker winner, quite readable:
Claiming that something is right or wrong is generally regarded as more than mere opinion. Murder is wrong, being kind to old ladies is right: such conclusions are the result of first principles, argument and sustained consideration. If I prefer merlot to cabernet sauvignon, football to cricket, blondes to brunettes, spinach to mushrooms, that is a matter of taste, and I am under no obligation to defend my preference. But if I adore murdering, and am gratuitously beastly to old ladies, I am (in many ways) likely be called upon to defend myself.

Where does this leave us? With a clear distinction between matters of taste and matters of judgment. You like Mateus Rosé better than Château Pétrus? No problem. You think it is a better wine? You're wrong. You're clearly without the experience, palate, or discrimination to make such a judgment. As unfit as I would be to decide which sort of catalytic convertor to fit to my car. I simply don't know enough. This seems obvious, but increasingly such a position offends against the spirit of the times. Nobody is wrong these days. We are all "entitled to our opinion", and the notion that there is some gap between opinion and truth, assertion and argument, seems to be getting lost.

His final point:

You will have gathered by now that this is not about Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, or even John Banville, who merely provides its occasion. What is it about, then? Respect. For people, for texts, for the act of reading, and of talking about books and their authors. Implicit in this is John Stuart Mill's wise advice: it is easy enough to be grateful for friends who agree with you, but who we really need to value are our antagonists, for it is they who make us think harder, strive to refine and elucidate our judgments, making them (and ourselves) both clearer and better. I would love one day to argue publicly with Boyd Tonkin about The Sea. I think he was wrong. He thinks I was. Maybe one of us might actually change his mind?

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