Is Good Taste Teachable?

Taste presents an age-old quandary: It is notoriously hard to define. Discussions on the topic often fade into unhelpful aphorisms like “to each her own” or “live and let live.” After all, what is too much chintz to one person is comfortable and cozy to another. My favorite abstract painter may leave you cold or, in that proverbial art jab, look like the work of a toddler.

The subject becomes even more delicate as we discover that décor and art preferences aren’t entirely subjective. Sociologists tell us there’s a strong social component; notions of elegance have roots in class dynamics. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it can also reveal socioeconomic status. Our homes reflect, at least, as much about our peers as ourselves.

Still, as Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, most of us know poor taste when we see it. Intuitively, something just feels off. And researchers have nixed the idea that the more you’re exposed to an image, the more you like it, as might happen with a pop song. Bad art, it turns out, never really grows on you.

In a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Aesthetics, for example, participants rated Thomas Kinkade — whose mass-produced artwork graces many doctors’ offices — worse with repeated views, while appraisals of an admired, English Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais remained constant. People didn’t rate the artist, whose works hang in Tate Britain any higher the more they saw him. Thus, for all its slipperiness, there seems to be some accounting for taste. But how does one cultivate aesthetic judgment? Can you learn to spot beautiful things?


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