Turn off the computer. Go live in the world of objects. Go to the stores in your city or town. Touch things. Try them on. Sit on them. Peer, leer, jeer!
In the world of objects, you’ll find “helpers”. People will come up to you and say, “Would you like this in a different size?”, “Do you need this in a different color”, “Have you heard their last album?”. These people will become your allies on your journey to taste. Ask them questions: “What is this?”, “Who made this?”, “What or who is this for?”. Come back often to see the new things their store has stocked. Often, they will be moody teenagers (like I was), but sometimes they’ll be passionate, and you can learn mountains from them. Shopkeepers know objects better than most people, learn the tales of things from them.
Taste is ultimately a compound of three ingredients. The first two, knowledge and curiosity, are important because they introduce you to new fields of knowledge. You must be adventurous. For the first year of your journey, always say Yes!
You get invited to a noise show: say Yes!
Someone invites you to a gallery opening: say Yes!
Colleagues are trying a new restaurant: say Yes!
Too many have stunted taste by fear of trying new things.
Trying new things can expand or confirm taste, which is good.
Go high, go low, be omnivorous. Say Yes!
Knowledge is social, it’s shared. When you enter a cultural space, listen. Seriously, shut up for a second. Listen. Be open. Be present. Maybe you’ll meet the booker who’ll explain why this band from Michigan is playing, here, in California. Maybe you’ll overhear the curator explain how they chose the artist. Get closer. Listen. Maybe you’ll hear two x-heads debate their favorite record. Listen. Taste is being exercised all around.
You’ve listened. And you’ve tried a few new things. Now, catalog them. Make a list (it can be mental). Draw contrasts between your experiences. Note similarities. What engenders strong reaction from you? At this point, you’ll have fragments of information. What you will be missing is context (“that which is scarce”, comme disait l’autre).
At this point, you can open the computer and attempt to obtain context. Listen to the whole album. Look at the whole collection. Read another book in the series or another by the author.
Act in ways opposite to your instinct. If you hate something, find out more about it. Again ask. “What is this?”, “Who made this?”, “Who is this for?” Genuinely. Never stop doing this.
Try to pinpoint why. Which segment of the song makes you cringe, which chapter of the book makes you lose interest, which part of the dress makes you say “No!”. Develop your critical muscle. Don’t let it atrophy.
Now, the fun part. If there’s one new thing you love, time to descend into the rabbit-hole. I recommend listening to the whole discography. Watching all the movies from the director. Making your way through the creator’s oeuvre. You will develop an irreproducible connection with the work. That’s when the magic “love” comes into play.
This isn’t obligatory. Some people are just too prolific. Think of it more like a goal. Get to know the artist as you grow old. Year by year, movie by movie, painting by painting. Rewatch the ones you love. Go see their shows if they are near to you. Learn to love art and make time for it.
It’s getting serious. You should be animated by an incurable virus. You’ll want to watch every interview. Read old magazine features. Find B-Sides. Samples. Misprints.
Read what critics said at the time. If you can, find out what audiences at the time thought as well. It’s a good time to return inside and spend whole afternoons on niche fora and blogs dedicated to your topic of interest. Tell your friends about your new discoveries.
Buy or rent art books! They are amazing repositories of knowledge and context on the work you love. I love them because many of the images in them aren’t even on the internet. Google searches will yield academic papers written about your darlings. Read a few of those. Look at the footnotes, the bibliography. Look into those too. Build a map of who knows what about the thing you love. You now have context, critical perspectives, and historical understanding. You can place work in a lineage, link it to other works in the canon, create novel connections with other works.
In your perusals, you’ll learn who inspired your current favorites. Look them up. Repeat the process. Find out who inspired them. Investigate their work. Rabbit hole. Boom! Fantasize about what if X met Y, and the kinds of conversation A, B and C would have had in 1917 Zurich.
You’ll grow a network of references, a personal canon, a set of imaginary friends who perched on your shoulder will opine on your aesthetic judgements and thoughts. You’ll have the confidence to rely on them or to say, “No, not today.”
Your shelves, hard drives, Tumblr, Are.na, should be teeming by now. You’ve built a personal idiosyncratic archive of culture. You know what you like and what you don’t. There’s a painting, a print, a poster, or a poem on your bedroom wall, kitchen door, that book you hate is a doorstop. You live with art.
Here comes the most important part: Randomness. Pick random books from give-take municipal streets libraries. Pick them off the street if you find them. Ask hosts at house parties to borrow a book if it catches your eye. Ditch the algorithms and pick a random record based on the cover art alone. Walk into stores you’ve never been in before. Travel tends to increase randomness. Visit new cities. Go to flea markets, tradeshows, pop-ups. Then, with these new finds, repeat the above steps. Find new things, experiment, stay open.
What do all these steps have to do with Taste?
They have to do with the third ingredient of Taste: Love. And, above critics, experts, and academics, Taste is about Passion. It is Love that sends you down the rabbit-hole. It is Love that makes you cry at a concert. These steps are for you to find things you love, not just now, but throughout your life. Things that will live with you. Sometimes as thoughts, sometimes as objects. They’ll remind you of personal eras, victories, heartbreak. They’ll hold memories like columns in Yates’ palace.
If you love Barbara, why don’t you get a jukebox, fill it with only her songs and put it in the middle of your empty apartment. It would be oh so tasteful.