Questions of taste—let’s put it simply—can tire. Like a second colonoscopy. Like a second fall of man. Do we have to go through that again?

In the beginning, one is innocent of taste. Then, introduced to the concept, our new Adam and Eve realize their paradisal minds contain no data concerning the charms of early polyphony, track lighting, or cocktail recipes using angostura bitters. Cover up!

Now some years back, the Spanish metaphysician José Ortega y Gasset had the audacity (bad taste?) to question René Descartes. “I think, therefore I am,”Ortega y Gasset said, was based on a false premise. For some reason it didn’t make the news, but wow! The foundation of four hundred years of Western thought, cracking and buckling like a fault zone. Ortega y Gasset said life comes first. “I live, therefore I think.” And what a relief, right? If life comes before thought, it certainly comes before taste, too. I guess I have a bone to pick with taste. Culture-driven or inherent, it harasses with its apparent primacy, its ethos of improvement. Ostendo impeccabilem gustus, ergo sum? Not catchy, probably ungrammatical, but weirdly tyrannical.

Illustration by David Wheeler
Illustration by David Wheeler

What follow are three scenes, without metaphysical intent or merit, confronting taste from the perspective of one giddy with the possibility of living first, asking questions of taste later.

Scene One: Paradise Lost, Regained

I love commercial music. Maria always ridiculed me because I love commercial music. She had much better taste. Maria loved the blues. Maria loved Leonard Cohen, old-timey gospel, Elvis Costello, shape-note singing, Heifetz, the grunts of Buddhist monks. I love the Traveling Wilburys, the Moody Blues, Frank Sinatra only after it was cool to, Fleetwood Mac with Stevie Nicks, James Taylor. Maria lived with me for three years before she left. She described herself as “long-suffering.”

She took with her: a lamb’s wool sweater, a long flowered skirt I’d bought her at a Renaissance fair when I had to get away from the good Elizabethan galliards, a CD of Gustav Leonhardt playing the Goldberg Variations, and my grandfather’s Gibson banjo. I was glad at least to find out she liked the skirt. It bothered me about the banjo.

“I need it,” she said.

“You don’t know how to play it.”

“I’m going to learn how to play it.”

My grandfather played in a YMCA band called the Swastikas. In the 1920s they toured the logging camps and little towns of the western Sierra slopes in Northern California. The swastika (Swah STEE kah) was then a symbol—borrowed from a Native American tradition—of the Young Men’s Christian Association. They displayed it proudly on their jackets and on a large banner they always hung above the bandstand. Strange. My grandfather always said, “Strange,” whenever he talked about the Swastikas. He had a picture of the band that he showed me once. They were good-looking kids, the Swastikas. Later he fought in the war. “Strange.”

My grandfather’s banjo also had a swastika on it, burned into the face below the strings. I smiled when I thought of Maria, with her good taste, hauling out that banjo at some coffeehouse in Portland to play a little anti-fascist air with her friends, the scandalous logo lurking beneath an improvised mask.

Even though not having taste in music maybe led me to lose Maria, I don’t really mind. It’s a matter of health. At one time I worked studiously to have good taste in music and many other things in the hope that Marias of all sorts might pay me some attention. A few did, and I was miserable. I didn’t like anything I claimed to like in the cultivation of taste. I didn’t like the masses of Guillaume de Machaut. I didn’t like mu tea or yoga. I didn’t like The Clash. I liked the music of my youth which I heard on the radio. Most accessible stuff, least common denominator stuff. It gave me hope. It turned the air to pure oxygen.

I have no taste. I have no girl. I’m pretty happy.

Scene Two: A la Cyrano

Cyrano de Bergerac expounded upon his nose as more than just large, but multifarious. Taste just as vigorously amounts to,

“Oh, a great many things! Mon dieu, why waste

Your opportunity? For example, thus”:

Aesthetic: A man stands in front of a Jasper Johns target at MoMA, nodding his head with apparent apprehension. Someone to reckon with.

Cosmetic: Queen Elizabeth I wore make-up combining mashed apples (pomade!), hog’s fat, and chalk for colorlessness. Absolutely de rigueur for the lady-in-waiting of taste.

Sensuous: Your chili is magnificent.

Sensual: Your lips are magnificent.

Oenological: Crabapple, with overtones of paraffin and rue.

Condescending: Oh, domestic …

Hegemonic: “We are the makers of manners, Kate.” Shakespeare’s Henry V simultaneously pitching woo to his future wife and asserting his royal taste-making prerogative.

Decadent: One mark of Rome’s Decline and Fall: Chefs became celebrities.

Incomprehensive: History has nothing to teach us.

Scene Three: Spleen and Variations, the last being a fugue of reconciliation

I’ve been committing here a public display of resentment against taste. And of course, I’m a hypocrite. I, like you, distinguish the firm from the fitful many times a day. Mostly without even thinking about it. I’d be lying if I claimed not to prefer the golf swings of Bobby Jones or Sam Snead to that of Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey, who hits it like a man wearing a tool belt around his waist, but still gets it done. So I guess I’m a snob. I also like raw oysters and the novels of Henry James. The rap sheet grows.

Nevertheless, I suspect taste mainly for what it often misses. Decorum distracts it. Decorum is simply that thing, act, or word that is expected in a certain situation. The tie rather than the tie-dyed (or the reverse). Speaking honey and not truth to power. Decorum is a dumb automaton, not a fine instrument, and it merely keeps you out of trouble. We sometimes reject as tasteless what is merely indecorous.

If you can, I wonder if you’d do something for me. First chance you get, find a recording of Beethoven’s last string quartet. No. 16 in F, Op. 135. It was one of five decorum-breaking quartets he wrote at the end of his life.

Beethoven, admittedly, was more or less a walking decoro-clast. But in this case it wasn’t just to be contrary or to shock the gentry. Hundreds of clever minds have devoted themselves to explaining what Beethoven was trying to do or say in these valedictory works. A completely unauthorized distillation: Dissatisfied with the musical rules he’d followed all his life and with the works derived under those rules, he looked deeply into the universe of his imagination. Somewhere out there (in there?) he found, to his ecstasy and his terror, that ANYTHING was possible.

So listen to the Op. 135, utterly incomprehensible then, and to a degree, even now. Listen to the nonsequiturs, the wall-bouncing, the silly dances. Lawless music! Now, the third movement: Let it play and let nothing interrupt you. It’s a document brought down from a mountain, curiously devoid of personality, but offering a supreme comfort. You won’t forget it and you’ll listen to it again. It is, to our eternal refreshment, beyond decorum, beyond taste. When we listen to this product—one of a multitude waiting for you to find them—of a human imagination, I believe we should resolve to be proud. A human being, one
of our tribe, touched and helped us touch, the sublime.

Bill Morelock ’77 is a classical music host (and frequent essayist) with Minnesota Public Radio.