Appreciation and creation
Appreciation is a form of taste. Creation is another. They are often intertwined, but don’t have to be. Someone could have impeccable taste in art, without producing any themselves. Those who create tasteful things are almost always deep appreciators, though. Mark Ronson listens to and loves a lot of music. Samin Nosrat tries and savors a lot of food.
You probably already have an intuitive sense of the people in your life who have great taste in something. They’re the people you always go to for restaurant or movie or gear recommendations. Maybe it’s the person you ask to be an extra set of eyes on an email or a project brief before you send it out.
The process of taste
Though taste may appear effortless, you can’t have taste by mistake. It requires intention, focus, and care. Taste is a commitment to a state of attention. It’s a process of peeling back layer after layer, turning over rock after rock. As John Saltivier says in an essay about building a set of stairs:
Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.
While taste is often focused on a single thing, it is often formed through the integration of diverse, and wide-ranging inputs. Steve Jobs has said:
I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.
The best definition of taste I found comes from painter John Folley:
‘Good taste' is simply to have a well formed opinion, in accordance with the realities of the Good and the True.
There are tasteful and non-tasteful choices. Taste reveals its purveyor to be a good decision-maker.
Taste and originality
Taste is not the same as correctness, though. To do something correctly is not necessarily to do it tastefully. For most things, correctness is good enough, so we skate by on that as the default. And there are many correct paths to take. You’ll be able to cook a yummy meal, enjoy the movie, build a useable product, don a shirt that fits. But taste gets you to the thing that’s more than just correct. Taste hits different. It intrigues. It compels. It moves. It enchants. It fascinates. It seduces.
Taste requires originality. It invokes an aspirational authenticity. Writer George Saunders calls this “achieving the iconic space,” and it’s what he’s after when he meets his creative writing students.
They arrive already wonderful. What we try to do over the next three years is help them achieve what I call their “iconic space” — the place from which they will write the stories only they could write, using what makes them uniquely themselves…At this level, good writing is assumed; the goal is to help them acquire the technical means to become defiantly and joyfully themselves.
Taste and snobbery
Still, taste is closely intertwined with snobbery. And indeed, many snobs (coffee snobs, gear snobs, wine snobs, etc.) often have great taste. But I would say that taste is the sensibility, and snobbery is one way to express the sensibility. It’s not the only way.
The path to taste
So, there’s the trick. The path to taste is really as simple as writing a little plus and minus in the margin more often. If we apply this to digital space, we can turn them from an overwhelming and chaotic bombardment into a steady stream of things we find beautiful, that in turn, can define our tastes. For me, Are.na is a space for this kind of curation. I contribute to it all the time and it remains my-kind-of quiet and pretty there. As a friend recently described it, Are.na is an “internet mind palace of cool stuff.”