At present, more rap stars have been killed than abortionists. I was sitting on an airport shuttle bus when I overheard two men in their thirties discussing the second murder of a rap singer. “People need to see that this isn’t just about music,” one said. I think I know what he means.
Taste never has been just an aesthetic issue; our preferences in the arts have always betrayed strong affinities for certain lifestyles and moral attitudes. We express these allegiances in our dress, our grooming, and our habits of play and recreation. (For example, I despise backwards baseball caps and gum-chewing.)
Have you noticed that in the middle of all the chatter about values, there is one value that we never hear about? The value I have in mind is taste. It’s the right moment to discuss it. We have arrived at the point where arguments over taste have become more explosive than morality.
The general silence on the value of taste, it seems to me, stems from an obvious cause. We earnestly discuss our “shared” values in an attempt to draw people together, to create a new consensus on the subject of morality. We can confidently espouse our belief in peace, justice, and love knowing that only the most beastly among us would dare disagree. Such moral generalities guarantee a minimum of quarreling. Mention taste, however, and this happy unanimity begins to crumble.
Why? Because taste is always about a specific object, this movie or that piece of music. Propose the importance of good taste and people immediately cringe at the possibility that their taste will be found lacking. Questions about taste quickly turn toward the concrete in a way that justice and love do not (but should!). “What’s wrong with Pulp Fiction? I liked it!”
The fact that disputes over taste quickly turn to particular films or novels is refreshing: For a moment we are actually freed from the airiness of the theoretical. We suddenly feel the weight of what values are actually for — to make judgments, based upon universal standards, about concrete things and actual practices.
Thus, the mere mention of taste actually raises the long-ignored substantive issues about the nature of value itself. We have grown used to ignoring its function as an external measure of actions and character. Taste forces us to face up to the deeper questions we want to avoid.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that taste raises the problem of objectivity in values while seeming to be the most subjective of judgments? In fact, it is commonly heard in the history of ethics that contemporary moral theory resembles aesthetics — moral values gradually are being reduced to matters of “mere taste.”
For years I argued lightheartedly with my students about the downward spiral of popular music. One day I realized: The argument wasn’t about beauty — the quality of melody, harmony, rhythm, or lyrics — it was about the identity they felt through their musical preferences. As much as the aestheticians would like to limit the experience of art to pleasure alone, it’s clear that the sociological-moral dimension can’t be denied.
It’s inevitable that we seek the absolute in our most earnest and passionate endeavors. Being a people more invested in music and entertainment than in morality, it’s no surprise that fans become fanatical. We often forget that one reason we need God is so our unavoidable, infinite desire for him isn’t squandered foolishly or violently.
Bad taste pollutes and diminishes our public life not simply because it promotes inferior art but because it promotes all the manners and morals that come in its train. Bad taste results in the enjoyment of vulgar TV and banal music, which leads to boring conversation, brutish manners, and obviously violent behavior.
The hegemony of bad taste is evident everywhere — it’s the dominant form of the incivility that people are complaining about — the backwards baseball caps, the murderous drivers, the tattoos and navel rings, the tell-all talk shows, our obsession with the dark side of celebrity lives.
Of course the knee-jerk answer from parents whose kids are running around listening to rap music and emulating rappers’ dress, will be “Well, I wore beads and long hair in the ’60s and I got over it.” My response is: “You may have gotten over it, but we all know people who are still using drugs with grey-haired friends while the children are asleep upstairs.” The culture, it is clear to see, is still reeling from the bad taste of thirty years ago. The value of cultivating and encouraging good taste is no “mere” luxury.
This column originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.