Thursday, February 27, 2014

Is good taste elitist?

Some have said that "taste" is no longer a relevant concept.  It certainly had its heyday in the 18th century.  Moreover, there was a reaction against the idea of taste in the late 20th century.  It is often associated with elitism and is sometimes criticized for being undemocratic.  However we can distinguish between good and bad forms of elitism.  Surely there is nothing wrong with saying that there is an elite group called mathematicians who understand math far better than anyone else in our civilization.  Similarly, there are people who understand Abstract Expressionism better than others because they have studied it.  Although the word "elite" has negative connotations, all it really means is a small group of specialists, and no one denies that there are such things.  Elitism is a problem only when certain groups are told that they cannot belong to the elite because of some innate or cultural characteristics, or are excluded for other reasons that are irrelevant to the skills required to belong to a true elite.  One should not feel bad for being excluded from an elite group one has no business belonging to in the first place.  If we go by Hume's idea of taste, the group of good judges would certainly form an elite, but this would not be an elite in the bad sense of the word.  Bear in mind that I am interpreting Hume's good judges as only being so in certain areas, in particular in those areas in which they have practiced and compared, for example in Reggae music.  So this form of elitism is not based on wealth or ancestry.  It is based on experience, although it also requires that the members have "good sense" (capacity to reason) and be determined to avoid prejudice.  These qualities may be relatively rare when developed, but most people can develop them.  Nor does this form of elitism say anything about who is best able to govern:  we are just talking about aesthetics here.  One dictionary ( gives its first definition of elitism as "practice of or belief in rule by an elite" and this is not of concern here.  A second definition is "consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group."  This too, may not be relevant since the charge of elitism against the idea of taste is usually a charge against the very idea that there exists an elite in some area.  The further act of pride in belonging to an elite may or may not be a good thing.  Again, if one belongs to an elite group because one is a good judge in Hume's sense there seems to be nothing wrong with that, nor even with pride in belonging to such a group.  It is often thought that such elitism is anti-feminist or anti some other group.  Yet although most elite groups of good judges in the past have not included women or some other groups (racial, ethnic, gender, etc.) this should not be a reason for questioning the very idea of such an elite.  Women (etc.) just didn't have the opportunity to pursue the skills that would allow them to belong to these elite groups, or they were excluded even if they had the skills because of prejudice.  (And this is still true today in many places.)  There is nothing about elitism as such that excludes women or other oppressed groups from forming parts of elite groups or even entire elite groups, as for example in the case an elite feminist reading group.  Again, I am not advocating elitism in the traditional sense of that term, since that means advocating social dominance by the particular group:  rather I am simply arguing that basically Humean idea of taste does not entail elitism even though it does indicate a kind of elite and does not preclude pride in belonging to such an elite (assuming that there are no moral problems with such membership).  Belief in taste can be consistent with belief in even fairly radical or progressive forms of democracy.   


An interesting article that develops an idea of elite experience and the elite art that generates this kind of experience is Steven Skaggs and Carl R. Hausman "Toward a New Elitism" Journal of Aesthetic Education 2012 46:3 (83-106).   Skaggs and Hausman, like me above, veer away from the traditional definition of "elitism."   


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