by Raju Peddada
(Swans - October 20, 2008) "I loved it!"..."and I hated it!" "I don't know why you insist on bringing me to your inane movies." Typical exchange between couples or friends anywhere in the world today. Individual tastes are varied and singular as fingerprints, they can be fetishistic, faddish, and even fiendish; it all depends on the literacy of our senses. I doubt civilization would have taken hold if our five senses did not guide us through the ages to become more and more attuned to our surroundings and seek improvements. It is impossible to fathom how the Homo sapiens would have progressed without fire and discovering how fire made the meat palatable, in fact all foods better tasting. The prehistoric humans discovered the beautification of the human body and painted their habitats and caves across Europe that still vibrate with life even after thirty millennia. Their burials revealed their possessions for afterlife and vanity at its infancy. I believe that it was our senses, for the better part, that envisaged and have propelled humans to all the progress as well as the regression we confront today.
The sense of taste is one of the five senses, and with time it became the proxy for all the other senses. Today taste represents our accumulated memories and empirical palimpsests that help us discern what is good or bad. Over the millennia the sense of taste, touch, and feel have helped us determine what is edible, dangerous, endearing, or fearsome to be avoided and impelled us to invention, survival, and eventual progress. The sense of sight and hearing being pivotal in our safety and survival within the prehistoric context and later as the ages wore on transmogrified into the basis of all human endeavors economic and capitalistic. Our entire economic morphology had coalesced out of these two aforementioned senses. Every major capitalistic impulse has been triggered by the sense of hearing and sight; we can scan across the globe and see the achievements of civilizations spanning thousands of years, and the pinnacle of their artistic endeavors left behind as evidence of their aesthetics of commerce. In the west from Babylon to Istanbul and from Greece to Rome, in the east the continuous living civilizations of India and China, human senses have shaped these civilizations and given us backgrounds and choices that influence our decisions even today.
Defining good taste is difficult, and definitions or opinions are quite divergent, however, what is good taste? The Webster's dictionary offers this among many meanings of the word. It defines taste as a personal preference or liking for something, the faculty of discerning what is aesthetically excellent or appropriate, and a manner indicative of the quality of such discernment. Immanuel Kant defines taste as the acute faculty of estimating beauty. He says that if we had to discern anything as beautiful, we do not refer to the object by means of understanding with a view of cognition, but by the means of the imagination and discern with the feeling of pleasure or displeasure. He says, "the judgment of taste is not a cognitive judgment and not logical, but is aesthetic and cannot be anything but subjective." Among the many opinions offered, some literary giants like Aristophanes, François Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, and Jonathan Swift never considered good or bad taste to be the way to judge their works.
I tender here more questions than answers. How is it that an individual with sophisticated discerning abilities when it came to food, clothes, and furnishings has no faculty for films? How can one indulge in the literary delights of George Eliot or a Vladimir Nabakov and in next moment head to a theater to see a visually inept slap-stick movie? What makes people prefer one thing over another? What makes people sophisticated in one dimension or a sense and totally ignorant with the other senses? Is education the basis on which we develop discerning abilities leading to "good taste"? Pierre Bourdieu in his tour-de-force "Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste" proposes that indeed education and observation have everything to do with our discerning abilities along with other influencing factors like home, society, and culture. I think it is more than that; it is the instinct and gut level decision-making that define and shape us in the long run.
Great creativity enables and nurtures the literacy of our senses whether it is writing, cinema, art, or just simple observation of nature; as Immanuel Kant professes that our imagination plays a critical role in the discernment of quality. Marcel Proust imagined the whole world from his bedroom and he often sequestered himself from friends to be closer to them in his writing. He made us look into the human landscape with his deft prose and imagination that obliterated the perfunctory visual milieu and instead pollinated our imagination to create our own personal landscapes. He observed that "the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." Quality literature invariably is imbued with beauty and aesthetics. To read great literature and enjoy it, one must posses a vivid imagination, an acute understanding of the nuances of fine introspective writing, and a sophisticated faculty to connect and make sense of the plot and the atmosphere. Harold Bloom's "How to Read and Why" is one such an insightful tome that addresses the issues of reading smart and why deep reading of good books is a must for the soul. His critical masterpiece "The Western Canon" offers a list of what he considers the canons of Western literature, an imperative for all of those who desire to enjoy great aesthetics, great creativity, and nurture their taste. In the visual medium of film no such canons exist except a recent attempt by a film critic and writer Paul Schrader in the October 06 issue of Lincoln Center's Publication Film Comment. He writes that a canon should be elitist and not populist; raising the bar so high that only a handful of the films would pass over. I believe the same is applicable in matters of personal taste, as we must set the bar high lest we fail to even reach mediocrity. Of course, all matters of taste are subjective hence the debate rages, however the experts of the various endeavors determine for the rest of us what a Canon is and what constitutes a canon, and that as well is arbitrary to a great extent, but it provides us a guide of sorts, a beginning, as it is all eventually left to our own imagination, inclinations, and machinations.
For the most advanced nation in the world our literacy of the senses in general is marginal to say the least. With our global electronic culture embedded and imbued with jump-cuts of rapid fire images, video-gaming mall societies that proliferate the landscape, and our airport lives have indeed reduced today's adults and kids to addicted kinetic-gizmo junkies with a serious deficiency in the comprehension and enjoyment of anything that does not move or moves imperceptibly, like nature. This is also somehow connected to what we eat daily and our eating habits. Overdosing on caffeine, sugar, and processed foods also creates hyperactivity in all of us and makes us overly hyperkinetic. This has also been reflected in Hollywood's output of computer generated hi-fi-sci-fi movies that shake, rattle, and roll our senses but offer little or no visual respite or redemption. Our whole culture has been desensitized of the things that make us human and an extension of nature. Simplicity, innocence, and introspection have dissolved into the circuitry of the twenty-first century's dash for speed, in the process blurring everything that matters. There is serious need for a recalibration and diligent literacy of the senses, especially, in how we are leading our lives, in the creation of materials and more so for the arts we indulge in.
The visual medium of film must not only entertain but should make us visually literate, force us to reflect just like any good book or art. It is not about providing us with morals, but to provide us with aesthetics and beauty for their own sake and make us pause and slow down. We have all become so plastic that we desperately need to recycle ourselves out of it. A visually sumptuous movie that definitely puts the brakes on our speed is the "The Scent of Green Papaya" by Tranh Anh Hung, the French-Vietnamese director's masterpiece is visual treat above and beyond the silly milieu of present cinema; it capably transports the viewer to a world inhabited by the speed of nature and human condition, reflection, and of redemption. It is a brilliant visual cultural essay that slows the viewer with gentle caresses of existence and the visual wonders draped in simplicity and profundity. The director harnessed the power of the film medium in a way that states succinctly if not bluntly that hundred-million-dollar budgets cannot guarantee good taste or literacy.
Taste is not available to be purchased in a Mall; it cannot be transferred by contact either. Taste is the byproduct of ardent life-long pursuit of literacy for our senses. We observe, learn, cultivate, and fine-tune our senses in their discerning abilities and this practice twenty-four/seven creates the required focus that enables us to zoom in on the best we can surround ourselves with. Our discerning abilities define us as to who we are and what we have become. We acquire taste through our finely tuned senses and these seasoned senses guide us through tough decisions and spots when it comes to improving and embellishing our lives. Our discerning abilities also accumulate values and become second nature that helps us in critical life situations and decisions we make, like the choice of partners, professions, and pursuits. It is important and an imperative in today's world blurring the simplicities and essentials of life to slow down and take in nature and its pace, and in that we find inner equilibrium for ourselves and polish our senses in the process.
Taste is about simplicity, patience for the process, and an intimate understanding of the human condition within the context of nature. Good taste clarifies, unifies and offers solutions relevant from and in reverence of nature. Good taste emphasizes peace with inner self and most of all it is same treatment offered to all with no pre-conditions. Good taste is simply a byproduct of wisdom of the trained senses. It is not about things, it is about our nature in relation to the nature and our societal-cultural circumstances.
One of the barometers of good taste is the esoteric ability to enjoy the patient processes in the creation of excellence and the exemplary. It is the appreciation of the process itself. The act of creation is a wonder in itself and is therapeutic to say the least. It is akin to watching a spider weave its web or a master Japanese potter create an asymmetrical masterpiece. One of the prerequisites of having good taste is that rare ability to appreciate asymmetry in nature and in man-made creations. Appreciation of asymmetrical beauty reverses the maxim of beauty being not in the eye of the beholder, but in the intellect of the observer. The pleasure of imagination and the anticipation of the outcome are the key derivatives in the pleasure of understanding asymmetry. Harold Bloom had also proposed that "in looking at the output of some literary masters, one must discern and look for a work that is not synonymous or parallel with author's body of work." He goes on to say that "this off kilter or asymmetrical work is in all probability his or her best work." Accidental and incidental beauty as observed and revered by Zen practitioners also brings up the concept of the ancient understanding and appreciation of asymmetry, flaws, age, imperfection, and profundity in nature. It is the unfathomable reverence for authenticity and above all it is the acceptance of the resplendence of natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.
This understanding of beauty in asymmetry and natural imperfection has been tapped by savvy marketers in the last few decades in various industries pulling in even the most jaded and cynical consumer segments. French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that taste in modern culture is closely linked to consumption and consumerism; it is the consumption of various products and their interpretation by means of criticism that addresses the idea of taste. In a consumption culture people aspire towards higher forms and produce their identities accordingly; in other words, they want to associate with those who are considered to be more developed intellectually in the consumption of cultural products. Coining the maxim that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in the intellect and imaginative faculty of the consumer. Luxury and passion are synonyms associated to high artistic and design endeavors that proliferate in the high-end brand experiences and environment; and that brings us to our natural environment and how it is exploited to secure brand and market segment identities.
The closer you get to nature in the simplicity, solution, and design as a purveyor of objects and accouterments in the global marketplace the richer the experience of the buyer resulting in sales. Marketers have indeed tapped into this simple logic and have parlayed product concepts into billions in sales from personal-care products to adventure vacations in the wildernesses. Getting closer to nature pays big dividends, however we cannot lose sight of the fact that euphemistic inclination towards nature for greenbacks is not the answer for our personal growth. It must manifest deep inside us to modify, improve, and change our lives with the education of our senses in coherence with nature...slow down enough to observe the latent beauty around us, slow down enough to see the mysterious mildew patterns on walls, the fall leaves like individual fingerprints, flowers that are heliotropes; and slow down that inexorable race to the grave.
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