There are few definitions longer in the Oxford English Dictionary than that of “taste,” which has numerous meanings both as a noun and verb, all related to the idea of tasting or sampling something, but few meaning quite the same thing. When we ask the question, “what does it mean to have artistic taste?”, we’re using the definition supplied by the OED relatively far down the page, which says, “8a. The sense of what is appropriate, harmonious, or beautiful; esp. discernment and appreciation of the beautiful in nature or art; spec. the faculty of perceiving and enjoying what is excellent in art, literature, and the like.” One of the earliest recorded uses of this definition in English comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1671), where he writes, “Zion’s songs, to all true tastes excelling,/Where God is praised aright.” However, this is itself a dated construction, since it has become unpopular to suggest that taste has a “true” meaning or designation. In our multicultural world, taste is subjective, different from one person to another, and not quantifiable in terms of artistic excellence or stylistic perfection. As it is used today, it is more akin to the sense of taste, which renders a dishing pleasing to some and displeasing to others; either too bitter or too sweet, not everyone’s cup of tea. In this case, it is something that can be acquired with practice or experience, like learning to enjoy Thai or Ethiopian cuisine (or American cuisine, if you’re Thai or Ethiopian).
While it's true that taste is acquired, I think there’s also a kind of universal law to taste--almost like mathematics. There are combinations in art that are more than just personal preference, they're truly masterful and unique. For example, you might not like British literature, and if you do, you might not like 19th century novels, and if you do, you might not like Jane Austen; but her prose is so rich, perfectly balanced, and matched so well to her characters and her themes that it reaches the very pinnacles of what the written word can do in the conventions of the novel. Some might still cry "that's just a matter of taste," but if we coldly, logically, took apart the structure of the novel, as well as the timbre and craft of her sentences, it simply emerges as highly skilled and cultivated art, whether or not you like to read it. For example, take this rather random sentence from her novel Mansfield Park (1816):
“Surprise, consciousness, and pleasure, appeared in each of the three on this unexpected meeting; and as Edmund was come on the very same business that had brought Miss Crawford, consciousness and pleasure were likely to be more than momentary in them. He too had his book, and was seeking Fanny, to ask her to rehearse with him, and help him prepare for the evening, without knowing Miss Crawford to be in the house; and great was the joy and animation of being thus thrown together—of comparing schemes—and sympathising [sic] in praise of Fanny’s kind offices” (Vol 1, Ch.18).
In this scene, the timid Fanny Price is helping Miss Crawford, a cunning beauty from
practice lines for a play she and her friends are performing to while away the
(where Fanny lives). She is portraying the male part, which is played by her
cousin, Edmund, which Fanny secretly loves and Miss Crawford is more openly
pursuing. As they rehearse, Edmund enters the room and finds them together,
leading to the passage quoted above. All conventional enough, but what makes
this crackle is how Austen shows how three very different people all share the
exact same emotions upon encountering each other: surprise, consciousness, and
pleasure. Fanny didn’t expect him to be here, so is a little embarrassed on
having him see her playing his role (she’s very prim, almost to the point of
being a prude), yet delighted to see him all the same; Miss Crawford is less
embarrassed as conscious of how he might interpret her being there—if she’s
being too forward, since she’s starting to get lost in her role and actually
beginning to love him a little; and Edmund worries that she might feel he’s
pursuing her too hotly, but no longer really cares. Mansfield Park
Austen goes on to qualify this by saying “and as Edmund was come on the very same business that had brought Miss Crawford, consciousness and pleasure were likely to be more than momentary in them.” Here, “them” no longer means all three, but only two—Edmund and Miss Crawford. Fanny may or may not realize that both of them are merely using Fanny as a subtext to get closer to teach other, to speak the words of love to Fanny as a proxy for Edmund/Miss Crawford. Now, they no longer have to use her at all, since they can use this “accident” to practice with each other (and Fanny can vouch for their innocence—they meant to practice with Fanny, but since they ran into each other, and she was there to act as chaperone, why not?). Now Austen artfully adopts Edmund’s voice without using dialogue (a technique known as free indirect speech), as he explains what brought him here: “He too had his book, and was seeking Fanny, to ask her to rehearse with him, and help him prepare for the evening, without knowing Miss Crawford to be in the house.” This gives us the sense that the narrator is hurrying over his pointless explanation (pointless both for Miss Crawford and the reader), yet he’s so tongue-tied that he doesn’t know what else to say.
The narrator abruptly cuts him off, saying how happy they were to be “thus thrown together—of comparing schemes— and sympathising [sic] in praise of Fanny’s kind offices.” Another masterful sentence, since it unites all of their sentiments while slyly undercutting Fanny and removing her from the conversation. Both Edmund and Miss Crawford quickly take control of the conversation, praising Fanny’s virtues in order to exclude her from their rehearsal. Able to see each other’s surprise and delight, they have laid their cards on the table, and no longer need the emotional protection of a go-between. Fanny will quickly realize herself becoming a third wheel in this group, and the reader picks it up even faster through the verbal sleight-of-hand of the narrator. We could go on examining this entire scene, or the entire chapter, or the entire book—but a single sentence or two makes the point. This is “taste” as applied to literature, meaning the application of style, art, and sentiment. There’s nothing clumsy or accidental here, but everything is weighed carefully to communicate a specific meaning for the reader, and to help us ‘see’ the inner world of the characters and their emotions.
Of course, not everyone will appreciate this passage or find such passages agreeable reading. For some, it will sound too old, too fussy; others will find the pacing too slow; still others might find it boring. So who’s right? All of us? None? This begs a second question regarding taste, particularly if we regard taste as a universal attribute: is taste a matter of education? Does your taste improve with education (meaning an education that focuses on liberal arts, literature, culture, etc.)? Clearly you can be a great reader without an education, but does an education help elevate, expand, refine, or broaden your aesthetic vision? Can a lack of education also doom you as a reader and/or writer?
Granted, it sounds elitist to say “if you don’t like Jane Austen you’re not educated!” And that’s not how I mean it. But rather, the more you read, and become knowledgeable in the different literatures of various times and lands, the easier you can relate to what Jane Austen (and others) are doing, and so appreciate it. In the same way, if you’ve never listened to much classical music, and go to a concert featuring Mahler’s 9th symphony (which clocks in at around an hour and thirty minutes) you might be bored out of your mind. However, take some Music Appreciation courses in college, or spend a year listening to and learning about symphonies in general, and you will understand how to follow and appreciate a long symphonic score. So much of what we appreciate and don’t appreciate can be called ‘taste,’ but it can also be called ‘experience.’ What we dislike is often because it’s not familiar to us, and thus seems “wrong” or “out of place.” Yet when we learn to put it in its place, it becomes both familiar and pleasing. Some argue that we form our individual aesthetic judgment more on the basis of routine than experimentation. What we live with, we learn to enjoy—and then prefer. It’s the same reason so many people practice the religion of their parents, prefer their mother’s home cooking, and want to raise their kids back home. Aesthetics or Upbringing? You be the judge...
In the same way, if you don't know much about literature, history, culture, or tradition, then you can read a pretty lackluster, cliche-ridden book and find it thrilling. However, when you read and learn more, you can see how derivative and uninspired it is. Think of all the kids' books we were enthralled by that no longer do it for us. Education 'ruined' those books for us. But at the same time, it helps us appreciate the virtues in more sophisticated and nuanced books. The more educated I've become (not just through school, but through my own reading and writing), the more I can appreciate and enjoy--it;'s opened so many doors to me. But I think it's unpopular to admit this in our culture; we like to think universities and education is elitist and that everything is relative. I don't think it is, though. You can read and enjoy anything, but you'll read and enjoy more if your education increases. And education simply means exposure and familiarity to more diverse materials and knowledge.
I hesitate to call anything a ‘bad’ book or a ‘good’ book. But I never hesitate to call something ‘great.’ Taste allows me to do that. Taste isn’t really all that subjective. It merely helps you discern artistic style and other notable characteristics in a single sentence or a single bar of music. Greatness truly stands out, whereas goodness is harder to define (or taste). So by developing a taste for taste, you are merely exercising your ability to appreciate the world of art, and to understand why people have been raving about this one book or author for over 200 years. I’m looking at you, Jane Austen!