An ice-cube manufacturer received a complaint. His trays gave the ice-cubes a bitter taste.
He tried for himself, but could taste nothing. Gradually more complaints trickled in. It
turned out that about one person in a thousand could taste the trace of a chemical exuded
by the ice-cube tray.
Everyone has different taste-buds. A few people have many more taste-buds than others, and
are known as super-tasters. Some people have a more developed sense of smell than
others. Some of us are long-sighted; some short-sighted. Sensitivity depends on mood
— even on the time of day.
So why are we all so confident that our own likes are the best? As a teenager, I knew that
my favourite music was wonderful, while music I disliked was not. With time, the range of
my musical taste expanded considerably, and I came to realize that my preferences were
influenced by my culture, as well as by my personal, and idiosyncratic, tastes.
After walking through the Tate’s Francis Bacon room, years ago, I felt physically sick.
It was an interesting and unexpected reaction. I decided that anything that could have that
much impact on me should probably be considered art. I also decided to avoid
Francis Bacon paintings.
I love Blues music, but feel uncomfortable around Country and
Western, which is very interesting as these musics came from the same region, and have much
in common. In fact, early Blues singers often sang what would be considered Country songs,
and the transition from Blues to Rock and Roll included Country influences. Elvis, Carl
Perkins and Johnny Cash were all part of the Sun Studios stable in Memphis, where Ike Turner
and Howlin’ Wolf had also recorded for Sam Phillips. Country star Johnny Cash recorded
an album of spirituals, in 1959. Three years later, founder of Soul, Ray Charles, blurred
the boundaries completely, releasing a best-selling album of Country tunes, simply because
he loved them.
How much of our taste is dependent upon the development of our own
senses (whether we can actually taste the bitterness), and how much upon our cultural
background? It is often said that people always feel a lifelong resonance with the music
of their teens. Parents who listen to Classical music expect their children to grow
of popular music, and often people seem to compartmentalise music into the
serious and the frivolous. I once had a good friend who would not buy CDs of his
favourite pop music, because it was somehow not serious
enough to justify the
expense. I happened to think that his taste was fine - he liked Eek a Mouse, Doe Maar
and Joe Jackson - and he listened to this music all the time. I did not understand the
reservation, but it points to a cultural barrier, lowered long since by critics, and
other serious, life-detesting folk.
I have another friend who is certain that true Classical
music - Mozart and the like - is worthy, where Jazz is not. I have never quite managed
to follow the reasoning. To me the music of Armstrong, Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and
Jan Garbarek fulfills even the strictest criteria for serious consideration - not least
of all because some of it is well-nigh impossible to play, and most of all because much
of it is very beautiful.
Herbert Read said that when we look at a painting, we first
whether we like it or not, and we then invent reasons for our preference.
I am very sure that he is right. I think that it is best to be open to aesthetic
experiences, indeed not to set up any criteria that might exclude perception of something
asethetically valuable. Elsewhere I have made fun of Tracy
Emin’s defence of her work
, but this is not because I dismiss conceptual work
— Mauricio Catellan’s work intrigues me, and my friend David Hensel’s
work is brilliant in both its virtuosity and its conceptual reach. I do not, in fact,
dismiss Tracey Emin’s work itself — nor Country and Western music — I
just don’t enjoy
them, and that is probably enough. And in this world there
is so much to enjoy, that it is better to spend time attracting people to the enjoyable,
rather than repelling them from the repugnant. But that, of course, is just a matter of