Taste is a metaphor for discrimination. Like most of our metaphors for living, taste is grounded in the physical experience of our bodies. Our taste buds allow us to distinguish four major tastes from one another, and with the help of our olfactory sense we can distinguish hundreds if not thousands of other flavors. In English and many other European languages we use the same word, taste, to describe our capacity to distinguish qualities in other areas of life, especially the cultural. In general Westerners have gone beyond a body-based notion of taste to elaborate the cultural use of the term. Taste now refers to the ability to notice, appreciate, and judge what is beautiful, appropriate, harmonious, or excellent. We can describe a persons taste in music, in art, in clothing, and home décor.
Our capacity for making cultural discriminations has attracted the interest of Western philosophers, sociologists, and social critics since Kant and Hume. Despite this long-standing interest, the topic remains confusing. It often is used simply to mean preference rather than discrimination. We are not certain if taste is collective or personal. On the one hand, taste is a specific preference of individuals, so idiosyncratic that we throw up our hands, exclaiming, “There’s no accounting for taste.” On the other hand, taste is shared and predictable enough to stand for an attitude or style shared by a group of people of a particular time and place, for example "Victorian" taste.
We are equally confused about whether taste is liberating or oppressive. One school of thought sees it freed from class influences, the arena of lifestyle where freedom of choice comes into play, while another school of thought sees it as always and fundamentally shaped and constrained by class forces. We are also confused about what is "good" taste and what is "bad."
Even designers who grapple with issues of taste professionally are ambiguous about its proper role. How should modern design function in a democratic society? Should it be an equalizing force, or should design professionals be given more respect and authority because they have developed their taste to a higher than average level? Architectural taste is specialized enough to cause notorious tension between professionals and non-professionals. Citizens don’t understand why their taste isn’t honored by architects, and architects feel frustrated that clients have "no taste," that is, don’t understand and appreciate “fine” design. In their architectural education students are tacitly socialized to a distinctive taste culture, but taste is seldom addressed overtly.
In this seminar we will deconstruct taste and in this sense account for it. Over the span of 100 years a half-dozen sociologists, including the well-known French sociologist Bourdieu, have offered ways to decode or interpret the social meaning of cultural choices. Market researchers, advertisers, and even journalists make money from this knowledge. Some critics of consumerism wring their hands over the same information that others view as a sign of freewill and creativity.
Most writing on taste either debunks it or celebrates it. Instead, we will to explore how it works, so that as individuals or as professionals we can use its codes knowingly. We will not overlook the individual, even as we clarify how collective identity is expressed, maintained, and changed. The class will explore the social codes, which establish identity, including class, gender, and ethnic identity. Drawing on ideas from other fields which relate the individual to the collective, we will consider how individual personality expression can be articulated with the shared social values embedded in matters of taste.
Establish the history of thinking about taste from the ancient world up to the 20th century.
Read 20th-century theory and empirical research. Seminar members will take turns leading the weekly discussion.
Create and analyze the content of photographic records to include middle class environments, including your own.
Analyze films that foreground issues of taste, such as Edward Scissorshands, Beetlejuice,Polyester, Truman Show. Others have recommended Pumpkin, Megacities.
Write term papers testing models of taste against real world examples from architecture, interior, and environmental design.
The most revealing writing about taste has been done by interpretive sociologists, starting with Thorstein Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption in his 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class. In the 20s and 30s the Lynd’s research on Middletown and Chapin’s 1935 “living room scale” developed non-verbal qualitative indicators of social class, based on how people decorated their homes, especially the objects in their living rooms. In advertising and decorating Russell Lynes wrote The TasteMakers (1954) inventing the terms low brow, middlebrow and highbrow; in the 1970s sociologist Herbert Gans wrote about taste cultures; journalist Joan Kron drew on the social research of environmental design researchers to emphasize the status function of interior decoration in HomePsych (1980), while Clare Marcus (1995) drew on gestalt psychology to emphasize unique individual expression in House As Mirror of Self; Csikszentmihaly and Rochberg-Halton came down on the side of the personal in The Meaning of ThingsDomestic Symbols and the Self (1981). In 1984 the French sociologist Bourdieu wrote Distinction A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, in which anything personal about taste is a myth used to legitimate class differences. Michelle Lamont (1992) showed how French and American elites use taste in three different spheres of life to discriminate, and the American social historian Leora Auslander also explored taste in regard to furnishings in French society in Taste and Power Furnishing Modern France (1995).Gronow (1997)gives a European overview of taste in cooking and fashion. The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste (1991) by cultural critics Michael and Jane Stern adds to our understanding of popular assessments of objects and environments. Market researchers have demonstrated the link between region, education and income (Weiss, Attitudes and Latitudes, 1994) in regard to our choice of consumer objects. Anthropologist Miller (1995) has argued that consumerism can be a source of creativity. Gary Stevens (1998) has focused on how architectural taste inculcated in architectural education. Starke (1995) notes how taste is gendered; how are these differences developed? No one has yet study how and when children learn to manipulate the several components of taste.
Weekly Course Outline of “The Sociology of Taste in Environmental Design ” PART I: TASTE OVER THE AGES
Introduction to the course; hand out course outline, assemble email list; meet team members for the assignments regarding the earliest thinking about taste from the ancient world up to the 20th century.
Send one paragraph e-mail to Galen Cranz at email@example.com and prepare a four-page paper on the historical era to which you have been assigned. Duplicate the paper for everyone in the seminar at the meeting on February 2. I will show slides of New Jersey housing for the elderly that stimulated my original thinking about taste.
Review history of thinking about taste from ancient Greece and Rome to the renaissance, to the 18th and 19th centuries.
PART II: TASTE AS CLASS CODE
Have read and be prepared to discuss:
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class, (New York: Modern Library, 1934). The starting point for 20th-century thinking about taste, published 1899. Be sure to read the introduction, chapter 1, chapter 6 on taste, chapter 14 on education.
Gans, Herbert. Popular Culture and High Culture (Basic Books, 1999).
How much has changed since Veblen wrote 100 years ago?
How does Gans differ from Veblen?
Does architecture exhibit the same taste cultures that Gans identifies in the media and other arts?
Week 5 Read and Prepare to Discuss:
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (CambridgeHarvard UP, 1984 ), 1-30. (For help, try Gary Stevens, The Favored Circle.)
Gartman, David. “Culture as Class Symbolization or Mass Reification? A Critique of Bourdieu's Distinction,” American Journal of Sociology 972 (Sept. 1991), 421-447. An important starting point because it gives structure to the literature on and debates about taste.
How does Bourdieu differ from Veblen, Gans, and the Frankfurt school?
Assignment for next week: your paper topic proposal, one-page (distributed to everyone in class)
Read and be prepared to discuss: How do taste preferences vary by culture and subculture? How is it that objects come to take on the meanings that they have in homes today?
Lamont, Michele. Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Kron, Joan. “The Semiotics of Home Decor,” in Signs of Life in the USA, eds., Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997), 72-82.
Laumann, E. O. and J.S. House. “Living Room Styles and Social Attributes: The Patterning of Material Artifacts in a Modern Urban Community,” Sociol. Soc. Res. 54 (1971), 321-42.
Assignment for next week: photograph and bring to class your own living room to share with the seminar.
Read and be prepared to discuss:
Insofar as taste serves social inequality, to what extent does architecture contribute to social inequality?
Erickson, Bonnie. A “What Is Good Taste Good For?” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 28 (1991), 255-78.
Erickson, Bonnie. “Culture, Class and Connections,” American Journal of Sociology 1021 (July 1996), 217-251.
Seminar members will read different chapters of Lamont, Michele and Marcel Fournier, Eds. Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality, (Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press, 1992).
PART III: GENDER AND TASTE
Week 8 Read and be prepared to discuss: What additional evidence would support Starke's argument that taste and design became gendered as female and male respectively? At what age do children learn these differences?
Starke, Penny. As Long As It's Pink: The Sexual Politics of Taste (HarperCollins, 1995)
PART IV: TASTE AS PERSONAL EXPRESSION
Week 9 read and be prepared to discuss: can you identify the truly personal components of taste and cite evidence?
Marcus, House As Mirror of Self
Abercrombie, A Philosophy ofInterior Design
PART IV: CHANGING TASTES
Week 10 Read and be prepared to discuss: how to the concepts of highbrow and lowbrow apply to architecture, landscape architecture, urban design? Is everything relative? Is there bad taste in architecture now, and historically?
Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988).
Assignment: screen at least one of the films that foregrounds issues of taste and report to class verbally and in a 1-2 page summary how taste is used to set the scene, or further the plot. It used satirically or descriptively? Are class issues acknowledged or naturalized?
Week 11 Discussion question/potential paper topic: has architecture started to participate in the "omnivore" taste of the elite?
Seabrook, John. Nobrow Culture: The Culture of Marketing. (New York: Knopf, 2000) Peterson, Richard and Roger Kern. “ Changing Highbrow Taste From Snob to Omnivore,” American Sociological Review 615 (Oct. 1996), 900-907.
Discuss films you have selected, exchange your one-page papers, and perhaps show clips in class.
PART V: BOTH/AND: IN SEARCH OF A MODEL FOR INDIVIDUAL EXPRESSION WITHIN COLLECTIVE COHERENCE
Week 12 Read and be prepared to discuss: since we live with commodities that we do not produce ourselves, what does consumer research see as the role of the individual, freewill, and agency? Does consumerism offer personal choice within social structure?
Miller, D. “Consumption and Commodities,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995), 141-161. This review article claims that the study of consumption and commodities represents a major transformation in the discipline of anthropology and may come to replace kinship has the core of anthropology. Some of the class might read Daniel Miller, Ed., Acknowledging Consumption: a Review of New Studies (Rutledge, New York, 1995), which covers history, consumer behavior, sociology, political economics, geography, psychology, anthropology, and for media perspectives.
Cranz, Galen, "A New Way of Thinking about Taste," The Nature of Craft and the Penland Experience (Lark publications, New York, 2004.
Ewen, Stuart. All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture, (Basic Books, 1988).
Hebdige, Dick. A “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” in The Subcultures Reader, eds., Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton (New York: Routledge, 1997), 130-142.
First draft of term paper due. Make copies for everyone.
PART VI: CONSUMERISM, KITSCH, AND "BAD" TASTE
Week 13 Discussion question/potential paper topic: To what extent is architecture consumption? To what extent does architecture participate in the excesses of consumerism?
Graaf, John, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor. Affluenza. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, 2001). The excesses of consumerism provides an ecological twist on taste.
Be prepared to give constructive feedback other seminar member’s papers.
Week 14 class selects a film for group viewing and analysis or individual conferences scheduled the prior week for detailed coaching on the term paper.
More potential paper topics on taste for arch 219X, Cranz, "Accounting for Taste"
Philosophy, history of ideas about taste. For example,
how does architecture fit within a general theory about the social functions of aesthetics?
Empirical research about taste in home furnishings, for example, in magazine articles, magazine advertising, professional interior design journals, or movies, or television.
Content analysis of taste in architecture, for examples, analysis of architecture magazines, or the work of selected architects, or architectural prizes.
Content analysis of taste in gardens and landscape architecture.
Content analysis of taste in urban design.
Cross-cultural testing of Cranz taste model: Europe, Latin America, or Asia (feng shui).
Ethnographic research of a particular taste culture.
How are the rules of tastes learned; how early do children learn to manipulate the several components of taste?
How are gender differences developed?
Additional recommended reading:
DiMaggio, Paul. “Classification in Art,” American Sociological Review 52 (1987), 440-55.
Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic Cambridge, MA, USA : Basil Blackwell, 1990. (See also, Eagleton, The Idea of Culture, 2000)
Gronow, Jukka, The Sociology of Taste (Rutledge, 1997)
Koren, Leonard. Arranging Things: a Rhetoric of Object Placement Hirschman, E. ed. Interpretative Consumer Research, (Provo, UT Assoc. Consum. Res., 1989).
Jones, Michael Owen, "The Aesthetics of Everyday Life," Self-Taught Art:The Culture and Aesthetics of American Vernacular Art, Charles Russell, Ed. (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson)
Musello, Christopher “Objects in Process: Material Culture and Communication” Southern Folklore (1992) 49:37-59.
Stern, Jane and Michael Stern. The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, (New York: Harper Collins, 1990). (Out of print; you’ll have to rely on the CED library) See also RetroHell, and other historical descriptions of tastes in different eras in bibliography.
Zolberg, Vera. Constructing a Sociology of the Arts, (Cambridge, EnglandCambridge UP, 1990).