If your job involves creative work - whether you write, cook, design, photograph, or compose - good taste is one of the biggest factors of your performance. This is also true if your job is to pick anything at all - museum curators, venture capitalists, radio DJs, casting directors: all these occupations require some good taste.
In the great documentary about his life and work, Jiro Ono a Japanese three-Michelin-starred chef, famous for both his world-class sushi and his uncompromising work ethic, explains what good taste means to him:
In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but one must develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food.
By understanding what good taste actually is and how it works you can improve your own and open up to a whole new bunch of amazing creations you might be missing.
Good taste is a skill. This skill has 3 components:
Emotional intelligence, in this context, refers to the ability to detect and understand emotional cues. For example, the full appreciation of a movie hinges on the ability of the viewer to notice and instinctively understand the intended effect of elements like an actor’s micro-expressions or a scene’s change of lightning. They are intended to provoke a certain emotional response and it is essential to be fine-tuned to these details. The other aspect of emotional intelligence is the ability to understand the particular setting and mood in which an artwork is supposed to be enjoyed ¹. Saint-Saëns’ Aquarium is an outstanding piece of music. Yet, it would awful to blast in a nightclub. Misreading the mood and setting an artwork is supposed to be consumed in is a very common mistake.
The second pillar of good taste is pattern recognition, the ability to detect similarities and oddities in the material examined. Extensive cognitive research indicates that music appreciation is determined by an optimum of predictability and unexpectedness. When listening to music, we unconsciously make predictions about what is going to happen next. A melodic sequence not finishing on a tone we’re expecting would sound weird, in the same way un changement de langue au milieu d’une phrase would weird us out. This idea of an ideal predictability/unexpectedness ratio is common to virtually all creative endeavors. And it takes a solid pattern recognition aptitude to have a sense of what’s expected and what is not in the first place. The single best way of improving your pattern recognition to develop good taste is to dramatically increase the volume of content you consume. A quick reading of a dozen science fiction novels will reveal some commonplaces of the genre and some particularities of their authors. But if you studied 500 novels, your ability to notice the cliches and the originalities would sharpen exponentially. This is why experts in aesthetic domains seem to get excited by some pieces looking unexceptional to our untrained eyes and unimpressed by some we judge atypical. They perceive things we don’t. This is part of the reason people with good taste are always frantically looking for new, fresh material and ideas.
The third component of good taste is contextual knowledge.
Take a look at this famous 1559 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Netherlandish Proverbs.
It depicts a pretty busy scene full of characters doing all kinds of silly activities. If you enjoy Dutch renaissance style, you probably appreciate it at a superficial level, at least. What you may not know, however, is that this painting depicts a literal illustration of about 112 Dutch proverbs and idioms. For example, on the right side of the picture, you can see a man falling through a basket, referring to a Dutch proverb used to describe people whose shenanigans are uncovered. You can also notice a woman gazing at a stork in the middle part, which could be translated as “wasting time”.
The point is, we do not enjoy art pieces in a vacuum. Having a deep knowledge of the greater context in which these artworks were produced, and of the world in general, help to put things in perspective. To consider all aspects of Godzilla, you need to know about the nuclear bombings of Japan. To fully understand Kanye West’s Wouldn’t Leave, you need to be aware of his antics and to understand these, you need some knowledge of the history of African Americans and the USA in general.
These three components overlap. You cannot possess any of them without a bit of the other. To have good taste is to have a sufficient degree of all three.
It is important to remember that good taste is a skill, not a reflection of the intrinsic quality of the items it considers. Jazz music is not inherently better than electro-pop and action movies are not a fundamentally lesser genre than art-house films. Good taste is about how one approaches, analyze and consider a piece, not the piece itself ². If you take a photo of a boring grey brick wall with a very high definition camera and then a photo of an incredible sunset with a terrible phone, the first camera is still the better one, the subject of its photos does not matter. In this metaphor, good taste is the camera, not the setting. However, some genres may indeed be harder to appreciate - as in, one must often possess a certain initial level of good taste to genuinely do so. Many of us instinctively like the taste of fast food. I distinctively remember the first time I tasted a döner kebab in Barcelona with my family as a young kid. It was amazing, even to my ignorant palate. In contrast, while I do also absolutely love sushi, they were an acquired taste. I did have to learn to appreciate them through repeated exposure and the education of my tongue to complex flavors and textures. My appreciation for sushi is not forced at all, I genuinely enjoy them a lot, but it took a honing of my culinary good taste. The fact is, there is no absolute hierarchy between döner kebabs and sushi. But it usually takes more “work” to appreciate the latter. This is why what is often considered of “intrinsically good taste” (which, again, is not really a thing - good taste is an individual ability not an attribute of objects) are often things that are “hard to like” ³.
The three most basic advice one may apply to improve their own good taste with this knowledge would be:
Understanding good taste also allows you to deal with the gatekeepers whose job is to select things. Every time you face them, keep in mind that, in the abstract, they’re all looking for the same thing. Venture capitalists are “good taste workers” too. They seek the optimum of predictability and unexpectedness ⁴, they want to be able to place your vision in a larger historical and commercial context and they are extremely fine-tuned to your behavior.
¹: This does not mean that these objects shouldn’t be appreciated in another context, of course, but that they need to be considered according to this intended setting. You’re free to do whatever you want with an umbrella you just bought, but it would be strange to complain about the fact that it is not very practical to draw with - it’s not what it is supposed to do. However, playing with this idea of the “right context” may yield interesting results.
²: The subjective nature of taste does not make a lively debate about its subjects pointless. There’s a whole other article to write about the benefits of discussing taste. My sister and I often joke that half the pleasure of watching a movie is the ensuing discussion.
³: I love Donald Glover description’s of being nerdy as “liking stuff that takes work to like.”
⁴: My own personal theory as to why college dropouts seem overrepresented among (popular) startup founders is because they represent this predictability/unexpectedness optimum the best. An MIT college dropout is just crazy enough. A 55-year-old janitor sporting a red tomahawk applying with the very same VC fund would seem too wild, while a clean-cut milquetoast graduate from a decent college with a common name and no noticeable quirks will appear too safe.
Thanks to my friend Thierry Danse for his feedback on an earlier draft of this piece.