A large part of our self-definition comes from our artistic tastes and the reasons we value them. Our tastes add to our personalities and relationships in unexpected ways. While they are an important part of who we are, tastes are not a replacement for other parts of a social self-identity, particularly because people often like the same things for different reasons.
Many people enjoy standing in a crowd watching the same band, feeling connected by an unspoken bond of mutual love for the music. And yet we wear T-shirts that proclaim our favourite bands or movies to distinguish ourselves. This individualism is what draws us to likeminded people.
Upon first meeting, people tend to categorise each other by interests. Finding common ground by discovering shared hobbies or tastes can make the prospect of building a relationship more appealing. We design ourselves to appear unique in order to find people similar to us.
The philosopher Jeremy Bentham said, “poetry is no better than pushpin,” meaning that a supposedly higher art form such as literature is no more valuable than a child’s game. However, the world of entertainment still enforces a hierarchy of art forms. Consider the classic “the book was better” statement about a movie adaption.
People are always surprised when I describe certain video games as art. Visual arts, literature and music are generally considered more highbrow than movies and video games given their longer history. Genres within these forms have their own hierarchies, but in general movies and video games are labelled mass media, whereas drawings, paintings, literature and certain genres of music are art.
We tend to identify art and define its quality based on conventional expertise. While a film critic or someone with education in an artistic field may have valuable insights, assuming they are enlightened simply because of their education is silly and pretentious. It is pointless to try to like critically acclaimed art that doesn’t move you.
As an example, I went to the art gallery with a friend who is an art history major. We ended up arguing over several paintings, which she suggested that I disliked due to a lack of understanding rather than personal taste. Her status as a student of art history gave her a sense of entitlement, as though her opinion was more valid because of her education. Using the expertise of great thinkers from the past is important, but relying on it excessively can turn anyone into a patronising, pretentious jerk.
There is a threshold in everyone’s range of tastes. Up to a point, most people are able to recognize that while they might dislike a certain piece of art, there are legitimate reasons for others to enjoy it. But on both ends of their spectrum of good versus bad lie stubborn binaries, art that they consider irredeemably bad or irrefutably good — the result of gut reactions to strong impressions.
A gut reaction is not a claim to superior knowledge, however. Sometimes, knowing the context and history of a piece can completely change the observer’s perspective, for example, a lecture on the scientific possibilities of time travel in regards to a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Part of the problem with surrounding ourselves with people who share our beliefs and passions is that we agree with each other too often. Locking horns with someone who hates what you like can be refreshing and stimulating. Debate hopefully leads to re-examination of your tastes, which might uncover truths about the values behind them. Confrontation is an opportunity to be exposed to new philosophies and to perhaps renew self-confidence in your views.
There is no shame in changing your opinion after gaining new knowledge. I doubt that anyone in university has the exact same tastes or opinions that they did in high school.
Ultimately our tastes and values are a reflection of our view of ourselves and how we see the world. They are a statement about how we see ourselves and how we want to be perceived by others, and so there will always be disagreements. Tolerance and open-mindedness are crucial if we want to learn more about other people through their tastes. Someone may just change your mind or you might change theirs.