What do you think is quality art? How do you measure quality?
Did you ever wonder about why you like one kind of music and can’t stand another? It’s a matter of personal taste.
How is your ‘taste’ or aesthetic formed?
Personal taste is the product of immersion and exposure. Immersion describes the cultural context you were raised in – all the symbols, meanings and values that were passed on to you implicitly through what you see/hear/absorb and explicitly through what you’ve been shown. Exposure describes the cultural products and contexts you have experienced that are ‘other’ to you. Depending on how and where you were raised and how much you’ve had contact with the ‘other’, your taste is shaped by a multitude of influences that you largely don’t notice.
When you start to work in community and cultural contexts, your fully formed picture of what quality looks like begins to be challenged. This is normal.
You’ve spent your entire life until this point in a never ending bubble of confirmation bias. You’ve surrounded yourself with people who like roughly the same things you like, you’ve located your identity by the music you listen to, the art that you like, the stories that resonate with you and the experiences you’ve had.
This new context feels unfamiliar. You’re not fluent in the aesthetic languages that has produced this thing in front of you. You are missing the backstory – the context that makes it make sense to you.
Personal taste also has a class dimension to it.
There are parts of culture that only certain people can access – because those cultural experiences are economically or socially excluding. The public gallery may be FREE, but do you feel like it’s a place that people like you are allowed to go? How are you welcomed? How does the architecture, the people who work there, the work that is shown and the way it is spoken about include or exclude you?
If you’ve never encountered a feeling of unease in a public gallery you’re likely privileged with a certain amount of cultural capital. Put simply, cultural capital (like economic or social capital) is acquired. It’s a product of cultural experiences, a collection of cultural knowledge that can be leveraged to access more cultural knowledge. Every little bit of cultural capital you amass is your ticket to acquire even more. What happens if you haven’t been born into it or afforded opportunities to acquire it? Answer – you don’t access it or understand it.
What’s the context of your cultural capital?
Just like any other resource, the value of cultural capital is context dependent.
For example – my knowledge and enjoyment of post-punk, installation art and post-minimalism is no help at all in understanding the canon of Cantonese Opera (or even European Opera!), Shona Sculpture or Coptic Art. My cultural capital has no value in these contexts. I can certainly assert a preference – but this is shaped by my existing cultural capital which was formed within my own context. I can acquire the right cultural capital, but it takes a long time to amass enough to really understand and appreciate what these unfamiliar cultural products are all about.
Too often in the creative industries cultural preferences are held up as an exemplars of ‘quality’. The effect of this is that cultural products that sit outside the dominant cultural norm are relegated to frameworks of difference like ‘Multicultural Festival’ or ‘Mixed Ability’.
In the context of community and cultural work we ascribe these identities without considering the impact of asserting our personal taste and preferences onto the cultural products of others. Ongoing, it’s a pathway to systemic exclusion where culturally and socially diverse artists never get the opportunity to expose audiences to an aesthetic that has developed in a different context and then responded to the current context.
The most interesting parts of culture emerge in the fringes and in the spaces between cultural contexts.
There are forms of art, music and performance that will never appeal to me personally because I have certain aesthetics that don’t mesh with that kind of work. But, as a person that can influence cultural capital through the work that I do, I see it as my duty to make public platforms available to show a diversity of cultural products to multiple audiences with an invitation for people to make up their own minds.
And one last thought – if you didn’t think that culture and what is ‘quality’ aren’t influenced by market forces I’d invite you to read this article as food for thought. Your personal taste may not be as personal as you think.