This summer, The New York Times published an article by Dan Kois entitled “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables,” in which he mused on the tendency of a person to watch a film because he “ought to” or “should,” rather than being at all interested in doing so — an activity he dubbed “aspirational viewing.” In what I think is the funniest paragraph of the piece, Kois describes a run-in he had with a friend following a recommendation that he see Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” Kois says, “When he asked me what part I liked the best, I picked the five-minute sequence of a car driving down a highway, because it seemed the most boring. He nodded his approval.”
I sympathize a lot with Kois. It is because of this “aspirational viewing” that I still haven’t seen Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” I know how it’s all going to play out. I know I’m going to fall asleep about 11,000 times by the time the ending rolls around. And I know that when the lights go on, I’m going to have pick my slobbering head off the movie theater seat, grit my teeth, put a dreamy grin on my face and say something to the tune of, “Wow! That was so deep!”
A question that often plagues me when I’m sitting at home debating whether I ought to watch “The Babysitter’s Club” for the 15th time or some auteur masterpiece by Wong Kar Wai: What is taste? What makes us like the things we do? What sorts of pressures do we encounter when we admit to liking or not liking a certain film or TV show or book? And more pressingly, what do our tastes say or reveal about us?
The standing philosophy of preference belongs to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who asserts that taste — la distinction, the capacity to select among a variety of products and call something a favorite — is an indication of class, a sort of orientation and identification of one’s rightful place in society.
Bourdieu’s theory certainly helps to explain phenomena like guilty pleasures – why, for instance, a person will smile ruefully when they admit to liking “Jersey Shore,” or, when gesticulating toward their burgeoning collection of Fabio-headed romance novels, will offhandedly assert, “It’s my beach book,” as if there were no other setting reading such a tome would be appropriate. We’ve been conditioned to think that “trash TV” is for the lower class, and the only acceptable way of liking such things is in a guilty, so-bad-it’s-good sort of way.
The problem with la distinction materializes when the conversation turns to hierarchy. If one class precedes another on the social strata, then it seems natural to assume that one taste could also be superior to another. People start to covet, to lie, to reach for a culture just out of their grasp — aspirational viewing, if you will.
And then there’s the issue of definitions. There’s a lot of trouble with the term “Fine Arts” at the Daily when it comes to classifying articles. Is it something that’s just simple, performance-based sorts of art — plays, musicals, lectures, poetry readings and the like? But what about art exhibits? What about museums? What about books? What about food? You can see where it gets complicated.
My own experiences with the term stem back to my high school years. A group of friends and I decided to start a coalition called the “Finer Things Club,” which basically meant that we watched a lot of Woody Allen movies, drank tap water out of plastic champagne flutes and called ourselves fancy. Bourdieu would have said that we aspired to be part of a class greater and more romantic than our own — which isn’t too far from the truth of a 16-year-old living in tree-lined suburbia. So at its most politically incorrect, is Fine Arts merely a type of arts enjoyed by the more “privileged” of society? As uncomfortable as that term might sound, it’s perhaps not a wrong characterization to make.
The reasons for our unease are symptomatic of our own class consciousness. The root of the matter isn’t whether Bourdieu is right or wrong about his assumptions on taste, but that we should feel guilty about liking something because of the expectation it carries. Aspirational viewing isn’t in itself a dangerous activity, but being dishonest about one’s own personal preferences on the basis of class ambition is.
Taste initially evolved as a kind of way to collectivize commonalities, and it still exists in that respect today. I’ve made some of the best friends I know bonding over ABC Family teen dramas or the Academy Awards, some of whom I would have never come into contact had this shared interest not existed. The beauty of taste is its capacity to be shared, to overcome language and income barriers — not its power to exclude. As long as we don’t come to think of class groupings like prisons, there’s no harm in the concept of la distinction. After all, when a certain taste gains enough momentum, it becomes a part of culture.