David Wright on Understanding Cultural Taste

Can you tell us a bit about what you do?

I’m David Wright, currently Associate Professor at the University of Warwick in the Center for Cultural and Media Policy Studies.

My research interests are broadly in the field of taste, and the relationships between taste and social class – taste and the cultural industries, the sociology of culture and taste. Moving into how those things relate to cultural policy more generally.

We’re here to discuss your book Understanding Cultural Taste – Sensation, Skill and Sensibility. How did you find yourself studying this area? 

I think the book is a culmination of a long period thinking about these issues. My undergraduate career was in cultural studies, and I was very interested and inspired by the opportunities cultural studies provides for people to take seriously the products of popular culture.

I followed that up with a PhD in sociology, which focused on the retail book industry. From there I went to work as a postdoctoral researcher on a national study of British tastes and lifestyles, which was published as Culture, Class, Distinction – working with people like Tony Bennett, Mike Savage, and Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva.

Then I started working at the University of Warwick, moving into a cultural policy department and thinking about how those issues of taste and preference in the cultural industries apply in the policy setting.

How did Understanding Cultural Taste come about? 

Following that project on taste, it raised quite a few issues for me about how taste is researched and how taste is understood within academic and scholarly circles or talked about in everyday life.

I wanted to think those things through, and try to come up with a relatively organized and structured set of approaches through which to think through and critique some established ideas about taste.

What are these established ideas?

I’ve framed the book in relationship to these three underlying concepts: sensation, skill and sensibility. As well as being alliterative, they also point to these different elements of taste which frame how it’s been studied historically.

Obviously taste is one of the primary senses of the human body, but in the language of taste, it moves from being a sensation on the tongue to an aesthetic judgement – even a moral judgement, with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ forms of taste. And in that move there’s an element of training and discipline. So our responses to things in the world are a reflection of our education about what things we should orient ourselves towards.

There are two other framing ideas in the book. The first is that there’s a way of talking about taste which synonymizes it with choice and preference. It’s just another way of talking about what we like or dislike in a kind of consumerist paradigm.

However, I think it’s more interesting and powerful than just being about individual preferences. Preserving some of these elements as a sensory or moral category allows that language to be overlaid with this language of preferences.

In terms of the scholarly debates the book deals with, the project I referred to earlier was very much in the tradition of Pierre Bourdieu’s work on taste. I’m crudely summarizing, but that frames taste as a weapon in social struggle. To a greater or lesser extent, I think that’s true, and I certainly don’t think there’s been a better account of the social significance of taste.

But that’s not the only thing you can say about taste. It’s also about how we negotiate our lives together. It’s not just about struggle. Bourdieu’s orthodoxy is something else I wanted to critique.

I don’t know Bourdieu at all, but presumably it’s this kind of Marxist idea that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste is a function of who has power? And that’s basically what’s happening when we talk about taste?

That’s it in a nutshell. Bourdieu’s famous line is:

Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.

I’m crudely summarizing an incredibly complex, 600 page book. He talks about homologies between social structures and cultural structures – between class positions and the relative significance of items of culture. And he doesn’t just speculate about this. He demonstrates it empirically in the France of the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s an incredibly powerful intervention. It’s still a persuasive account of how taste works, but I also think there are other things you can say about taste, that perhaps Bourdieu’s account misses.

So what is taste?

It’s these three concepts of skill, sensation and sensibility. That’s helped to frame what I mean by it.

In terms of sense, obviously it’s a feeling in the body. In terms of sensibility, it’s an orientation towards certain things and away from others – things we like or don’t like. In terms of skill, it’s the forms of training and experience we have that allow us to tell whether things are good or bad.

However, the visceral response remains really important. Our immediate responses are a powerful indicator of the processes that have gone into facilitate that – to make that meaningful. We need to learn what to like and what not to like. And those bodily responses are a function of that, to a greater or lesser extent.

Can taste be measured? And what would be the point? 

Obviously taste can be measured, and it is measured all the time. One of the reasons taste is important to the cultural industries is because of the enormous amount of energy spent trying to capture taste. These industries are about finding what people like and giving it to them.

In the book, I try to find out the methods used to measure taste historically. They don’t always capture that visceral moment. You can’t really know other people’s nervous systems. You can only get the way in which they represent their views about what they like through market research, surveys, and these types of mechanisms.

And in the contemporary context, of course, the means of capturing taste is automated by gathering data about what you like on Facebook, what you stream – and feeding that back into processes of production. So whilst I’m sceptical about all the methods which can be used to measure taste, I can see why the correct measurement of taste is a kind of holy grail in the cultural industries.

It’s absolutely vital to understand how audiences are likely to respond to things.

Right. The market value of a product before it’s released is a black box. Being able to read and in some sense predict taste cuts to the heart of the creative industries.

I think that’s right. And there’s a relationship between the attempt to measure those things and the institutions and professions involved with producing taste. In between production and consumption, there’s this whole army of people trying to know, anticipate, even form the tastes of particular audiences.

That’s an important part of the cultural industries. It’s not just marketing, advertising, but also critics, awards – these forms of work which try to work against the uncertainty. Trying to make it more certain something will be successful.

In 2019, what are the mechanisms by which cultural taste is produced and shaped? Who are the tastemakers?

That’s an interesting question. I suspect the cultural industries are always inevitably in flux in various ways. The cultural industries tell stories about being constantly in flux – that’s one of the myths they live with. But it seems to me there have been quite concrete and identifiable changes to the mechanisms by which cultural goods are valued and circulated.

If we think of the relative decline in the power of the reviewer or the critic, compared to the rise of online rating systems, that seems to be a fundamental change in how the relative value of things is attributed – for better or worse. I mean, you can make a powerful claim that this move is a form of democratising of taste.

You can say, well, you don’t have to listen to critics anymore. You can judge the data in a raw sense about what people are really saying. All these technologies are geared towards capturing sentiment, how people feel about films or music or whatever it is.

That’s a more grounded way of understanding what an audience likes or not.

Personally, I’d mark the downfall of civilisation to Harry Potter and the social acceptability of adults reading children’s literature in public. So does the ‘guilty pleasure’ still exist? 

I think it does, and it becomes a kind of taste positioning. People are increasingly aware of the games – that there is such a thing as a guilty pleasure, and they can take pleasure in performing their tastes.

I should say I fundamentally agree about Harry Potter, and I’ve ruined many dinner parties with similar positions.

It’s not a popular take. 

Of course, there is something about the ability to embrace guilty pleasures – the fact you can do that – which is not evenly spread across the population. There are still risks and consequences for having the wrong kinds of tastes. So the guilty pleasure is the indication of a kind of mastery. You can say, well I know this is bad but I’m going to enjoy it anyway. I’m even going to celebrate it.

Not everyone has that ability. If you pick the wrong thing, without the right level of confidence and mastery to be able to nimbly navigate the minefield of taste, you won’t get the kudos which you might seek.

With consequences for education, employment, dating and all kinds of social outcomes. 

Exactly. If taste is implicated in those kinds of social institutions – which is the story from Bourdieu in particular – you learn and appreciate the right kinds of things in order to get access to a particular strata of society. And if you can’t demonstrate your mastery of these things, then you’re suspect within those strata.

So there’s still a degree of game playing around those things.

It seems every generation has a moral panic about the cultural tastes of the next – or sometimes the previous. Should taste be governed? If it should be governed, is this something that’s socially possible? 

To a greater or lesser extent, taste is governed. If you’re going to teach English literature or topics which involve cultural products, your consecration of them is an indication of what a nation thinks is appropriate or worthwhile.

The dreaded canon. 

Correct. The canon of culture is very much a governmental project. Not necessarily in a conscious way, although people do make conscious decisions about what gets put into the syllabus.

Going back to taste as a skill, it’s a learned skill. Within the concept of taste is the idea that you’re a person who is to be formed in various ways. You become a person of good taste through various forms of training. So inevitably the educational curriculum has a vision of a particular person who’s going to emerge.

That’s the same now as it ever was, but what we don’t talk about as robustly and evidently as we did in the 19th century is, well, what kind of people do we want? We’re less explicit about that. We don’t talk as much about how taste is implicated in the formation of the population, as we once did, for better or worse.

Is this lack of an explicit vision a good thing? Or are we essentially saying, okay, just let the market decide? 

If that’s the alternative, I think it’s clearly problematic. If the end of the value of educative projects is just to produce people who are fit for particular roles within a market economy, then that’s flawed. We can aspire for more than that from education.

You don’t want to go too far in terms of imagining an idealised population. But the idea that people can enjoy a rich cultural life, and have that be an important part of their fruition as a citizen, seems to be a good aspiration.

These are conversations which are worth having. In that chapter of the book, I use the example of the Danish cultural canon which emerged in the early 2000s. It was an attempt by the Danish Ministry of Culture to write down all the things which constitute Danish-ness.

And it’s a really interesting list – a broad and largely inclusive list – but it was written partly as a response to anxiety about the idea Danish-ness was under threat, and a canon would somehow resolve that. Those anxieties and responses are things to discuss and talk about.

I’d be troubled by the idea of a set, concrete, never-to-be-changed canon of things which we all need to like. There used to be questions on the UK citizenship test about literature and Shakespeare – implying that knowledge and preference for those things was somehow central to being British. Which is clearly exclusionary nonsense.

There are lots of people in the UK who don’t like Shakespeare or Jane Austen, but are citizens, so the idea it’s a route to citizenship is strange. But the idea that cultural items are implicated in those discussions is interesting. It’s worth carrying on talking about, well, what are the things we think are important to the kind of people we want to be?

Is there anything people often get wrong about what you study, which you’d like to set straight?

We haven’t talked about the digitalization of taste.

One of the interesting stories about the last 10-15 years of the creative industries is that they’ve been disrupted in a fundamental, democratizing way. There are problems with that story. One of the ways you see that is in the story of Amazon – initially a disruptive technology that was supposed to democratize taste within the publishing industry.

In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser says one of the reasons Jeff Bezos was interested in the publishing industry was because of the ISBN, which lends itself to the logistical organising power of technology. That’s quite an interesting way of thinking about how digital technology is disrupting cultural industries: it’s subjecting them to a particular kind of organisational rationality.

Taste is part of that. If your taste just becomes your data, and that becomes a vision of who you are which is visible to various elements of contemporary power, then that’s problematic. Taste is still implicated in cultural and social life in profound ways.

What’s next?

I’m working on a project which emerges from this stuff on digital taste in particular. I had a paper (Towards a computational cultural policy studies: examining infrastructures of taste and participation) about computational cultural policy studies. That’s about how computational thinking is implicated in culture – and I’m also interested in how culture became digital.

The other one is almost entirely different, coming from the chapter on governing taste. I’m interested in how tastes become official, and how they become consecrated. So that’s looking at monuments to popular entertainers from the mid-20th century.

David Wright teaches in the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick, UK and has interests in popular culture, cultural work and the politics of cultural participation. 


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