I can’t remember where the phrase comes from – perhaps an episode of Yes Minister, or maybe The Good Life – but it goes, somewhat pleadingly, “…but we are discerning people…!”
The implication is that there is a group within society whose views in matters of taste and judgement are superior to the rest. It is something that has intrigued me for a long time, simply because of the very complex questions it raises about matters of aesthetic merit, quite apart from the less appealing but still interesting overtones of social snobbery and elitism.
Even the words are difficult: while we might accept that discrimination may be a good thing when it comes to a choice of wine, it most certainly would not be were the issue the politics of race, gender, age, disability or intelligence – and quite rightly so. Discernment is perhaps discrimination’s gentler cousin – but it still implies the ability (and entitlement?) to make the ‘right’ judgements about things.
I suppose the deep assumption behind this blog is that discernment – discrimination even – is at least part of the secret to a satisfying life. Some people might see even that claim as rather totalitarian – but I really don’t see the point in allowing all sorts of indiscriminate twt into one’s life, whether that be in one’s personal mores, the way one treats others, the general ‘standards’ one aims at, or the material or intellectual things with which one surrounds oneself. And I don’t think that hair-shirt wearing simply because others may be unwilling or unable to follow suit is really the best way to tackle that particular problem. Otherwise, life simply becomes a race to the bottom.
We don’t have very consistent standards about this though: many would probably accept that some people have better judgement than others when it comes to a matter like wine, antiques or art, less so when discussing food, perhaps and very few might accept the same when considering music or fashion. Why this should be so is difficult to fathom; perhaps it relates to the perceived ability or entitlement of individuals to access those fields and make meaningful decision about them.
But there still remains the difficulty that verdicts about good/bad and right/wrong can ultimately be nothing more than the product of subjective consensus between individuals – and then we get into the whole social minefield of which groups (should?) have the authority to decide what, for example is ‘good’ art. Very often, the whole matter is inextricably tied up with matters of social class and power, with Establishment values both holding sway, and also being used as a kind of passport to entry of that particular clique.
Yet history shows that quite often the Establishment gets it wrong: given that ‘genius’ often correlates with individuals who disrupt established norms, the wrong-footing of the cultural elites is a regular feature of art history. Bizet, Modigliani and Miles Davis are just three examples of people who were initially rejected, only to be hailed for their genius at a later stage. So even now, can we really be objective that Picasso was a great artist whereas a graffiti-hoodlum is not? What about Banksy? Or the political murals of Northern Ireland and elsewhere?
So social acceptability is actually a very unreliable measure of quality, for all there are plenty of vested interests that might want us to believe otherwise.
Are wines that sell for hundreds of pounds a bottle really worth so much more than the average supermarket offering? I suspect many people would say not; the usual argument seems to be that if you like it, that’s all that matters. And yet, on the one occasion in my life when I tasted a truly distinguished wine, a Château D’Yquem, I was forced to concede that the experience was unlike any other wine I had ever drunk. The fact that it is only periodically produced, using techniques of the most extreme care and – yes – discrimination regarding what is acceptable, produced an incomparable result.
So perhaps it comes down to matters of aestheticism: the surprise about that d’Yquem was the fact that I could still taste it a good ten minutes later, so intense was it, even a slightly unnerving experience if you are not expecting it. And from that, where are we to go with all those other fields where discernment appears to play a part? What about music? Food? Fashion?
Having listened to almost no music whatsoever during my illness of the last year (when you’re not in the mood, it’s just annoying noise) my first resort has been classical music; after that long silence, it is all the more clear to me at least, that the intricacy of that music, the purity of the sound, and perhaps above all its ability to capture mood and emotion really does transcend all other types. And yet, even that is not going to convince many!
But as I have listened more, I have also rediscovered the lighter but still very subtle nuances in the various traditional musics that I enjoy, particularly the Irish and Scottish traditions. They too are capable of being very moving indeed, but they are also perhaps one of the less socially-acceptable forms of music according to conventional tastes.
As my sense of enjoyment has returned, food has started again being something more than mere fuel, and the pleasure of properly made pizza, pasta and other simple dishes is back. But note, my use of ‘properly made’: I still have preferences that I consider to be superior to the alternatives – for there is a huge difference between an wood-baked artisan pizza and the average chain restaurant offering, and having eaten both, no one will persuade me otherwise!
In the final reckoning I think it has to come down to how receptive one is to aesthetic experiences. It is also a very complex matter: knowledge of the ‘authenticity’ of that wood-oven pizza is most definitely part of the package – but why should the cognitive aspects of the experience be disregarded? Likewise, some music simply has more innate sonic qualities than other – but the ability to know that depends not on the music but on the receptiveness of the listener. It does not mean, incidentally, that other forms of ‘aesthetically lesser’ music do not have their place: they simply have different purposes – but it may be pushing it to claim that all forms of music are aesthetically equal.
When it comes to clothing, for me there are certain fixed qualities, such as tactility , colour and texture of the material, the fit (whether it flatters or not), and the standard of the craftsmanship. Nothing especially to do with a particular ‘fashion’ though most certainly the cultural connotations that clothes can carry can influence the emotional experience one has of them.
Some things are as close to ‘definitely better’ as it is possible to be: I think that natural fibres are superior to synthetic ones for very deep, primitive sensual reasons, nothing to do with conscious preferences. In the same way, I suspect that acoustic music tends to chime more deeply with the human psyche than the inevitable distortions of amplified sound – which more often than not then tries to compensate by use of excessive volume. Not at all the same thing.
What I do not accept is that some sectors of society should – or do – have a monopoly on ‘good taste’. This seems to afflict some nations more than others: the consensus about what makes a ‘good’ espresso or croissant are pretty-much universal in the cultures concerned, the ‘rules’ surrounding them are there for widely accepted practical reasons and cross social boundaries.
While high demand does tend to inflate prices, the ability to buy is not in itself a measure of aesthetic value. I do not like the way in which the Establishment often considers it has cornered the market in good taste and priced it accordingly – but equally I am not keen on the kind of inverse-snobbery of those who will do anything just to prove the opposite.
Discernment in aesthetic matters has the potential to enrich the lives of any and every one: ‘judgement’ is a skill that can be learned through experience; it does not have to carry a huge price tag, just the willingness to look, feel, reflect and compare. But I equally do not accept (or even entirely understand) the opposite viewpoint that discernment should be reviled for its supposedly-elitist overtones: even at the most basic sensory level, not everything is equal in this world.