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July 13, 2007

What If You Don't Taste What I Taste?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In a fascinating series for Slate, wine critic Mike Steinberger looks into the biology of taste. It turns out that people are wildly different in their abilities to sense aromas and perceive tastes. You might be able to detect flavors that I'm unable to pick up.

Not only that: People also differ in how the aromas and flavors that they do perceive affect them. What's repulsive to one person might be experienced by someone else as deeply satisfying. I may adore shaving a little Parmesan cheese onto my salad while the thought of doing such a thing makes you gag. (And for good reason: The main chemical contributing to the aroma of Parmesan cheese -- butyric acid -- is the same chemical that dominates the aroma of puke.)

The series is interesting for the info it conveys as well as for the questions it raises. One example: How valid is food or wine criticism as an activity if each of us has a different makeup where our built-in -- ie., biologically-set -- capabilities and predilections go? Is there any way a wine or a dish can be declared "good" if it's a simple fact of life that different people experience it differently?

Another: What to make of criticism more generally if this same kind of thing turns out to hold true where reading, watching, and listening go? I wouldn't be surprised if it does; people seem to have many built-in preferences and rhythms. An example: Some people find narrative suspense to be a pleasant heightener. (That group includes me. I love suspense, and I'm fascinated by the mechanics and psychology of it.) But for others, suspense is anything but enjoyable. I have one relative who finds narrative tension so unpleasant that she gets up and leaves the room whenever a movie's twists and surprises start to make the blood-pressure level go up.

One dimension that I'm sorry Steinberger doesn't touch on is time -- ie., how our biological abilities and makeups change with age. My body certainly isn't the same thing it was when I was 15 or 20, and because of that I no longer crave the same kinds of experiences that I craved when I was that age. (Younger people have systems that fire off much more avidly than older people do.) I've learned from many people in the arts bits of folk wisdom about how older and younger people tend to react to stimuli and events. Sound engineers have told me, for example, that how a person experiences loudness depends on age and sex. Boys and young men find loud noises exciting; young women and girls find loudness OK, but far less immediately pleasurable. What teen girls and young women mainly like is having boyfriends. So if the boys like loud music and loud movies, well then, that's OK with the girls. Once past the age of 30 or 35, though, nearly all people find loud noises first annoying and then painful. This is one reason, by the way, why so few older people go to the movies these days. Overcranked, Dolbyized sound systems make watching a movie in a movie theater painful -- physically painful -- for the cottontop set.

Given the number of preferences and tastes that seem to be built into our biologies, how can it ever be said that one and only one reaction to a given work is the right one? And what does it suggest about the kinds of large-scale cultural judgments that result in things like reading lists and canons of the greats? Perhaps such rankings reflect little more than the biological makeup of the over-time majority.

We can all educate ourselves, and class ourselves up a little, of course. Tastes can be opened-up, expanded, and refined. And a life spent avoiding adventure and exploration will generally be a dull one. But still: Perhaps what's plainly "fabulous" to one person will be "a big goddam bore" to another -- and perhaps there's nothing finally to be done about it. Neither person is right, neither's wrong; there's no arguing-it-out until a definitive and correct judgment is arrived at; there's only comparing notes, and giving the other guy's p-o-v some consideration for a few minutes.

Part one of Steinberger's series is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here.



posted by Michael at July 13, 2007


Hallelujah! Now you understand that some people genuinely like modernist houses and minimalist interiors - and that's OK!

Posted by: Tat on July 13, 2007 5:21 PM

Yes and no, no and yes.

Hume had something to say

The same HOMER, who pleased at ATHENS and ROME two thousand years ago, is still admired at PARIS and at LONDON. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory. Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator, but his reputation will never be durable or general. When his compositions are examined by posterity or by foreigners, the enchantment is dissipated, and his faults appear in their true colours.

I think there is a big divide here between people who think art is purely about experience and others who think it is at least partially about wisdom and truth as well. Wisdom is wisdom and truth is truth whether you experience them as pleasant or not.

Related to this is the fact that a lot of people cannot distinguish between personal distaste for a work of art and a lack of merit in the work itself. There are certainly works of art that I find rather unpleasant, for widely different reasons: Bartok, Riefensthal, Gore Vidal, even sometimes Dostoevsky. Yet I find that I can push aside my distaste and recognize that there is genius there. Not everybody can do this.

Posted by: Thursday on July 13, 2007 5:56 PM

I basically agree that there are no objective critical standards when it comes to the arts, and I would count food preparation and winemaking as culinary arts. I mean, presumably you could prepare a dish so awful that no one would declare it to be edible, and then you would have an objective standard for "awful." But then again, most people tasting Single-Malt Scotch for the first time have to get past their initial "this stinks" reaction.

In related news, Two-buck Chuck chardonnay from Trader Joes just got top honors from tasters at the big-deal California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

Posted by: Steve on July 13, 2007 5:57 PM

You'd think the chief judge at that California wine competition would be firmly in the "objective standards" camp, but here's what he had to say after Two-buck Chuck won:

"There's going to be people out there that don't like the wine and that's OK," said chief judge G. M. "Pooch" Puchlowski. "You know, there are a lot of wines I don't like. … So you drink what you like, don't drink what you don't and you go home a happy camper."

So much for the value of wine competitions!

Posted by: Steve on July 13, 2007 6:04 PM

Ah! Yet another reason why "smellovision" or whatever they called those movies-with-odors they experimented with in the 50s (or thereabouts) failed.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 13, 2007 6:05 PM

Why is it so hard to admit that there is such a thing as an aristocracy of taste? Physiological and cultural taste. A wine lover inhales the aroma of a fine wine, takes it in his mouth and then swallows it, and then tells me that it has overtones of oak with a hint of juniper berries, etcetera, etcetera. I take a swig of the same wine and pronounce that I like it or don't like it. Is my experience equal - equal in worth - to his? Is my opinion worthy of the same consideration as his? I think not, in both cases. He has put much more of himself into the experience and gets much more out of it. And if he tells me that it is a great wine and I insist that I don't like it, then maybe, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe if I put in the effort and began to acquire a passion for wine my taste buds would begin to discover what I had no inkling of as a democratic oaf.

Okay, I've gone on too long. But on the cultural plain do the same exercize with the professor who has put in a lifetime wrestling with Henry James and his sophomore student who tells him that she can't be bothered, James bores her. See?

Posted by: ricpic on July 13, 2007 7:52 PM

This is something that I knew since I was a child. For some reason a lot of dairy products such as butter, cream, or soft cheese made me gag. But I had to accept that other people found it delicious (they still), so I knew that my likes and dislikes were not an objective standard of value, but a good standard as it applied to what I consumed.

Still, taste asdie, there are things that, no matter how they appear to us, are bad for us. For a recovering alcoholic, good wine is to be avoided as much as lousy wine.

So, while tastes differ, they are a guide only up to a certain point.

Posted by: Adriana on July 13, 2007 9:26 PM

I can't distinguish 1/10th of the differences in flavor that, say, Corby Kummer, the food critic of the Atlantic, can discern. He objectively has better taste in food than I do, in that he can tell apart fine differences in foods that all taste the same to me.

This all means that it pays for him to educate his tastes in food, while there isn't much reward to me in educating mine.

Finally, my tastes in food are objectively puerile, in that I like things to be a little bit sweet, not as sweet as a child likes, but, still, my tastes aren't very grown up.

So, I think it's pretty clear I have objectively worse taste than Corby Kummer.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on July 13, 2007 10:19 PM

I like the taste of my own poop and McDonald's.

Posted by: Ibod Catooga on July 14, 2007 2:18 AM

For wine, we found the answer: we found a wine critic whose tastes were similar to ours - Jane McQuitty of The Times (the British one). But horrors; our tastes, at least for reds, seem to be drifting apart. Now what?

Posted by: dearieme on July 14, 2007 9:22 AM


You will have to be your own wine critic.

Make a list of the wines you know you already enjoy.

Find wine tastings near you (the local liquor store has them, maybe there is a winery close by, or a wine festival, or ask for a taste on the restaurant when you are not very sure what to order) and learn what is there, and buy what you like.

Read the reviews to get a general idea what you may want to try.

After all, the only judge of what you like is you

Posted by: Adriana on July 14, 2007 9:52 AM

de gustibus non (est) disputandum - clearly the vagaries of our taste sensing abilities have been recognised for some time.

More interesting, perhaps, is the distinction between physical and mental equipment: your brain is considerably more plastic than your tastebuds.

Posted by: nigel on July 14, 2007 3:14 PM

I would like to address myself to the philosophical implications of taste.

The reason why people disagree on taste has less to do with any relativism as the fact that taste is a function with two variables. Taste involves the thing being taste (x) and the particular Taster (TX) Now Taster 1 (Tx1) is always different thant Taster 2 (Tx2), so why expect

(TX1)x = (TX2)x?

It is the same as saying Ax = Bx which is true inf and only if A=B, since A>

it is good to remember that it is not the same thing evaluated by two different people but two different processes of evaluation.

(The same applies by the way to the old conundrum of the tree falling in the forest with no one, if it makes a noise or not. Since noise is the percepiton of waver pressure as interpreted with an eardrum, we can say that it does not make a oise, there are waves produced when it falls, but only an eardrum can descypher those waves into a noise).

Of course, if you count the animals in the forest, it does make a noise.

Posted by: Adriana on July 15, 2007 7:45 AM

I'm with ricpic on this. There are people who devote much time and effort in not only unlocking the value of something, but in then explaining that value to the uninitiated. How shallow our lives would be if we only went on initial impressions. The truly good things in life, the things that can provide lasting enjoyment and edification, are often the hardest to appreciate, and are almost never appreciated right off the bat.

That said, I can't fucking stand Merlot (even before the movie Sideways), I don't know what those wine critics are thinking.

Posted by: the patriarch on July 16, 2007 10:58 AM

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