1/26/09 - taste

In today's excerpt - the concept of good taste. As a larger merchant class and middle-class began to emerge in England and Western Europe, money alone was no longer a sufficient way for the wealthy to distinguish themselves from the lesser classes. So the concept of 'taste' emerged as a means for the 'elite' to assert superiority over those whose wealth was beginning to ascend:

" 'Taste' is a term which first acquired prominence in England in the later 17th century. As goods multiplied, it became ... an important form of cultural differentiation. As a contemporary noted in 1633, 'great folks' always had a tendency to 'think nothing of that which is common and ordinary people may easily come by.' Taste involved transcending mere financial criteria when assessing the value of goods, introducing instead a subtler and more elusive yardstick.

"It implied a capacity for discrimination of the kind shown in 1606 by the wine connoisseur Captain Dawtrey, who, 'taking the glass in his hand, held it up awhile betwixt him and the window, as to consider the colour; and then putting it to his nose he seemed to take comfort in the odour of the same.' It required the ability to choose the best out of a wide range of functionally indistinguishable options, like the 50 different patterns of wallpaper that on one occasion in 1752 confronted the poet William Shenstone. The essayist Joseph Addison compared a person who had true taste in literary matters with the man who could identify each of ten different kinds of tea or any combination of them. ...

"Taste was notoriously a quality which the vulgar lacked for they were without the necessary education and experience, whereas connoisseurs were cultivated, well travelled and 'conversant with the better sort of people.' 'Those who depend for food on bodily labour', ruled the critic Lord Kames, in 1762 'are totally devoid of taste.' The middle-class inhabitants of the London suburbs were scorned by their social superiors for their bad taste, manifested in the embarrassingly derivative style of their houses and gardens. Taste was the prerogative of the 'polite.' It was a faculty which required education, foreign travel, and close conformity to the standard set by an elite minority. In Samuel Johnson's words, 'a few, a very few, commonly constitute the taste of the time' (1754). ...

"The competition thus shifted away from the conspicuous display of opulence to a more restrained demonstration of elegance, refinement, and fastidious discrimination. ... The ownership of culturally esteemed objects became a symbol of status; and the claim to superior sensibilities, defined as the capacity to feel pain at what causes no pain to others, emerged, in Jeremy Bentham's words, as 'a mark of ... belonging to the ruling few.' The purchasing power of the middling and lower classes might rise, but the elite could hold on to its monopoly of cultural capital by asserting that wealth was not enough."


Keith Thomas


The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England


Oxford University Press




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