Face Your Taste: Private Canons and Public Culture
Fran attempts to bridge the gap between what we say about culture and the culture we actually consume
Public cultural bodies have the power to decide what’s culturally worthwhile. University syllabuses and public book prizes, for example, are invested with the power to dictate what officially and academically qualifies as ‘good’ fiction, or ‘good’ poetry, and which groups of people are capable of producing it.
That’s why it’s important to be critical when interacting with these powers. University syllabuses face reasonable scrutiny from their student bodies, and they’re regularly (and rightly) called out for failing to diversify. Students at UCL set up a campaign entitled ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’, which critiques the lack of racial diversity in the writers who make up the university’s chosen academic canon, and calls for this to change. The campaign now has chapters in several British universities. Elsewhere students also exert pressure in the hope that universities will include more voices of people of colour, women, and queer and trans folks in their curriculums.
But what’s said in support of these causes by individuals in positions of white, cis, able-bodied privilege, like me, doesn’t always translate into personal action – as politically and socially aware as we might like to think we are. For us, calling for better representation of marginalised groups in syllabuses and shortlists is right, and important – but it seems to be all too easy to forget about these demands in the way we consume cultural products in our private lives.
…what’s said in support of these causes by individuals in positions of white, cis, able-bodied privilege, like me, doesn’t always translate into personal action
If we’re leaving meetings discussing the importance of diversifying the selection of historical figures we engage with in our modules, and then listening to a playlist consisting exclusively of music made by white boys as we walk home, we’re part of the problem. But surely what’s consumed on a private level is simply personal taste – we just like the things we like, right?
Public cultural worth and individual taste orbit tightly around each other. What we understand now as cultural canon started out somewhere as the personal taste of individuals, and they, in turn, had those ‘tastes’ influenced by what was understood previously as cultural canon. It’s a tradition that leads all the way back to ancient theories of what makes an effective narrative, what is worthy of the title of ‘beauty’, or what the purpose of art is. In the European tradition, the best example of this is Aristotle’s Poetics, which could easily be read as a treatise on one man’s personal theatrical taste, but by which modern playwrights continue to judge their artistic worth.
What we understand now as cultural canon started out somewhere as the personal taste of individuals
Taste isn’t inherent or genetic. My own has been heavily influenced by my parents, friends, certain films, books and magazines, and – embarrassingly – by a variety of people I’ve fancied. I wasn’t born with a love for Ziggy Stardust – I was taught from a young age that it was a product of high cultural worth, and a feature of the popular music canon. As an adult, I continue to ascribe it that worth because it’s compatible with other cultural products that I’ve also learned exist within that canon, and its position therefore makes sense. Like so much of the way we interact with the world, taste, even within its various subcultures, boils down to socialisation.
This seems obvious when we think about the fact that taste changes over time. As we’re continuously introduced to new and different things, what we understand as our personal taste changes, and we end up listening to, watching or reading things that our previous selves might have been mortified by. Taste is adaptable. Just think about olives.
…the socialisation of taste becomes sinister when ‘personal taste’ is used to justify the continuing domination of culture
The socialisation involved in taste doesn’t have to be negative. In a way, it can be nice to think that what your brain understands as ‘good’ culture is an amalgamation of the same thought process occurring in the mind of every other person who’s shared something they love with you. When the socialisation of taste does become sinister, however, is when ‘personal taste’ is used to justify the continuing domination of culture and cultural value by those already living in positions of privilege. This is what happens when people defend the lack of diversity in their private cultural consumption by putting it down to ‘taste’.
If ‘woke’ but privileged white, cis, straight individuals keep using taste as a defence for our cultural protectionism, it’s hard to see the changes we claim to demand ever occurring. It’s hard to see more people of colour or trans folks getting recognition for their creativity, winning film awards or becominga regular presence on university syllabuses. If men refer to themselves as feminists but only ever read fiction by male writers on the basis of ‘taste’, they’re falling short.
The formation of the canon starts with the consumption of individuals – particularly that of the privileged. This power we hold is the reason why we need consistently scrutinise our own cultural consumption as much as we might the declarations of the big judges of public culture. Personal taste can – and should – adapt to reflect and encourage social change as much as university reading lists.
The formation of the canon starts with the consumption of individuals – particularly that of the privileged
Obviously, adding women or artists of colour to your playlists purely for the sake of their demographic is tokenistic – but in 2018, it isn’t like there’s a lack of non-white, male, cis-het individuals producing amazing work, and if we’re struggling to organically find creators whose work we genuinely enjoy, we need to rethink the methods and sources we’re using to discover new work in the first place. Get out of your usual four-album cycle on Spotify, or stop only reading books by George RR Martin andGeorge RR Martin wannabes. Try something new. Mix it up a bit.
In the Bristol bubble of social and political collective activity, it can be easy to forget that meaningful change begins on an individual level. And without making those changes to our personal consumption, the exclusive cultural canon isn’t going anywhere. We need to stop using fluid ‘taste’ as a fixed excuse. We need to be better.