Social Communities and the Determination of Taste

The following text was submitted as one of three critical thesis essays submitted in August 2014

The formation of social communities of art is challenging to understand; do these communities determine taste, or do the rules around taste create particular communities?  The concepts regarding taste must be explored along with the concepts of social communities as they pertain to art.  Philosopher David Hume examined the development of taste, as did Daniel Buren and Jean-François Lyotard.  Marcel Duchamp, Peter Burger and Theodor Adorno with Max Horkheimer discussed social communities.  How are social communities of art formed?  Is taste determined by specific groups of spectators, or do these groups already exist?  

This essay is organized and developed into four different portions.  The first part will focus on Hume, Buren and Lyotard, and their ideas about different types of taste based on their understanding of societal patterns and knowledge; the second section will examine society and the formation of various social communities as written by Adorno, Burger, Buren and Duchamp; the third section will address a specific social group and how it was manifested, as described by Adorno and Horkheimer; the fourth, and final section, will explore how taste and community merge together or clash in terms of impacting each other.

I. In his essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” philosopher David Hume focuses on the concept of taste as it pertains to individuals within society.  He begins by clarifying the importance of language because every individual understands words and imagery in his or her own unique way.  When describing one’s opinion of something, using precise language allows for others to better understand.  Hume discusses sentiment, which is one’s natural feeling and taste for something, and how it is required for art in order to purely feel what the artist has organically provided for the viewer; he stresses the importance of retracting away from authority or prejudice because such influences and bias prevent a work of art from being truly understood or felt; the elite and bourgeois classes tend to be the predominant social group which determine and influence taste because of their high status in society.  According to Hume, in order to properly evaluate an object, one must clear one’s mind of all prejudice and bias and allow for full, unbiased absorption of the thing being evaluated.

Hume uses an example, from Don Quixote, regarding two kinsmen who were to judge a fine wine.  Both kinsmen agreed that the wine was good but each distinguished different elements of the wine: one tasted a leather component, and the other, iron.  Both kinsmen laughed at the other but, “on emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom an old key with a leathern thong tied to it” (Hume 11).  This example was used in order to illustrate the importance of delicacy of taste as well as an unbiased mind when judging something; this allows for an individual to have a trained palate because the individual is able to independently observe the particular elements of something and make a sound judgment.

French artist Daniel Buren discusses the views of the elite and bourgeois classes in his essay “Function of the Museum.”  The purpose of the museum is to display that which is aesthetic, to provide (economic) value to works that are isolated from the common sphere and to express an artwork’s true essence and aura by means of preservation, collection, and refuge.   The museum is founded, and operates, on bourgeois ideologies; what Buren discusses, in this essay along with his essay “Function of the Studio,” is that the museum allows for work which is accepted by the bourgeois class to be exhibited; the museum does not incorporate the varying tastes for art amongst all of its viewers, it only serves to exhibit work which satisfies the highest palate, the elite palate.  Additionally, museums do not change their formation in order to accommodate for art, rather, the artist must conform their work as appropriate for the museum; the artist is to abide by bourgeois standards if he or she wishes to make it as a known artist in society.  Buren continues to discuss social conventions in his argument as well; those ideas will be addressed below in section II.

Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard addresses ideas about knowledge in postmodern society by describing the distinction between scientific and narrative knowledge as well as understanding language games.  Knowledge, for Lyotard, is a commodity; it is the worldwide competition for power for the greatest quality of technology, for profit (Lyotard 5).  According to Lyotard, common learning tactics must always be improved and updated for more technological methods and practices; the older aapproaches continue to fall into the abyss of what has become outdated and no longer effective or profitable.  This is crucial in specifically understanding the different language games that exist within various societies; each society has their own system of knowledge and recognizing those methods are critical in order to comprehend those civilizations.

Lyotard breaks down the concept of knowledge into two models: scientific and narrative.  These models exist in order to further understand the various pragmatisms of language, its games and the societies in which these ideals stand.  Scientific knowledge is technology lending itself to productive forces within the system. This does not mean that it is literally science based, per se, but that this form of intellect insists upon comprehending exact information in order to understand truth.  Narrative knowledge focuses on reflecting the direct and indirect values and goals that exist within society.  This includes fully comprehending the components of social interactions as well as finding meaning in the remembrance of the past and its significance to society.  How does knowledge apply to taste (in art)?

In regards to art, specifically to viewership, these strains of knowledge are important in order to understand the types of individuals viewing works of art.  Each viewer comes from a unique background and holds his or her own opinions and feelings of things.  If spectatorship is determined by means of knowledge, Lyotard describes how these two distinct models can be understood by the public in order to further develop taste, or one’s understanding and appreciation for art.  For example, an individual who favors scientific knowledge might try to find absolute truth within a work of art; according to Lyotard, a proof would be required to attempt to absorb such  knowledge because the senses are deceptive and could mislead a curious spectator.  For narrative knowledge, an individual might enjoy historical works of art because it may be relatable or relevant to his or her life.  How does understanding the determination of taste relate to social communities?

II. Germanic philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote heavily about contemporary society and the culture industry.  For this topic, I would like to address an important footnote from the chapter “On Popular Music” in Current of Music as well as a few important remarks from Adorno’s “Society” chapter in Aesthetic Theory.  Please note that this essay is to serve as a brief overview in order to touch upon the specific ideas around taste and social communities; the paragraphs about Adorno will include only the significant parts of his writing that apply to this topic.

In his footnote from “On Popular Music,” Adorno “drafts a more universal typology of listeners to understand the more concrete behavior towards popular music” (Adorno, Current of Music, 311).  He illustrates eleven different types of music listeners which range from the musical expert who is typically a professional musician to the “anti-musical type” who is “hostile to music and to all art as something useless and non-realistic” (ibid. 315).  By identifying the different types of listeners of popular music, Adorno is able to classify the different social communities which exist in music based on preference and taste.  He breaks it down into emotions, compulsions, interest in music and the range of knowledge displayed by each listener.  Does this classification exist in visual art communities? Yes.

Adorno addresses social communities of art in Aesthetic Theory, in his “Society” chapter.  A work of art is a sort of puzzle which must be reckoned with in order to reveal its mimetic function of reality to viewers.  Art is autonomous because it is opposed to society yet needs society in order to keep its autonomy and structure.    

The object of bourgeois art is the relation of itself as artifact to empirical society… art, however, is social not only because of its mode of production… nor simply because of the social derivation of its thematic material.  Much more importantly, art becomes social by its opposition to society, and it occupies this position only as autonomous art (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 225).

A work of art forces viewers to make a certain effort to understand it and uncover the other that exists within it.  Part of this effort is what distinguishes one’s placement within a social group (based on social likeness and willingness to understand the work) and one’s individual taste for art (whether in relation to a social group or detached from it).  Similarly to the types of listeners addressed in Adorno’s footnote above, the different types of viewers of art are determinant upon each individual’s effort to engage and perceive of a work of art, or perhaps how quickly he or she enjoys or rejects a work.

Marcel Duchamp discusses spectatorship in his essay “The Creative Act” which discusses the relationship between the spectator and the artist.  In his argument, the spectator he refers to is not just any individual who engages with a work of art, rather the elite and bourgeois whom determine works as art for society.  Similarly to Adorno’s ideas regarding the determination social groups and taste, Duchamp writes that the spectator evaluates the work of art to deem whether or not it can be accepted into the social sphere based on whether or not they like the work.

German literary critic Peter Burger writes about the institution of art and the birth of true autonomy in art; he states that this autonomy is something that has been created in society which inevitably determines the autonomy of art as a commodity.  For the purposes of this essay, Burger also examines upper Bourgeois society and several communities which focus on the different functions, purposes, and receptions of art for different audiences.  

In Burger’s discussion of the negation of autonomy in art, he describes four distinctly different types of communities that engage in different forms of art: Sacred Art, Courtly Art, Bourgeois Art and the art of the Avant Garde.  Sacred art tends to be religious and hold high, holy value; Courtly art is representational and made by an individual for the purpose of appeasing the court; Bourgeois art is the portrayal of the bourgeois class and their self-understanding structure; the art of the Avant Garde was created in order to protest the institution of art and the art market.  Taste shifted to focus on social views and opinions rather than on individual or preconceived perspectives.

Daniel Buren addresses the high class social group when referring to the museum as addressed above in section I.  As previously mentioned, the museum does not alter its walls and configuration for a work of art, rather an artist must conform his or her work.  Before a work can enter an institution, it must follow the standards in which the bourgeois have set.  Why is the bourgeois the predominant social group?  Do social groups solely form to gain power?

III. Though this group is not a social community of art, the Nazi Social Party was a very influential social community that manifested through common taste and opinion of a certain people, specifically the Jewish people.  According to Adorno and Horkheimer in their essay “Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment,” the Nazis craved power and authority; in addition, they write that anti-Semites “cannot exist without disfiguring human beings” (Adorno and Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, 138).

Adorno and Horkheimer describe the Jewish race as a group formed by religious belief and tradition; they write that the Jews were branded as absolute evil by absolute evil and were seen as vermin that the Nazi Party felt must be exterminated.  “Nationalist anti-Semitism seeks to disregard religion.  It claims to be concerned with purity of race and nation” (ibid. 144).  Religion, to the anti-Semites, is seen as a manifestation of spirituality, a deception of the real; that deception is what made the Jewish people a problematic group in society for Nazis who wished to expel religion, magic and myth; however, was it really religion that the anti-Semites were against?  They were known to be Christians; “Anti-Semitism [was] supposed to confirm that the ritual of faith and history is justified by ritually sacrificing those who deny its justice” (ibid. 147).  For Nazis, it was not just religion which they were against but specifically the Jewish faith along with economic gains that they did not agree the Jewish people should hold.  Adorno and Horkheimer note that though Jews were able to hold high professional positions, they always had to justify these roles by displaying complete devotion and belittling their selves.  

To further reaffirm their power and authority over the Jews, anti-Semites displayed mimetic behavior in order to mock and torture the Jews and anyone who was considered an other.  This is based on a false projection of how they, the Nazis, perceive the other.  According to Adorno and Horkheimer, it was an act of fear and paranoia that continued to feed the illness and delusions of the Nazi party.  Their irrational behavior continued to feed their power drive and destroy a people because of their own insecure, false projections of reality and humanity.

Adorno and Horkheimer discuss how anti-Semites destroyed and exterminated people because of their own delusional perception of those people; anti-Semites are compared to those hallucinating; they see and perceive of Jews as deformed and materialist. They mimic the Jews in order to gain power over them; there was no self-reflection or thought in the thinking or actions of the Nazis, for if there was, they might see the others as people, individuals, and not as vermin that needed to disappear; they were blind to humanity and half-conscious of their own existence as it should predominate all men.  The taste of the Nazi Party and the common feelings regarding people, the “other”, is what allows for them to form their social group.  How does this tie in to social communities of art?

In understanding the importance of taste for determining a social group, the Nazis were a group of people who agreed upon their own delusions about the Jewish people.  For art, many social groups unite based on a liking of a certain movement of art or an element in a particular work (amongst many other reasons pertaining to commonality).  These groups are founded on likeness and agreeable ideas and beliefs regarding certain elements of society.

IV. The question I am trying to answer is: do social communities of art determine taste or do the rules of taste create particular social communities?  The answer is that both taste and social communities impact each other in different ways.  Many social communities of art exist because of a commonality of taste, opinion, and knowledge of art; other communities exist because of a social group’s with preexisting standards and views.  While the conventions of the art market and spectatorship resided with works in which spectators could relate, Burger and Duchamp discuss the Avant Garde movement and how it forced a shift in spectatorship and engagement with art.

According to Peter Burger, the main goals of Avant Garde art were to create work in which the public should actually strive to engage with, not settling for work which is easily relatable; this also meant that the aim of the Avant Garde movement was to engage with the public and, at the same time, infuriate them for going beyond the conventions of art which are familiar.  Avant Garde artists created manifestations, which was a form of reproduction, as a form of art.  Marcel Duchamp, as one example, of an artist who purchased a urinal, flipped it upside-down, signed it and called it art, entitled Fountain.  Duchamp’s insistence that it was, or is rather, art made a mockery of the standards that had already been established in society as well as parodied the art making process for the artist.  He changed the conventions of spectatorship because he altered the category and identification of a work of art.

While there are social communities of art that form because of a likeness of taste, Hume focuses on the individual and his or her specific views and perceptions of art.  Additionally, he discusses the distinction of good taste (which may fall into specific social circles) as opposed to one of lesser quality.  He writes:

Though men of delicate taste be rare, they are easily to be distinguished in society by the soundness of their understanding, and the superiority of their faculties above the rest of mankind… The general principles of taste are uniform in human nature: where men vary in their judgments, some defect or perversion in the faculties may commonly be remarked; proceeding either from prejudice, from want of practice, or want of delicacy: and there is just reason for approving one taste, and condemning another (Hume 19).

All people evaluate art in a similar way, however, each individual critiques different elements of art which strengthens and clarifies his or her taste.  Much of this clarification is dependent on one’s knowledge and ability to unbiasedly judge something without outside influence.  Though many social groups, especially in the present day art milieu, hold favorable opinions about art by famous artists or what has already been accepted in society, the ideals of bourgeois convention in the art world has created a certain development of taste which spectators are expected to abide by if expected to hold a fine palate for art.

Developing taste, in art, requires sentiment, an unbiased mind open to absorb the imagery and knowledge to reinforce the data being conveyed in the visuals.  While this sort of taste must manifest within the individual, often society influences the individual and allows for the individual’s perspective to transform into the opinions and views of society.  Especially in regards to art, the bourgeois and elite determine all art and accept certain works into their institutions to exhibit high taste; spectators who are not as well versed in art might strive to adapt to the views of the authoritative figures present.  There are also groups that form because of a commonality of taste for art and an appreciation, perhaps, for specific art movements.  Understanding the groups that hold similar standards compared to groups that unite because of social influence is what allows for the above mentioned philosophers and artists to contemplate social groups regarding taste.  While social communities of art are able to determine taste (for example the bourgeois), the rules of taste can also create particular social communities.

Work Cited:

Adorno, Theodor W., Gretel Adorno, and Rolf Tiedemann. "Society." Aesthetic Theory. Trans.

Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1997. 225-251.

Adorno, Theodor W., and Robert Hullot-Kentor. "On Popular Music." Current of Music:

Elements of a Radio Theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009. 311-15. Footnote jj

Buren, Daniel. “Function of the Museum.” Theories of Contemporary Art, By Richard

Hertz. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985. 189-192.

Buren, Daniel. “The Function of the Studio.” Trans. Thomas Repensek. (1971): 51-58.  Everyday

Archive <>.

Bürger, Peter. "On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society." Theory of the

Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1984. 35-54.

Duchamp, Marcel. "The Creative Act." Salt Seller; the Writings of Marcel Duchamp.

New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Lyotard, Jean-François, Geoffrey Bennington, and Brian Massumi. The Postmodern Condition:

A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1984.

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