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Taste & Personality

Have you had key lime pie before?

Yes, but I was a different person then.

Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)

How does taste define personality? We want it to say something and think it says something about other people. However, we know this isn’t true, even as we try to use it on dating sites, with lists of favourite books, movies, and music.

To what extent does aesthetics influence our lives? From the moment we awake, we are concerned about our appearance, even when we are dead. We live in a world of imagination and visual appearance. We both want our tastes to define us. Wearing the t-shirt and other displays, and yet favourite books, movies, and music says almost nothing about the person. I once met someone who told me their favourite bands were ABBA and Def Leppard. 

We want to use taste displays to indicate our personality, mood and desires. We also have a taste as a personal preference. Statements of favourite books, movies and music are signals. What book would make you instantly walk away if you saw your blind date reading?

Two polarities are operating here, a complex code of interpersonal communication and personal preferences. Dressing for personal aesthetic preference, like little children, differs from dressing as part of a code. You may still have aesthetic preferences within a code, just as a writer prefers one word or phrase over another.

Recorded music that we listen to privately may differ from the music we put on for others to hear. The two polarities of personal preference and coded communication expose the polarities of private and public in art and culture. Aside from book readings, reading is private. The performing arts, before home viewing technology (videotapes, DVD, streaming), were the most public of the arts. Consequently, music changed when private listening (headphones) became standard technology in the early 1970s.

Cultural codes can be used as a language that some consider stylish, elegant, or simply functional. So a person’s fashion sense could be compared to a writer’s style. This is not about personal preferences; it is not about favourites but coded communication. My party music list differs from the music I want at my funeral. These are displays of implied character, identity and perception; dressing like a wanna-be someone else. 

How do your aesthetic choices signal your personality? Your choice of clothes is part of your preferences, but you also have a limited wardrobe. And that wardrobe will indicate much more than personality: cultural background, class, occupation, etc. These aspects of personal identity contribute to the selection process. So there is a difference between what I think is great art, my personal preferences, and my own art collection.

Taste is more about background, experiences and education than character. Yet people with the same background may very different tastes. And people with very similar character traits may have very different tastes. Even extremes, like musical anhedonia, where people get no pleasure from listening to music, don’t reveal anything about the person.

Yet taste defines personality because we, or others, want it to. The human right and desire for identity are transferred into our tastes as it is onto other aspects of our life.


Taste & Identity

Contrary to popular opinion taste is not subjective. Taste is both natural and reactive. Taste is a way that we express our identity.

It is easy to understand natural taste preferences. Liking chocolate is not a subjective, it is a natural human reaction to chocolate. If taste were subjective it would not be surprising to find an equal number of people who disliked the taste of chocolate. People who profess a dislike for chocolate are reacting to something about chocolate, perhaps they are allergic to chocolate.

Taste is also reactive. It is a reaction to a stimuli, it is a reaction to memories, it is a reaction to the tastes of others. Feedback loops can develop in tastes. Taste can also become a reaction that something is not as good as we remember. We react to our earlier tastes, we might grow tired of aspects of them. Reactive taste choices occur in response to a wide range of factors and account for much of the diversity of taste. It is an interpretation of the reaction, favourable or unfavourable or to other associated aspects.

Morrissey Edmiston suit 1993

Morrissey Edmiston suit 1993

Perhaps these example of about chocolate are not taste but an aesthetic judgements of chocolate. Perhaps taste is more about fashion and identity.

Wittgenstein wrote: “Take the case of fashions. How does fashion come about? Say, we wear lapels border than last year. Does that mean that the tailor likes them better broader? No, not necessarily. He cuts it like this and this year he makes it broader. Perhaps, this year he finds it too narrow and makes it wider. Perhaps, no expression is used at all.” Lectures on Aesthetics II.8, Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology & Religious Belief (Basil Blackwell, 1966,Oxford)

Wittgenstein’s  imaginary tailor might be more comfortable with hip-hop expressions like hardcore, old school (traditional) or wild style (eccentric) as these stylistic descriptions do not imply that one likes one trend or taste is better than another. Terms like ‘hardcore,’ ‘old school,’ ‘freestyle’ are useful in understanding that a culture is not a unified and timeless thing, but rather a cluster of emerging and past styles.

For taste is not just matters of aesthetics but about affinity or alienation, for example identifying with people wearing wide or narrow lapels. Taste is about identification, especially in taste in fashion.

Taste is a discourse that an individual is having with the culture that they are part of and with cultures that they are not a member. Janine Burke’s book, The Sphinx on the Table (Walker & Company, 2006, New York) is an examination Sigmund Freud’s art collection as a psychological and biographical analysis of his character. Burke uses Freud’s taste as a demonstration of both his personality as well as the way that he chooses to express it in society at the time.

Taste is the way that individuals define themselves within a culture. If taste were simply subjective then you would not be able to judge a person by their taste in music (see the Date Report “What Your Taste in Music Says About You On a Date”) any more than it you could judge them by a preference for fruit.


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