On Personal Taste

There are, I believe, certain objective standards of craftsmanship in art. A drawing can be, objectively well or poorly rendered, a musical phrase can be well or poorly played. A passage of prose can be well or poorly written.

However, I also believe that there is a level of basic competence in the arts which might be termed the threshold of enjoyment and at that point–while I believe that artists are always driven to improve their skills–objective measures of technique are far less important than subjective taste.

Consider the analogy to cooking. There are a certain number of kitchen skills needed to prepare a meal–frying, boiling, baking, measuring ingredients, and so on. There is a basic level of competence in these skills needed to deliver a meal that will satisfy a hungry diner. Once this level of mastery is obtained, however, the level of satisfaction is dependent more on what is being cooked than how well it is cooked.

Macaroni and cheese is a dish that requires a lower level of skill than artichoke stuffed chicken breasts–but my roommate prefers the mac & cheese. It’s a matter of personal taste.

It is the same thing with the arts. I could make a strong case that the film The Godfather is far more skillfully made than Con*Air–But I still enjoy Con*Air more.

I happen to have a passion for the craft of fiction and will gladly waste hours dissecting a work from multiple angles to discover how a particular effect was achieved and how it could have been done differently, but that’s a technical matter, quite apart from how much enjoyment a particular reader gets from a particular work.

When someone says, “I enjoy this particular story,” that is a statement regarding the taste of a particular reader–not an invitation to discuss the merits of that work. I can’t argue with the statement because I am not inside that reader’s head and can’t speak to the truth or falsehood of that reader’s affirmation of personal enjoyment.

I could say, “I don’t enjoy that story,” but why? I could also say that I feel the story in question was poorly done, and that other stories are more skillfully written, but, again, there’s no reason to say it–save a petty desire to spoil another person’s enjoyment.

Even when the statement is phrased in terms of comparative value–“This story is better than that story”–unless the statement is backed up by a technical discussion of the craft of fiction I will assume it is a statement made about the reader’s own state of mind, and hence not something that can be argued with.

There is, as they say, no accounting for taste.

Now here we come to the point of the essay, and the principle that I would like to convey to other artists, of any media.

The policy of not disagreeing with a statement regarding personal enjoyment of a work of art applies even when I am the creator of the work in question.

Artists tend to be very self-conscious about their work. I have sold a whole lot of short stories to a whole lot of markets, and even so I always think that the particular story I am sending off is crap and everyone is sure to hate it. Every. Damned. Time.

There is a reflex that I feel when someone praises my fiction to disagree with the sentiment, to explain why the story isn’t that good and point out the flaws.

I don’t think I am the only artist who feels that. In fact, I am sure that I am not.

Over the years I have worked hard to squelch that response, or to at least not vocalize my misgivings. I have tried to learn to take it as an expression of the reader’s own tastes. I have accepted that my work will never satisfy me, that I will always be driven to improve, to hone my skills, to drive myself farther.

That’s me. That’s my hangup and I have no right to inflict it on others.

The proper response to someone telling me that they enjoy my work is to say, “Thank you, I’m glad you liked it.” and then shut up.

Something to think about.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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