What is “good taste”?
Firstly… let’s say that what “tastes good” is a very relative thing. Yes, there are sensory experiences that humans tend to go for universally by instinct- sweet, human faces, etc., but culture, individual experience and the intellect can affect significant changes and variations in those raw instincts.
What I want to think about is not what tastes good to a given person or even generally, but what good tasting ability is. In a relativistic world, I would define good taste as the ability to appreciate subtle differences. When one chooses a preference based on a more subtle understanding, then the choice is a more refined one, whatever the choice is.
It’s no accident that we use the word “taste” to describe finely discerning. I have come to equate learning to perceive visual subtleties with the ability to taste wine. Give a range of wines to someone who has no experience in tasting it and they are likely to tell you there isn’t much difference. Give it to someone with good taste in wines and they can not only describe the aromas, flavor and finish, but if they are really good they may be able to tell you the vintage. They have learned through practice (and often actual classes) to taste the different subtle notes in the wine- to distinguish vanilla, berries, woods, etc. and can more or less tell you what went into it.
People who don’t have that ability to distinguish might think that the wine snobs are making it up… but it doesn’t hold when the wine drinkers can take the same bottle of wine and taste the same things independently. Good taste is the ability to distinguish subtly, and it takes time and practice just like anything else, even for those with a natural sense of it.
So what does that mean with art? On a purely visual level (setting aside concepts and historical references for now) it is the same thing. Often when I first get a student they can’t tell a warm gray from a cold one, or phthalo blue from ultramarine (for a wine taster that might be like not being able to tell a Cabernet from a Merlot). To the untrained eye, gray is gray and blue is blue. Given a little time learning to look more carefully though, soon they can’t understand how they ever could have confused the two. They have learned to see better. They have learned more subtlety in distinguishing color.
Consequently they can look at a Monet and see a lot more going on in it than when they first looked, and more importantly as artists, they can paint with more color sensitivity. If their technique is up to matching what their eyes and mind can register, it comes through.
So what is often happening when someone without visual training (conscious or purposeful) looks at a painting and says “yeah, I know a student, kid, etc who could do that”? I submit is often that they aren’t tasting the different flavors. It isn’t that the difference isn’t there, it is that they haven’t got the ability to see it yet, and consequently are liable to think that there is a conspiracy of art snobs just as someone new to wine tasting might suspect there is a conspiracy of wine snobs.
On the other hand, sometimes the kid can paint it. Then we have contemporary art where it may be a pile of ordinary candy, or a smashed car… but that is usually the can of worms known as Concept, which is another little essay on its own. On the other hand…yes, I believe that every once in a while there is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, but more often it’s a matter of taste.