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The Question of Taste: Bill Berkson

By Bill Berkson & Jarrett Earnest

Bill Berkson is a poet (originally associated with the New York School) and critic who's been writing about art since the 60s. His books include The Sweet Singer of Modernism and other Art Writings, which Dave Hickey called “an indispensable text for anyone interested in late-twentieth-century culture.” In a Brooklyn Rail interview from a few years back, Berkson dug into the democratic roots of his own taste:

When people like you and I were growing up we were immersed in what is often considered low culture, but one cultivated specific habits, tastes, within what was generally available. In high school I began to meet people who hated modern life and the culture that went with it. They wanted to live in the Renaissance; everything had been downhill for them since 1700 or whenever. They wanted no part of our modern vulgarity, whereas I was so deeply immersed in it I came to fine literature quite late. I read comic books and pulp novels if I read anything at all, and whatever was required for book reports, you know, and I watched endless movies, and it’s like what Creeley says in that lovely poem: I did, maybe still do, have “a small boy’s sense of doing good,” and “ride that margin of the lake.” A small boy’s notion is that of a knight on horseback by the sparkling water—in Idylls of the King perhaps, but no, it’s Robert Taylor in love with Elizabeth Taylor in a Technicolor Ivanhoe. To disdain such a homegrown culture would be untrue; instead you develop a taste for what’s great within it, according to what you really know and go for.

What follows is a slightly adapted version of an interview with Berkson originally published in Talking Cure.

Jarrett Earnest: To begin, what interests you about taste?

Bill Berkson: That the word goes in so many directions. It breaks down according to what experience is at hand. If it’s food, you say, “This hamburger doesn’t taste right,” “This pineapple tastes too sour”—so it’s not to your “taste.” And that seems categorical—if you say “This pineapple is definitely too sour, it may be over-ripe,” or it’s “too sour for me,” that’s categorical. So much for food. To take another instance, a friend of mine has a country house, it’s really for his wife and their children, he doesn’t go there very much, but he says about the house, its location and furnishings: “My wife has excellent taste.” Those considerations seem quite distant from taste in art, because when you raise the question of taste in art the term spins off wildly in many directions, many of them contradictory. For instance when I was, so to speak, growing up in the New York art world, and New York art was paramount, with a self-proclaiming dominance, a work might be dismissed as being “tasteful.” In Art News reviews in the ’50s, a typical short short review might read in its entirety: “X shows tasteful watercolors of summers in Maine.” That’s all you need to know about what X has been doing lately. Of course, someone reading this might think, “I love tasteful watercolors of summers in Maine!” and go and buy some and have a bunch of them over the toilet in the bathroom. 1950s contemporary French art was dismissed as “all cuisine,” which meant “tasteful.” Certain artists—Motherwell was one—were suspect to their colleagues in the New York School as being too tasteful. Or else, Thomas Hess writing of either deKooning or Hofmann—I forget which, but remember this wonderful phrase—“He has the bad taste of genius.”

If you get the full painting education at the San Francisco Art Institute, most of your professors are going to criticize what you’re doing at one time or another as “too decorative.” Those people are eighth-generation Clyfford Still-type artists. We all grew up in this ethos of toughness, whether it was conceptual art or painting or theatre, that art had to be tough, challenging, not decorative, not over the couch—which brought any assertion of taste or “tastefulness” into question. Clement Greenberg did a very odd thing: his sense of aesthetics was that the “good” work hits you in your gut and that establishes its quality and accordingly its importance. For Greenberg, the job of the critic is to rationalize that involuntary gut feeling. I guess you can say that is a kind of taste, the taste of gut feeling. But then that is your hidden taste, or latent or even “deep” taste, which is other than your conscious or declared taste. On another occasion, Greenberg spoke to the effect that bad art tends to “meet your taste more than half way.” If your taste is easily satisfied, it probably verges on “easy,” academic in its own terms. That’s a funny number.

JE: Art that looks like Art!

BB: Yeah, so that, historically, this distasteful quality became a sign—a veritable touchstone, in fact—of Modern Art. Gertrude Stein said that things that are truly modern and important appear ugly at first. It may even have been true of Giotto, Masaccio and other innovators, but their violations of common taste were ultimately theological. The Baroque—the term itself indicates unease where taste is concerned. When Poussin, who wants to hold to traditional values, says of Caravaggio that he meant to kill painting, he means that Caravaggio is jettisoning classical taste. Then Manet, the “ugliness” of Olympia is a hallmark, a typical Modern gesture. I find it very irritating in a way because it’s become such a routine. I was on a critics panel in New York and Vincent Fecteau’s recent exhibition was up for discussion. Robert Morgan said that he saw Fecteau’s sculpture as “symptomatic but not significant” and I sort of exploded; I mean, what if it is beautiful, you get pleasure from it, and it is neither symptomatic or significant, but just that. In fact, a week or so before the panel Roberta Smith had written a piece for the New York Times that said pretty much what I was feeling: she was baffled by the work but found it intensely pleasurable—a rare admission on Roberta’s part. But in some ways these perfectly simple terms are not even part of the conversation, so the moderator just sped on to the next topic. Pleasure is still a conversation stopper—a crazy state of affairs to me. On the other hand, I wouldn’t make a general principle of pleasure as significance, either. People are too principled when it comes to evaluating art. There’s a rush to judgment every time. It’s interesting when something comes along that violates and proves more interesting, more provocative and generative than anyone’s principles. I suppose that is close to what Greenberg had in mind, although he kept drawing lines in the sand, a whole desert’s worth of scorecards!

JE: I'm interested in the way something that is categorically bad taste for the “mass” is totally converted into good taste, and what that means as a gain or a loss in the encounter of a work of art.

BB: Well, what Stein followed up with is that after a while this great Modern Thing isn't so ugly. It risks domestication, I suppose, right there on Gertrude’s salon wall. A little earlier all those Monets, Manets, Pissarros had become comfortable household objects, especially in the happy homes of American financiers. Then the double irony of T. J. Clark’s turning one’s view of the Manet so that it shows all these terrible things that capitalism is doing to the countryside—you thought it was all about pleasure but it was really about alienation! (Laughs) All of sudden, Manet is telling, say, Mrs. Havemeyer the same thing Picasso said to the German officer when he asked about Guernica, Did you do this? and Picasso said, No, you did.

JE: I almost feel like that about Andy Warhol—when I see some little fashion student walking around with a Warhol tote bag—I'm sure he would have liked it though.

BB: Yes and no. It’s not exactly like Monet painting his own heaven, making a heaven for himself, which is what he did, turning his back literally on what fascinated Manet in the modern world. Andy saying, “Pop Art is about liking things.” Pittsburgh, PA, Byzantine immigrant working-class taste—why should Andy or anyone from such circumstances have anything else? He saw then that America was leveling out, which is not true, but believed that everyone was going to have Campbell soup. He didn't foresee Whole Foods, or that, thanks to his pal Ronald Reagan, there would be a wider than ever disparity between the rich and poor and that Campbell's soup was going to get worse rather than better and Democracy less democratic. I don't know if you mean the images of the car crashes or the death of Marilyn Monroe. Yeah, but that’s Mad American Catholicism for you—ceremonial, rapturous, renegade, and very perverse. Everyone has to understand that about Andy.

JE: When did we start talking about the difference between good versus bad taste? Because even around Andy Warhol, I feel that some reasons for liking Andy are "Good Taste" and some reasons are "Bad Taste".

BB: (laughing) You know the term I used to hear, that in a certain way sustained the dream of democracy, now gone—the term is “educated taste.” To a certain extent we all have educated taste. Ours is not educated in the way Thomas Jefferson, or our teachers, probably intended, because most of us educated our own taste. The idea of education used to be that you come in with no taste and instructors show you the way. The museum was a corrective device for the mob chaos of democracy. One selling point for the National Gallery in England as opposed to the Victoria and Albert, and for the National Gallery in Washington and eventually the Met, too, was that people who come into this Temple of Art will be elevated to essentially “our” higher level of taste and therefore will rise to become functional citizens of the Republic, e.g., they’ll vote the ticket. It’s a terribly perverse argument for critical method. Because the terror of democracy has always been that those people will be making decisions en masse. Better bring them along! A very interesting thing because you have to look very hard at the five foot shelf, what is being taught in the Great Books curriculum, what Johnny needs to know to be a good citizen. Well, Champ, what is civics? Interestingly, I doubt there’s a civics class in the land that includes a rundown of how the banking system works. You just might like to know what pays your tuition; start with the check ready for deposit and work backward.

JE: With educated taste isn’t there this lurking specter of philistinism—someone who is using culture to elevate themselves socially?

BB: That’s a different type. Ivanka hires you to take her around the museum. Next stop, Geoffrey Beene. I don't know if this happens anymore, but what does happen is, people get taken around by art consultants who virtually tell them what and why to buy. Aggressive. Later at dinner those same people, having learned to talk the talk, tell you at length what everything is about.

JE: I guess the question is that given the differences in the art world even 50 years ago and now, does "taste" exist, or what is in its place. I don't think one could say: "This is bad taste" and get away with it in relationship to a work of art now.

BB: I don't hear it. I think the operative term, and what became a sort of escape hatch, is the word "interesting." Most of the art that new collectors have—types of big installation art, which actually can be accommodated in the happy home, or in the country, around the swimming pool—once they're there, they're conversation pieces. Much of this art exists functionally as an aid for expenditures, a demonstration of wealth, power and to some extent, being “with it.” Of course you can say that’s true to a certain extent of a lot of art through the ages. It’s just that lately the cover has blown away—there’s no pretense at religious, mythic purpose or simple grandeur, or entertainment or even fun. It’s raw power showing you what it’s got. There’s a whole discourse around this conundrum of meaning and placement.

The weird thing that occurred with abstract art, which was sort of the culmination of the modern taste for suggestibility—for the suggestion as the presentiment of meaning—if you look at a Barnett Newman, or Ellsworth Kelly, or Ryman, there may be a kind of program that goes with it, like with Mondrian, supposedly, but finally you are left flat footed facing this thing. If you look close enough, openly to what is happening to your senses, the synaptic events, there was a spark of possible meaning you could talk about endlessly because it was all unplanned and uncertain, no matter how intelligently worked. And this other thing—the way that conceptual art, if that is what it is, has come to be, is that the terms, the conversational terms about it are already set—there in the wall notes: "X is exploring the price of bananas in Honduras today." OK, I get it. There’s nothing more. Dennis Oppenheim said that the crisis for the original conceptual artists two or three years into it in the 1970s was the realization that what they were doing was, as Oppenheim put it, devoid of visual interest. For years, most video was void in that department due to a lack of care for the image, even to the point of allowing these shoddy projections of low-resolution DVD matter where you can barely make up anything but the subtitles. It’s gotten better, though, in both image and projection.

JE: I'm struck by—when we went to the Yvonne Rainer lecture and she began by making the point that "expressivity is in the eyes of the beholder,” and yet she is now producing this highly aesthetic work that fits within very narrow disciplinary boundaries and was really unwilling to address that.

BB: Well, the films take some big risks, I mean, it’s just that at that moment, the moment of so much focus on the phenomenology of everyday life, so much opened up, but whether by the artists or their critics, the categories got more refined. Merce Cunningham called it "movement" instead of dance, and Rainer might have done so, too. Now the dances are on stage that used to be in the round at the Judson Church and in the lofts. Luckily no one resorted to calling it "freedom.” There’s just so much you can do—you can include in the dance vocabulary walking across a floor with a mattress on your shoulders, and that’s not Swan Lake. If you’re worried about it’s being dance, call it movement.

The same thing happened in music. It was like the game was up the minute all these people started howling about “freedom,” trying to align it with civil rights, especially Coltrane, and all it showed was that if you’re going to call it music, and Cage never pretended otherwise—“organized sound,” he said—still there’s only so much you can do under that rubric. Free jazz—what it always does is get faster and louder and then it quiets down for a while, injects some lyric passages and then builds back up to more mayhem. It actually gets more limited than Duke Ellington or Dixieland, the more it pretended to be really free, the more limited it seemed. The one thing it did shake loose of, it didn't dawn on me till much later, was that what they wanted to do, just like Yvonne wanted to do, to get off point and get away from Martha Graham-style, expressivity, symbolism, mythology and so forth. Jazz needed at that point to free itself of standards—meaning, not taste or quality, but “standards” in the sense of the Broadway and Tin Pan Alley tunes the players had been ringing their changes on. With Yvonne it was also the proscenium. The White Oaks Project preserves what was done at Judson and what is still done at St. Marks Danspace or in Douglas Dunn’s studio, but on an elevated stage. For people who were there in the ’60s it is sad to see it elevated this way because it used to be just here, people running just past you—and now it has a museological distance.

JE: The same thing happens in performance art. I'm totally horrified by Marina Abramovic, who had this wonderful body of work and then for the past ten years seems absolutely hell bent on destroying everything that was respectable or interesting about her. Culminating in this ridiculous reenactment.

BB: I don't understand what she's doing. I mean up to the live-in-the-gallery project, the only time I ever saw her live was in Venice where she did her piece about Kosovo, sitting there washing a heap of blood-caked bones, and it was really marvelous, powerful. But this remake business sounds awful, and it also sounds as though everyone has slammed her for it. The response hasn't been good.

JE: But what is the disconnect, between these big corporate museums, which basically are what museums are––corporations that need to turn a profit?

BB: Well, they have to break even, anyway. They have to pay excessive salaries, insurance, shipping charges, world-class architects and all that and then somehow or other break even.

JE: But is there a disconnect between museums now and what their “role” is suppose to be as a historical entity. And that has to do with taste, because they hold the DNA of culture, which future artists have to deal with.

BB: The trouble is, it’s not about taste anymore. If you’re at the Met or the Frick or the Morgan Library you’re still charged with exercising some taste and presumed to have some to exercise. But if you’re at the Modern in either town, New York or here, it just doesn't have to do with that. You have a sense of history and significance and you may be held to that. And all of these places, including the Met, are deep into marketing, which isn't about anything but bringing people in. And for no ostensible purpose, just to bring them in, just to keep the institution going. The public justification for probably the last 20 years or more has been that, in order to have public funding, museums adorn themselves with an educational mission. Now we have the museum as combination arts institution and community center with atriums about as friendly as the interiors of your average big banks. It figures because the money now is CEO money of the kind that defines the institution as a business to be run accordingly to measurable standards—membership and ticket and gift shop sales in this case. I’m struck by the fact that if I go to SFMoMA or the Legion of Honor, either way, if you’re dealing with contemporary, modern art or old masters, there just isn't any operative taste. We have this thing called "museum quality" art. The Rothko now at SFMoMA was six million dollars, it’s the non-identical twin to the picture in Berkeley. Before it arrived, I asked a dealer friend, what about this Rothko we're getting? "Well it’s a museum quality Rothko," he said. And I thought, "Museum quality—what is that?" It’s like the FDA—the art has an institutional stamp of approval, it’s certifiably a Rothko, albeit of a certain size, period and provenance, and as a painting it’s OK. Sometime after it arrived, I went and sat with it for an hour. I got up and looked closely at how it was made. That is how the sublimity of a Rothko often gets to you—you look at how the thing is painted and while you’re inspecting the brushstrokes and the weave, the hairs on the back of your neck begin to tingle. Before I left, I addressed this work as if to say, “You are a very well-painted picture, but I do not love you.” There’s a difference; the one in Berkeley has the edge.

But if you go around the country and go to museums, as I have had the opportunity to do over the past year doing readings in places like Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Louis, Boston, etc, and you go to these places, especially the contemporary and modern museums, their collections consist mainly of “examples.” Examples are not a matter of taste. It’s just a fucking “Rothko.” There was a curator at the Fine Arts Museums some years ago who told me “There are still some things we would like for the collection.” “Like what?” I asked. “Well, we'd like to have a Poussin.” Well, who wouldn’t, but what does that mean, “a Poussin”? It implies that any Poussin that comes down the pike would do. No master, old or new, is that faultless. The topic of taste is very interesting in that way, but what if there isn't any, and what if nobody cares? And in the museum world that used to be the criterion, that a curator has "distinctive" if not "superior" taste.

JE: Does that have to do with a loss of history, or a loss of broader cross-disciplinary knowledge?

BB: It has to do with the absence of poetry. I maintain that people of the art world read only trash. They read Eurotrash theoretical literature, hastily and probably sloppily translated and middlebrow fiction, and probably no poetry and no serious philosophy, either. There are few exceptions to this loss of general culture and its concomitant, easy brassbound sense of history. Very weird business, because on the one hand there is the belief that the developmental progressive view of history that culminated in Modern Art ended. Once that game is up—a strange game anyhow, created within the academy to rationalize what had happened—and if that’s rejected we are left, happily, I think, with a kind of delta that just spreads out into a field called “art” where different things happen, different modes appear and circulate, in no demonstrable sequence. Someone at San Diego State University in the back of the room asked "How did 9/11 effect your poetry"––a very interesting question, to which I had next to no answer. But the weird thing is that the people who believe there was a culmination in history keep insisting on next year's product. Been there/done that––where do we go now, as if there’s still some kind of progression. All it is really is good old modern boredom, the Inertia of the New.

JE: For me the most significant show, that deeply troubles me, is the New Museum, triennial “The Generational: Younger than Jesus.”

BB: There you have it. Such tasteless trash! (Laughs) I mean "tasteless” and “trash" in quotes but not sneer quotes. My feeling was that the curators made the show look the way it did and probably some of the artists are perfectly OK, although it was a cumulative trash scene, going mostly for this pervasive tone of resentment. There was nothing even of the Beautiful Loser ethos—no Chris Johannson or Alicia McCarthy, none of that. There was nothing of Beautiful Loser “heart,” or anyone that was interested in going for anything that could be called beautiful or communicative, like say, Colter Jacobsen or Fecteaux. But I've talked to people who enjoyed it. I never found out why. Then you could say, as I have been saying with alarming frequency of late, "It’s not for me". That’s an older guy’s taste limitation, but it also indicates a point at which what is for me is based on need rather than developing a taste for more cultural whatnots.

Revised by BB, May 4, 2014

From May, 2014

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