State of Taste: The love for da Vinci, the hate for Hirst, the ambivalence for Warhol
Honore Daumier, Battle of the Schools – Idealism and Realism, 1855
For the last year, I asked my two-dimensional design students about their sense of taste. What artists do they like and what artists do they not like? Why? What about good and bad taste? Are there artists that they like that they understand are somewhat low-brow and not “tasteful”? These conversations with my students have been a way to talk about how personal regard (like/dislike) for an artist is not really the same thing as how an artist is making work that is high-brow/good taste/tasteful or low-brow/bad taste/tasteless. Of course, all of this is subjective. Personal opinions vary widely and while people can more generally agree on what is in good or bad taste than whether they actually like the artist, even this is up for debate. The current fashions in the art world are still largely foreign to the students, which is really as it should be. While it would be easy to dismiss the taste of my students, their opinions will slowly develop and grow more important with each passing year. Also, I wanted to ask my students about their sense of taste so that I could know them better.
Beyoncé, Beyoncé and Jay-Z with Leondardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” 2014
I asked each student to make a presentation on their sense of taste, choosing any visual artists they wanted, regardless of whether or not we covered the artist in class. They needed to pick one artist they liked that they considered to be in good taste, one artist that they disliked that they considered to be in good taste, one artist that they liked that they considered to be in bad taste, and one artist that they disliked that they considered to be in bad taste. I like to think of these four categories as the unambiguously good, the overrated, the guilty pleasure, and the unambiguously bad. Over 120 artists were chosen, though only about a dozen were picked by multiple students. The artists that I am most interested in sharing are those artists which were chosen more than once. My data here is highly unscientific due to the small sample size. Artists are scored by the aggregate of all students that chose the artist. If two students like Artist A, then the “like” score is +2. If one student finds Artist A to be in good taste and another student finds Artist A to be in bad taste, the “taste” score is 0.
The highest scoring artist was Leonardo da Vinci (“like” of +3, “taste” of +3). He was unambiguously good. Da Vinci is an artistic powerhouse who shows up in pop culture through Dan Brown novels, Red Bull Flutag competitions, Beyoncé/Jay-Z selfies, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (“Really? That one’s still a thing? Why?” said Netflix time-capsule character Kimmy Schmidt this year). Clearly, da Vinci can draw and paint realistically, which is a skill most young artists strongly desire. While da Vinci is a bit of a safe choice, there is no denying his popularity. The other artist to score unambiguously good was Claude Monet, with a score of “like” +1 and “taste” +3. French Impressionism and the Italian Renaissance never seem to fall completely out of fashion.
Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937
In the overrated category (in good taste but not liked) there was Pablo Picasso (“like” -4, “taste” +3), Jean-Michel Basquiat (“like” -2, “taste” +4), and René Magritte (“like” -1, “taste” +3). Based on the explanations of why students disliked these artists, students did not highly value analytical or symbolic work that they could not decipher and understand clearly. These are artists that you have to “get” in order to appreciate. Picasso’s cubism and abstraction seemed to be pointlessly difficult (my students did not seem to be aware that Picasso made much work outside of cubism). Personally, I was surprised at how uniform this antipathy to Picasso was. Very few students seemed to be willing to defend him during class discussions. It is worth remembering that Picasso was perhaps the most dominant visual artist of the last century, at least when you look at the opinions of artists who were living and working in the 1900s. These 21st century art students are not feeling it. Basquiat, famous for his personal iconography that connected street art with high-minded intellectual concepts in diagram, was often unintelligible to my students. Interestingly, students did not seem to dislike the way the works looked visually or the way Basquiat painted, but they disliked how opaque the content was to them. Magritte struck many students as pretentious. They felt his nonsensically surreal images did not convey any deeper message. What is the point about putting an apple in front of someone’s face? Unanswerable enigmas were far less interesting to my students than artists who had clear messages. Picasso and Basquiat were also the artists most chosen by my students (Picasso was chosen 5 times, Basquiat 4 times). In this sense, they were the most famous/infamous artists.
Banksy, Dismaland, 2015
For the unambiguously bad, students chose Banksy (“like” -3, “taste” -3), Jackson Pollock (“like” -3, “taste” -1), Damian Hirst (“like” -2, “taste” -2), and Tracey Emin (“like” -2, “taste” -2). Tracey Emin and Damian Hirst, both Young British Artists, seemed to fare particularly poorly. Their shocking and controversial art that made them so interesting in the 1990s was received as tasteless and hard to like. “Is Emin’s used mattress really art? What exactly is the point of Hirst spending millions of dollars on platinum and diamonds to make a skull that no one even ends up buying?” the students asked. These opinions line up well with the way Damian Hirst became a symbol of art world hubris and excess after the 2008 market crash. I was a little surprised at how many students chose Bansky, as it seemed that in years past he was quite well regarded by my students. The reason might involve Bansky’s recent theme park, Dismaland. Over the last year, I showed many of my students press videos of Dismaland, and they were sincerely confused as to why anyone would want to pay money to go to an amusement park where everything seemed like a dark, cynical joke. Dismaland seemed to overshadow Bansky’s larger portfolio, and it was seen as a joke made in poor taste. Pollock was quickly dismissed as a low-skill painter who was only good for dribbling paint. While Pollock was the artist specifically singled out, there was a general disapproval of most abstract painting.
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889
Interestingly, among the guilty pleasures there were no artists chosen multiple times by separate students. Perhaps guilty pleasures are too personal a thing for us to expect commonality. There were also a few artists that did not fit neatly in any of these four outlined categories. Caravaggio had a “like” 0 and “taste” -2 score, placing him in the middle between overrated and unambiguously bad. I am not sure what this means for Baroque art in general, or why Caravaggio scored so differently from an artist like da Vinci. Vincent van Gogh, perhaps the most famous “tortured” artist, scored a “like” 0 and “taste” +4. Van Gogh’s ubiquity in our culture does continue to be very strong, even if it is mostly a kind of cliché (for more on this, see the “Sip and Paint Van Gogh’s The Starry Night” at DCAC Gallery in Washington, D.C., running April 29 to May 29 [full disclosure: I am in this show]). The painter is clearly rated in good taste, but my students did not seem to feel passionately about him, positively or negatively.
Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball, n.d.
Akira Toriyama (“like” 0, “taste” +2) was perhaps the one artist on this list who most surprised me. For those who are not familiar with Toriyama, he is the creator of Dragonball Z. Students picked many animé, manga, comic book, and video game artists, and they were continually some of the most controversial artists during class discussion. Many students did not consider these genres to be art at all, but for others, it was clear that a large part of their cultural and social life was spent reading, watching and playing work created by these artists. Some students meekly acknowledged that their taste was at times a little geeky; others seemed sincerely surprised so many other students disliked animé. This latter group considered artists like Toriyama to be just as artistically prestigious as da Vinci or van Gogh, and seemed to be the most unsure about the concept of bad taste or low-brow. I admit that I admire the pro-animé students in their ability make an increasingly comprehensive lifestyle out of art through things like cosplay and video game clubs. However, these same students were problematically the ones who consistently seemed the least interested in learning more about contemporary art that was outside their comfort zone.
Andy Warhol, 32 Cambell’s Soup Cans, 1962
There is one more artist that made it into the chart: Andy Warhol. Warhol scored “like” 0 and “taste” 0, making him a perfect neutral. While we cover the work of Warhol in class, and Warhol has profoundly influenced that way we look at and think about mass media, many students did not know what to make of him. The combination of high and low culture and work that rejects traditional definitions of good and bad are core characteristics of Warhol. However, I was somewhat surprised by this score, assuming that many of my students would have liked him more. Of course, I thought they would have liked Bansky and Basquiat more than they did, too.
The big take away from this project on taste is that students had strong opinions on specific artists and fine taste in general. That the students had to go beyond just sharing a list of artists that they like, but also artists they dislike, and disliked for different reasons, forced them to articulate these ideas. Students were also challenged by their peers to defend their choices, and exposed each other to far more diverse artists than I would have normally shown them. I do think that they became more open to unfamiliar artists, in part, because the artists came from peers and not the instructor. Taste is a moving target, and once a student has begun their study of art, they can no longer have truly naïve opinions. So long as they understand that they do have formal criteria and that it should be explainable to others, they are not just creating lists of artists they like and dislike – they are also creating guidelines for their own work.