Who decides what great taste is? And do some pieces of modern art really deserve their multi-million pound price tags?

Subjectivity makes creativity interesting.

Taste is defined as a person’s ability to recognise what is good and suitable, especially when in relation to art, style, beauty and behaviour.

Defining Taste

For generations, philosophers and most recently neurologists and psychologists have delved into the study of taste. 

For David Hume, taste is something that resides within the individual and is inspired by an individual’s experiences. It is an act of imagination for Alexander Gerard, ‘one’s need to explore the perhaps, and what ifs’. 

For Immanuel Kant it is subjective, beautifully presented objects that have a popular appeal, taste is based on the collectively agreed state of ‘Good’.

Recently, fashion mogul Yusaku Maezawa purchased a Jean-Michel Basquiat piece (untitled, 1982) for a whopping $110.5 million, making it the second largest purchase of a piece of art in history. Leaving the art world floundering in a wake of bewilderment and in some cases expressing fervent disapproval. British critic Waldemar Januszczak famously reported: “This gurgling schoolboy of a billionaire bought Untitled at such great expense because it validated his own cheap taste in art”. Waldemar was not alone in this sentiment, it was shared by many who still viewed art as an institution and not a commodity.

Objective Subjectivity

I’ve found myself lying on my bed and racking my brains over this thing about ‘taste’. 

In advertising, creative work is often subjective, within that subjectivity, however, there is always the irrefutable need to be objective when it comes to communicating and selling a brand or product. This is quintessentially what separates art and advertising. 

Art, in the way it is consumed and interpreted, is wholly subjective. 

What different people feel about Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss for example, could separate them, whilst one might prefer Gauguin to Klimt simply because of the very different approaches the artist takes to depicting his subject matter, and no one opinion is necessarily wrong. 

Understanding this fundamental difference is what I believe lays the foundation to our discussion on subjectivity and taste.

Indeed, one cannot explore the concept of taste without noticing or acknowledging the fact that they are not isolated concepts. Most certainly, subjectivity is borne out of taste, whatever taste might be in a given context.

Art Criticism

Taste has become a metaphor for aesthetic judgement in the case of the art market. 

Waldemar’s contention about Maezawa can be broadly argued to be one of taste. A quick read of his articles would give you a sense of the type of critic he is. There is a clear and savagely disproportionate disregard for commercial artists such as Jeff Koons and institutions that buy and sell art. 

He places art at the highest regard as with the artist – his view of art is a definitely academic, and oftentimes lofty. He despises the seemingly ‘simple’ work that is often sold at mind-boggling prices, but fails to appreciate the reality and perhaps naive thought that art could be both complex and yet accessible.

Personally, I’ve always found critics like Waldemar guilty of nurturing a snobbish alienation between art and people. Terrorising both artist, onlookers and galleries with his single-minded approach to art, defining what one should view or not view with an antagonistic ferocity. 

This approach is a highly toxic to what art is and should be. In my opinion, art cannot be simply divided by what is a fine art and what is commercial art, it is far too binary when it comes to the diversity of thought. The problem with critics like Waldemar is that they have become God-like in the art market, where their voices could devalue who and what an artist is. This Maoist approach often overtakes the subjectivity of art, and frankly, is a myopic dig at the expense of expression and freedom that art professes.

Artists as Brands

Looking at the art market as a commercial space would be helpful in understanding the role subjectivity plays in art. 

Think of artists like brands – they, like brands, have a tone of voice, an aesthetic and a point of view. 

However, it is the galleries and the collectors who play a large role in the marketing and profits that come with selling art. The more renowned the artist and gallery is, the more profitable the sale of the piece of work would be. 

For instance, Damien Hirst’s 2008 solo gallery show, was a bold venture that was (for a lack of better words) a middle finger to the art institution itself. Demand for his works then was propelled by the taste for wanting something from Britain’s premier contemporary artist of the time and the fact that the 223 works showcased were brand-new additions. 

So in this case, taste was governed by FOMO. 

Hirst dictated his position, he was the brand and he was what the show stood for. The irony should not be lost that hours before the show, investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy with a $6 billion debt, setting the backdrop to the height of the global economic crisis.

In a quick study of Yusaku Maezawa as a personality, we can see why he fell in love with the work. Like him, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a hustler, an artist who did not go through the ranks of the traditional art education, instead he was part of the street-art collective SAMO and came to prominence when he met Andy Warhol who fell in love with his work.

Creative Space

Basquiat’s works were ‘suggestive dichotomies’ that explored inner and outer worlds of society, traversing through the ideas, of wealth, rank, and socio economic/political observations. 

Similarly, Maezawa’s collection and approach to art is within a similar thread, which is why it comes as no surprise that the billionaire Maezawa intends to bring a group of creatives up to space and have them create works based on the experience of looking back down to earth. 

As a fashion mogul, Maezawa is constantly interested in the design and make up of society, which again could be indicative of his personal feelings towards Basquiat. If anything, it could also be possible that Maezawa was merely smitten by the personality that was hand picked by the contemporary art world’s iconic figure Andy Warhol. In this instance, we can deduce that perhaps taste could be governed by a familiarity to an artist and their thematic approach.

In conclusion, I may not find Basquiat’s Untitled appealing to my personal artistic vocabulary. However, that in itself is the beauty of subjectivity, this is what modern culture is based on and remains the driving force that makes the world we live in so interesting.

Subjectivity, is the breeding ground that inspires contention, discussion and eventually enlightenment. It is bedrock of any creative work.