Almost every creative person I know has heard of Ira Glass’s monologue on taste and creativity, which begins with the following:
Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?
Glass goes on from here about how it takes a tremendous amount of work to close that gap, through hundreds and hundreds of hours of work. The successful creative people make it to the other side, not giving up until that gap has been closed.
A few years ago, I was on a tear, picking up new creative hobbies like it was my job. From blogging to photography to graphic design and illustration, I was all over the place. Motivated by this quote, I knew that I could become great at any of these tasks. As a 19-year-old who shopped at J Crew Factory, read the New Yorker religiously, and followed at least three illustrators on Instagram, I felt extremely confident in my taste. With each new photo I took, or illustration I made, or blog post I wrote, I pulled closer to the level that my taste was at.
But then, something unexpected happened. Glass’s monologue didn’t mention something important— your taste changes. As you start to close the gap, you learn more about what goes into each piece of creative work you consume. You start to understand why things are made that they are and why certain things are considered good. Lots of illustrations look great, but when you spend hours trying to get your shadows to look right or pick the right color combination, you gain a new appreciation of the really perfect shadows of artists you never cared for before. Once my taste started shifting, I began to wonder: what the heck is taste?
Can you learn taste? Can you teach taste? Is it genetic? Do babies have taste? Where does that taste come from? Some people like things because they’re popular, buying into the comfort of conformity. Others like things because they’re not popular, opting for the elation of exclusivity. In a way, taste is an expression of not only our values but also the ways we view the world. I love Tyler, the Creator because he’s never afraid to experiment with his music and brand, but I also love Franz Liszt, who I discovered because I sought to understand why his fans in 1844 were as hysterical for him as One Direction fans today. These parts of my taste in music show that I value creative risk-taking and also see the world as something to understand gain familiarity with.
I think taste is learned. As we learn new things about the world, we acquire new lenses with which to see things. After taking a couple of psychology classes in college, I became like any college psychology major and started to diagnose the world around me with the most basic heuristics and theories. And although I have since recovered from name dropping the names of psychologists, I continue to view the world through the lens of psychology. We all gain lenses as we grow and learn, which inform what we like, from clothes and political opinions to music and movies. These lenses stack together and create the taste of the world.
Our taste has consequences. Anything meaningful in the world only occurs with the support of others, by matching their tastes. Taste decides what the next Drake album sounds like and taste decides whether or not it’s successful. Taste finds the beauty in art that might’ve been forgotten and helps draw light to the unseen. And most importantly, taste helps to dictate the latest edition of Splash and whether or not my mum tells me she likes it, even though there was a typo in the third paragraph.
You can simplify this all down to a really basic concept: your inputs affect your outputs. What you consume shapes your lenses and your taste, which affects both what you create and what you share and support. So, if you change your inputs to things that augment compassion and empathy, perhaps that will help lead to more compassion and empathy in the world. At least I hope so.