Friday, December 5, 2008

Taste

When my wife sees that I've written a big blowhard blog post pontificating about this or that, she kind of looks up at me and sighs. Sorry, Sweetie. You can skip this one.
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Writer Mark Evanier doesn't like Star Trek. It's just not his cup of tea. What he can't understand is why other people care. Back in 2003, he wrote, "If you say you don't like their favorite movie or TV show or book, they feel the urge to argue with you as if you have made a clear factual error and can be debated into seeing things their way. Recently, I had occasion to say to an acquaintance, 'Why do you feel so threatened because I don't like Star Trek? My not liking it is not going to take it away from you. Can't you enjoy it despite the fact that I don't?' But the guy continued hectoring me to watch more episodes so that I might become enlightened and see the error of my ways."

Despite loving Star Trek myself, I appreciated this perspective and buried it in the back of my brain, only to have it emerge a couple of times recently.

One: Editor Charlie and I are friends who've never disagreed about anything more serious than the placement of an exclamation point. That is, until a recent conversation in which the subject of cartoonist Chris Ware came up. I confessed that I am not a fan.*

"But he's a brilliant cartoonist."

Yes he is.

"His sense of color and design is amazing."

Yes it is.

"He's doing formalistically innovative things like no one else."

Maybe so. Still: not a fan. I don't find his characters or stories compelling. They don't stick with me and rattle around in my mind long afterward like the work of other authors does. There's a sterility and distance in his work I find off-putting.

"But that's who Chris Ware is!"

Well . . . there you go.

Two: The past few days I got into an interesting Internet discussion about the types of comic strips people like and dislike. Not singling out individual comics or creators, I listed some qualities common to comics I enjoy--character-based humor, a clear and interesting authorial perspective, skillful artwork--as well as some I don't, among which I listed knock-offs of The Far Side. Gary Larson's popular and influential comic strip spawned a lot of copycats I don't like for reasons I explained as well as I could. I thought it was a pretty unremarkable opinion. However, it drew the ire of another poster who worked very hard to convince me that I was wrong, that Gary Larson had been influenced by a lot of other cartoonists himself, and that I should be picking on all those other cartoonists who'd obviously ripped off other strips. To which I could only reply: I haven't noticed those. What I've noticed are Far Side knock-offs. Which I don't like.

What's to argue? Why should you care? Like Evanier said, can't you enjoy it despite the fact that I don't?

Maybe not. Shared taste is how we organize ourselves socially. If you don't like dancing or bowling, you don't join the tango club or bowling league. It's a litmus test, a secret password to the clubhouse door. Everybody wants to be accepted. Everybody emulates the tastes of those they look up to: kings and queens, tycoons and trendsetters, the cool kids in high school. Book editors. If you like what I like, and disdain what I disdain, then you're all right. That's how we're wired.

I think it's also true that not all taste is equal and some preferences are actually better than others. It's not "all relative." Critics play a valid role. If your taste in cuisine and literature hasn't progressed past pork rinds and Porky Pig, well, honestly, I'm going to draw some conclusions from that. Likewise when I meet someone whose taste and sophistication obviously outclasses mine (which ain't hard).

But I have no problem recognizing and respecting the quality and importance of something without liking it myself. Chris Ware is a very good cartoonist. Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain are important figures in the history of popular music and key voices of their respective generations. Marc Chagall was one of the towering titans of 20th-century art. I understand why people love their work. I don't. Wouldn't put a Dylan or Cobain album on the stereo, wouldn't hang a Chagall print on the wall (although I'd take one of his stained glass windows). If you would, I think that's wonderful. They're just not for me.

I also always acknowledge that I MIGHT BE WRONG. I'm wrong all the time. Taste evolves. I like a lot of things I didn't used to like: beer, bluegrass, balsamic vinegar, goose-down pillows, the comic strip Get Fuzzy, Coen Brothers movies, Impressionism, sushi. I also look back on things I once liked and wonder what I was thinking. That's why I've never been interested in a tattoo: I can't think of a single thing I was passionate about at age 18 that I'd still want billboarded on my body today. Art affected me differently at ages 20, 30, 40. I expect to learn and change.

So why should anyone care that I don't care for Ware? I don't even care. It's not a position I'm deeply committed to. I think there's a fair chance I'm wrong and my opinion may change in time. I'm pretty sure I'm wrong about Chagall, and suspect that with a little study and effort I'd "get" him. Dylan and Cobain, I don't know. Maybe. Far Side knock-offs? Never.

I'm not talking about being wishy-washy--there are principles, aesthetics, and ethics I believe very strongly. But atop that foundation I think it's good to be discriminating and flexible. Refining one's taste should be an active and constant pursuit. I'm working on it.
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(*This critique of Chris Ware breaks one of my Blogging Prime Directives: "if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all." In this case I rationalize that Chris Ware is a giant while I am but a gnat, he pretty much says the same things about himself, and I later admit my opinion may be mistaken. I still feel bad about it.)

14 comments:

Mike said...

Gotta admit, I have an urge to argue with you that it is absolutely impossible for the same person to be left cold by Chris Ware and Marc Chagall. There was a show at the Beaux Arts in Montreal of Chagall and Dali, and I realized the difference was that Dali says "Hey! Look at this!" while Chagall says, "Let me tell you a story ..."

Ware, to me, is in the "Hey! Look at this!" camp.

Oh, wait a minute. I like Dali.

Never mind.

Newcontrarian said...

Formalistically? Please tell me this is not common in our lexicon. Personally, I prefer to eschew this type of obfuscation.

Brian Fies said...

Mike: I did say I'm willing to learn ... Maybe my problem is that I haven't seen many Chagall originals. I've seen some Dalis, though, and they're so over the top it's hard not to grin at the audacity.

Newcontrarian, I briefly debated "formalistically" when I wrote it. I meant "form--formalism--formalistic," how he uses the forms, iconography, language of comics. I'm sure there's a better word: probably "formally," the problem being that it has another much more common meaning. I was trying to be clear. Anyway, since I'm pretending that Editor Charlie said it in a direct quote, I'll put the blame on him.

Mark Anderson said...

I just glad someone dared say they didn't like Ware. While I'm impressed with his work, and certainly his success, I must admit it's just not my thing.

There, I said it and I'm glad.

Brubaker said...

I've been known to like cartoons that's probably not everyone's cup of tea. I just say to myself that I have incredibly bad taste and just shrug.

P.S., I share your feelings on Chris Ware....and art comix in general.

Mike said...

Statistically, it appears that nobody likes Chris Ware, which would raise a question about who's buying his stuff, except that I suspect we have a spoiled sample here. The style of storytelling in "Mom's Cancer" is not simply different from Ware's approach but contrary to it. I'd be more surprised if people liked "Maus" but disliked "Mom's Cancer" or vice-versa. As you say in your post, it's not something necessarily to "argue" over, but I don't think folks who enjoy sterile, distanced lack of affect are going to be gathering here.

ronnie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ronnie said...

A very interesting rumination on taste and its subjectivity, which reminded me - although this is a bit off-topic - of a great article I read recently in "en route" (Air Canada's inflight magazine), which is happily available online. It's part of a series on taste called "The Cranky Connoisseur" which explores matters like the nature and point of connoisseurshhip; the pursuit of perfection; snobbery; the rejection of perfection and conventional definitions of what's "good" in a given field for simplicity and homeliness; and so on. To quote from the article:

"I’ve been writing in these pages for the past couple of months about the Cranky Connoisseur, a person for whom the accumulation of consumer knowledge and taste has tended to bring out an irritable, restless edge. A sociologist of connoisseurship I spoke to referred to this as 'the burden of taste,' which he characterized as 'the burden of being disappointed all the time.'”

It made me think that the people you refer to, who try to convince you that you would like something that they like if only you understood it better are somehow trying to compensate for their constant disappointment with "inferior" things by converting you, too, to acknowledge the stellar, not disappointing qualities of their "superior" thing.

Did that make sense? It's late. And there's a snowstorm.

Cartoonist Who Writes said...

I haven't read much of Chris Ware, but I'm thinking of reading this one. It sounds like a story I'd enjoy, sort of like a biography of Kilgore Trout.

http://www.fantagraphics.com/index.php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=shop.flypage&product_id=1529&category_id=211&manufacturer_id=0&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=62

Cartoonist Who Writes said...

can a person just say I like Star Trek any more? So many varieties. I found this one amusing, this one pretentious, and this one superb. It's become the fine wine of series television.

patricia said...

It is all so very subjective, isn't it? I'm with you on the Chris Ware thing, though. I have really, really tried to like his work, but it simply does not reach me on any level. I find it cold, barren, sterile, lifeless. And yet, when I met Chris Ware in person, I adored him. He is much warmer and friendlier than his art, go figure.

You're wrong about Chagall, though! ;) Hey...give it time – who knows? If you can warm up to the Coen Brothers, there's hope for Chagall!

Oh, and of course...the original Star Trek rules!!

Why can't everyone just follow my impeccable taste? Heh.

Newcontrarian said...

Brian,

Yes, I can see it was your editor who used the term. I do not hold you responsible f9or the usage. Now for the acid test of taste.

Crumb?

Brian Fies said...

Mark: You're a brave man.

Brubaker: I think acknowledging one's own bad taste can be a wise and even fun approach to life.

Mike: Good point on self-selection bias, although I know people who do appreciate both my stuff and Ware's. My editor, for example.

Ronnie: You make me think too hard. My first reaction is that a lot of people seem to go through life disappointed by everything. Nothing is good enough, nothing makes them happy, and they can tell you exactly why that thing you love is poor quality, low class, bourgeois hack work. Cynicism is easy.

Mark: Unfortunately the blogger format cut off your link, but I see it goes to "Acme Novelty Library #19" and Ware's look at writer W.K. Brown. It does sound interesting, though more for Brown than Ware (for me). Re: Star Trek, though we may disagree on the merits of Kirk vs. Picard (vs. Sisko vs. Janeway vs. Archer), I believe in my heart we're all brothers under the skin. Unless you're black on the left side and white on the right while I'm white on the left side and black on the right, in which case it's on! The only undeniable conclusion we can all agree on is that Mark Evanier is wrong.

Newcontrarian: I plead the Fifth on Crumb. I do think his one-page "Short History of America" is one of the best pieces of cartooning I've seen. My one (nearly unrelated) story is about the time I went to a local arthouse movie theater to see the "Crumb" documentary when it was first released. On my way into the theater, I saw walking out of the previous showing . . . Charles Schulz. I really, really wonder what he thought of it. I wouldn't be shocked if he related.

Brian Fies said...

Patricia: Sorry I skipped you. Someday I will come to Canada and buy you a beer, and you and I will share stories of the people we've met.

I'm working on my Chagall appreciation. It's on the long, long list of things I need to improve about myself. And I trust your taste more than most people's.