This post is a work-in-progress. It’s really just a set of notes for now.
I was re-reading Playboy’s 1994 interview of Quentin Tarantino, and I was struck by a point he made about taste and opinions. He talked about how movie geeks had taste. And how weird it was that so many people in the industry he worked with didn’t seem to have tastes of their own – they would have to talk to other people before figuring out what they thought about something.
I was a film geek. Film geeks don’t have a whole lot of tangible things to show for their passion and commitment to film. They just watch movies all the time. What they do have to show is a high regard for their own opinion. They’ve learned to break down a movie. They understand what they like and don’t like about a film. And they feel that they’re right. It’s not open to discussion. When I got involved in the movie industry I was shocked at how little faith or trust people have in their own opinions. They read a script and they like it – then they hand it to three of their friends to see what they think about it. I couldn’t believe it. There’s an old expression that goes something like, He with the most point of view wins. (Laughs) When I walk into a room, I always have the most point of view. – Quentin Tarantino
There are a lot of legitimate criticisms of Ayn Rand’s work, but the protagonist in her book The Fountainhead is a great thought experiment on what it means to think for yourself. Howard Roark can be a bit of an arrogant, insufferable prick, but in my view he’s not a real person – he’s a caricature. And that’s a wise literary choice, I think, because it reveals how much of our everyday life is a matter of pandering to other people and to social norms. Howard’s peer comes to him asking for advice, and Howard inadvertently goes nuts. “Doesn’t it kill you not to know what you want?”
“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” – Steve Jobs
I was talking recently to a friend who teaches at MIT. His field is hot now and every year he is inundated by applications from would-be graduate students. “A lot of them seem smart,” he said. “What I can’t tell is whether they have any kind of taste.”
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass
I’m trying to move towards making objects which are honest, objects for non-consumers, for “modern rebels”. Look, there are already millions of excellent chairs which are very comfortable, lamps which provide light, and so on. Is it necessary to create any more? The only question is: what will it bring to the human being who is going to use it? The urgent thing today is not to create a car or a chair which is more beautiful than another; what is urgent is for us all to fight with every means at our disposal against the fact that something is becoming extinct: love.
I’m reminded now of something Dorothy Parker wrote – she said she was so ashamed that she was writing instead of calling because she couldn’t look her editor in the voice. “All I have is a pile of paper covered with wrong words.” I wrote about this problem but I still suffer from it myself. And maybe it’s just a function of having taste.
Ann Coulter bombed at Rob Lowe’s roast. She was actually given some great jokes from the show’s writers, but elected not to use them. My impression is that she’s fundamentally a little humorless and doesn’t have much taste.
Sometimes people say things like “Kanye / Beyonce / Steve Jobs / Thomas Edison ain’t shit, they just take credit for other people’s work.” But knowing what’s good isn’t as straightforward as critics might think.
Draft of the essay swirling around my head about this:
I’ve always thought of myself as a person with some degree of taste. And I’ve always hesitated to say that, because the first thing that comes to mind is a mental image of the arty-farty pretentious upper-crust designer-artiste, all-fancy all-fabulous, with a nuanced understanding of the politics of cheek kisses, proclamations and so on.
I never had an arts education. I can barely draw straight lines. What I do have is a love for words, the history and delightful orgy of words, and a constant sense of discomfort about how things are hardly ever the way they should be. (The Macbook and iPhone, as physical products, are pretty close to ideal. Very few of the other things around us are.) When I watch a movie, or read a book, I have a channel open in my mind that’s constantly giving feedback. (MCU Civil War thought: Would it have been better if Hawkeye was given more motivation than just “Cap’n asked me to”? I imagine he’d have something to say about protecting Bucky, considering they had both experienced being mind-controlled. Did this just not occur to anybody?)
My boss once told me that an unusual thing about me was how upset and uncomfortable I was about the fact that something I was going to publish wasn’t good enough. I was procrastinating on it for weeks, I think over a month, and I felt a lot of discomfort and pain about it. I would stay up late nights, smoke cigarettes. It was pretty awful. I constantly questioned the premise.
I’m thinking now about how school encourages students to bullshit. I have friends who are literature teachers who constantly get frustrated by how their smart students give them stupid but vaguely plausible answers – I remember what it was like to be such a student. The student isn’t interested in being honest about his feelings – he just wants to be done with his homework and go on to play.
Basically I want to say that our taste is one of the most important, powerful things you have. This isn’t true for every single person. Taste often has to be coupled with ability of some kind. Steve Jobs’ taste was coupled with his ability to get things done. It’s rare that you’ll be able to get away with just taste and nothing else– maybe in the fashion industry. But chances are I imagine that people climb to the top of the fashion industry with more than just their taste. Maybe there’s some politicking involved, or some management. Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld are supposed to have taste, right? What other abilities do they have? I’ll bet they’d have something.
We don’t really encourage people to develop their taste, not really. (We don’t encourage them to be assertive or to make their own decisions, either.) And it’s understandable why– it’s out of short-term practical considerations. A tired parent isn’t interested in your taste when trying to put together dinner. A tired teacher isn’t interested in your taste when trying to get through the curriculum. They might be nominally, philosophically interested in it, even try their best to be committed to encouraging it, but they’ll probably end up… something-ing you in the process. Hindering, hampering, discouraging. Yes, discouraging.
There’s another problem about taste– some people put you down unfairly, and others will inflate you unfairly. Some people are very easily impressed. I’ve had people respond to my work saying things like “truer words have never been spoken”. And that might sound like a humblebrag, or a brag– but I want to make the case that it’s outright useless and toxic to praise writers in such terms. Writers shouldn’t be praised. If you think truer words have never been written, you haven’t read enough words. Tell the writer you liked their work, enjoyed it, appreciated it. And then challenge them. Nudge them along. Ask questions. Our work is never complete.