Acquired taste


I have always been a bit puzzled by the idea of ‘acquired taste’. Surely if something is enjoyable then educating your palate, ears or eyes before you can like it shouldn’t be necessary. What is the point of trying to develop a taste for caviar if you are happy with fish and chips?

With these thoughts in my mind I decided to look up the definition of ‘acquired taste’. I found the following entry in Wikipedia:

An acquired taste often refers to an appreciation for a food or beverage that is unlikely to be enjoyed by a person who has not had substantial exposure to it, usually because of some unfamiliar aspect of the food or beverage, including a strong or strange odor (e.g. stinky tofu, durian, kimchi, hakarl, black salt, stinking toe, asafoetida, sustromming, or certain types of cheese), taste (such as alcoholic beverages, vegemite/marmite, bitter teas, salty liquorice, malt bread, garnatalg or natto), or appearance. Acquired taste may also refer to aesthetic tastes, such as taste in music or other forms of art.

Maybe it is just snobbery on my part but I tend to associate red wine and blue cheese with sophisticated adults while Coca-Cola and McDonalds conjures up images of infants and Philistines. Personally, I would prefer to have the tastes of a grown-up.

Developing more sophisticated tastes should come naturally. Though your four-year-old son’s favourite song might be Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, it would be worrying if it were also yours. Things that are too simple can’t, or shouldn’t, hold our attention and interest for long.

This might be the answer to something that has always puzzled me: relativism. You see, I dislike the idea that there is no such thing as ‘better’; only things we either like or don’t like. On this view Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is right up there with Beethoven’s Fifth, Barbara Cartland is Vladimir Nabokov’s equal and a child’s scrawled drawing is every bit as good as a Vermeer in its own way. Surely this kind of thinking has to be nonsense. Even so, I am hard pressed to point to anything other than different levels of skill and complexity and am not 100% convinced that ‘skill’ and ‘complexity’ are synonyms for ‘better’.

Yet maybe they are. After all, when an Olympic diver performs a complex dive requiring lots of skill this dive is considered ‘better’ than a simpler one. This superiority is reflected in the scoring.

Somehow I have never acquired a taste for some difficult things like Jazz, classical music or abstract art. Perhaps I could learn to like them if I tried harder but what would be the point? Surely the reason we listen to music or look at art is because they give us pleasure and if we are pleased by simple things, what’s wrong with that? I suspect the pleasure a child gets from listening to a simple tune is very similar to the pleasure an expert musician gets from listening to a complicated piece of music. So perhaps the objective element to quality is a measurable progression from simple to difficult, and the subjective element is the stage of sophistication at which you find yourself. If this is the case then our tastes should be constantly developing and we shouldn’t necessarily like the same things from one year to the next since we are always being driven onwards and upwards by our increasing sophistication.

I would love to believe that this is the case but am not convinced. After all, my own taste in things rarely changes. Something is wrong with my analysis. What is it?


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