A Guernica special issue.
Stephen Pearson, Wings of Love, 1972. © Stephen Pearson. By courtesy of Felix Rosenstiel’s Widow & Son Ltd., London.
In our moment of instant assessment and “if you like this, you’ll like that” algorithms, it would seem that we’re approaching the end of taste. As our muscle for cultivating taste weakens, and globalization thrives, the lines demarcating good and bad appear increasingly fluid, and therefore changeable, even irrelevant. It’s a democratizing notion, and a seductive one. But as you’ll read in the Boundaries of Taste, the second of this year’s four special inquiries into borderlines factual and figurative, it’s also fallible. Taste boundaries, whether enforced or imagined, inform how the world behaves. And like much of today’s flavor of racism or classism, taste derives power from its implicitness.
So where does taste live? Guernica’s contributors find it emerges in the in-between—along the spectrum of emotion and intellect, that nebulous space between love and what we think we love, primal pleasure and learned appreciation, gut revulsion and reasoned dismissal. Consciously or not (and now more than ever) taste is a performance, a projection of our selves into the world—or a set of actions, symbols, and vocabularies by which we assess others. Whether on Pinterest or at a farmers’ market, through celebrity-endorsed sneakers or lit-mag tote bags, taste is reified by the image it makes.
But more urgently, taste is a potent organizing principal, our insidious means to decide who we’re with and who we’re against, who belongs and who doesn’t—and further, to cloak political and structural boundaries under the softening light of subjectivity. Taste, as many of the pieces in this issue insist, does not live autonomously, superficially, within each of us. Instead, it emanates outward—a tool of the powerful, wielded to regulate our differences.
Writing about New Orleans funeral customs, in which the deceased are embalmed in lifelike poses and mourners dance passionately in jazz processions, C. Morgan Babst probes the privilege inherent in deeming something distasteful. “Necessity sometimes overrides propriety” in a community that’s seen “slavery and yellow fever, a murder rate north of Medellin’s, a hundred-year flood.” Invoking the bodies lost or left to rot after Hurricane Katrina, she argues: “If…we have brought an unmoving corpse into the middle of our dancing, it is not out of morbidity or numbness, but because the onrushing fact of our disappearance only brings our living into focus.”
Sonia Faleiro also examines how social customs collide with conceptions of correctness. She profiles Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku, who enraged worshipers after tracing a Christ statue dripping so-called “tears of God” to a sewage leak. Facing death threats and a blasphemy charge, he fled to Finland, where he remains to this day, left to contemplate from afar the power of offense in his homeland.
In conversation with Guernica’s Meakin Armstrong, legendary filmmaker and “people’s pervert” John Waters charts the evolution of bad taste. “If you’re trying to be shocking, it isn’t good,” says Waters. “That’s why many hundred-million-dollar Hollywood comedies aren’t any good. It’s almost like I had a bad influence on them.” And comedian Margaret Cho (who cites Waters as an influence) reflects on comedy’s capacity to flaunt taste taboos and, in turn, challenge PC culture. She tells Katie Halper, “I love when something is considered too soon to talk about because then you can blast past that social censorship to get into something real.”
Turner Prize-winning artist, cultural critic, and self-described “transvestite potter” Grayson Perry reflects on his journey through Britain’s “taste tribes” in an interview with Henry Peck. Examining the rituals and consumption habits of upper-, middle-, and working-class English communities, he contends that nearly every choice one makes is laden with social cues. And curator and folklorist Diana Baird N’Diaye talks with Gemma de Choisy about African-American fashion, the “aesthetic of cool,” and dress as cultural currency as well as instrument of oppression.
Roland Kelts, recounting his dualistic Japanese-American upbringing, finds resonance in umami, the elusive Japanese flavor that “gives a thing its identity, its substance, its body, its backbone.” In examining his preference for ramen, richer and more complex than the fleeting flavors of pizza and ice cream, he finds taste itself to be a subtle, but critical, tool of self-examination. “The unspoken, subterranean character of umami is the thing that feels most Japanese to me—and feels the most like what is Japanese in me.”
Helen Rosner pays tribute to the humble chicken tender, arguing that its appeal derives from its place outside the superstructure of taste. “Chicken tenders aren’t cool. They’re not retro. They’re not funny. They ask nothing of you, and they don’t say anything about you. They are two things, and two things only: perfect, and delicious.” On the other end of the spectrum, New York Times chief wine critic Eric Asimov talks with Guernica’s Meara Sharma about society’s fraught relationship with the ancient beverage. “Each step of the way there’s an element of judgment. Did I choose the right wine? Do I have the right wine glass? Is it bad? Is it good? How does it reflect on me?”
The issue also brings new poetry from Beth Bachmann and Maggie May Ethridge. Plus, fiction from Yaa Gyasi and Jennifer Sears, who considers, through the character of an obese nude model, the limiting gaze of taste and bias. And Aya de Leon, delving into the background of author Erika Mitchell—better known as E.L. James—asks whether the Fifty Shades of Grey novels, so often dismissed as tasteless trash, could reflect a much weightier history of political violence.