An ice-cube manufacturer received a complaint. His trays gave the ice-cubes a bitter taste. He tried for himself, but could taste nothing. Gradually more complaints trickled in. It turned out that about one person in a thousand could taste the trace of a chemical exuded by the ice-cube tray.

Everyone has different taste-buds. A few people have many more taste-buds than others, and are known as super-tasters. Some people have a more developed sense of smell than others. Some of us are long-sighted; some short-sighted. Sensitivity depends on mood — even on the time of day.

So why are we all so confident that our own likes are the best? As a teenager, I knew that my favourite music was wonderful, while music I disliked was not. With time, the range of my musical taste expanded considerably, and I came to realize that my preferences were influenced by my culture, as well as by my personal, and idiosyncratic, tastes.

After walking through the Tate’s Francis Bacon room, years ago, I felt physically sick. It was an interesting and unexpected reaction. I decided that anything that could have that much impact on me should probably be considered art. I also decided to avoid Francis Bacon paintings.

Johnny Cash - HymnsRay Charles - Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
I love Blues music, but feel uncomfortable around Country and Western, which is very interesting as these musics came from the same region, and have much in common. In fact, early Blues singers often sang what would be considered Country songs, and the transition from Blues to Rock and Roll included Country influences. Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash were all part of the Sun Studios stable in Memphis, where Ike Turner and Howlin’ Wolf had also recorded for Sam Phillips. Country star Johnny Cash recorded an album of spirituals, in 1959. Three years later, founder of Soul, Ray Charles, blurred the boundaries completely, releasing a best-selling album of Country tunes, simply because he loved them.

Eek-A-Mouse - The Very Best of...Doe Maar - AllesJoe Jackson - Look Sharp!
How much of our taste is dependent upon the development of our own senses (whether we can actually taste the bitterness), and how much upon our cultural background? It is often said that people always feel a lifelong resonance with the music of their teens. Parents who listen to Classical music expect their children to grow out of popular music, and often people seem to compartmentalise music into the serious and the frivolous. I once had a good friend who would not buy CDs of his favourite pop music, because it was somehow not serious enough to justify the expense. I happened to think that his taste was fine - he liked Eek a Mouse, Doe Maar and Joe Jackson - and he listened to this music all the time. I did not understand the reservation, but it points to a cultural barrier, lowered long since by critics, and other serious, life-detesting folk.

Louis Armstrong - The Definitive...Duke Ellington - The Definitive...
Dizzy Gillespie - The Definitive...Jan Garbarek Group - It's OK to Listen to the Gray Voice
I have another friend who is certain that true Classical music - Mozart and the like - is worthy, where Jazz is not. I have never quite managed to follow the reasoning. To me the music of Armstrong, Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Jan Garbarek fulfills even the strictest criteria for serious consideration - not least of all because some of it is well-nigh impossible to play, and most of all because much of it is very beautiful.

Herbert Read - The Meaning of ArtHerbert Read - A Concise History of Modern Painting
Herbert Read said that when we look at a painting, we first feel whether we like it or not, and we then invent reasons for our preference. I am very sure that he is right. I think that it is best to be open to aesthetic experiences, indeed not to set up any criteria that might exclude perception of something asethetically valuable. Elsewhere I have made fun of Tracy Emin’s defence of her work, but this is not because I dismiss conceptual work — Mauricio Catellan’s work intrigues me, and my friend David Hensel’s work is brilliant in both its virtuosity and its conceptual reach. I do not, in fact, dismiss Tracey Emin’s work itself — nor Country and Western music — I just don’t enjoy them, and that is probably enough. And in this world there is so much to enjoy, that it is better to spend time attracting people to the enjoyable, rather than repelling them from the repugnant. But that, of course, is just a matter of taste.

Mauricio Cattelan - Der Unbequeme David Hensel - Salvation

January 2005