“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.” Pablo Picasso (quoted in Quote, Mar. 24, 1957)Most quotes of this nature are designed to make you nod or shake your head for a moment before you go back to thinking about your ongoing hair loss, or overdue bills or sex. In other words, they intrigue us for a brief moment. But this one got me thinking. The face value of this quote is a simple statement of the modernist aesthetic: innovation is the most important thing in the arts. This assumption is camouflaged by the "creativeness" meme. "Creativity", like "diversity" and "equality" is one of those words that are often used to smuggle hidden assumptions into an argument. Wikipedia defines "creativity" as
Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and in some way valuable is createdThere are two components: newness and value. But what the Picasso quote and a lot of other talk about creativity submerges is the "value" aspect by highlighting the "newness" aspect. Picasso did a lot of new and striking things, some of which were valuable, while others were, perhaps, not so much:
What was particularly appealing about this to modernists was the simplicity and immediacy of the innovation. It gives a fresh glimpse at something in the world. Ok. But is this an artwork with great value? Not to me, particularly.
Picasso was disparaging taste because taste, one of those things that enables us to discern high-value over low-value, was for him an obsolete, superseded criterion. "Taste" was an extremely important aspect of 18th century aesthetics, so it underlies a great deal of the music we value the most: music by Haydn, Mozart and much of Beethoven. I talked a great deal about taste in my posts on the aesthetics of David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher. Taste is defined as:
You can see why Picasso hated the idea! The basic assumptions of his aesthetic are that what is new overrides what is fitting, harmonious and so on. Putting together the rusty handlebars and seat of an old bicycle so as to resemble a bull is much better art than something that is beautiful.
We can see three stages in aesthetics over the last couple of centuries. As I said, "taste" was the governing aesthetic of the 18th century and this includes most of the music of the century. Some of Bach's music falls a bit outside the boundaries as it elevates the intensity of religious feeling over the strictly tasteful. But in general, the criteria of taste are the criteria of the 18th century. Mozart never wrote anything that was less than poised, graceful, touching and beautiful. This starts to change with Beethoven who delved deep into his own individual feeling to create more demanding, intense music. By 18th century standards some of his later works, such as the last movement of the Symphony No. 9 and the Grosse Fuge, are not tasteful. This leads to the 19th century where the main criterion of aesthetics is feeling, not taste. Everything must appeal primarily to the feelings and emotions.
Then we come to the 20th century where the main criterion becomes novelty. Whatever you do, make it new!
So, in the 18th century we have Taste (Mozart, Symphony No. 30 in D major):
In the 19th century we have Feeling (Wagner, Prelude to Tristan und Isolde):
And in the 20th century we have Novelty (Stockhausen, Gruppen):
So let me re-word that Picasso quote a bit:
"Ah, novelty! What a dreadful thing! Novelty is the enemy of creativeness!"
If you are only trying to do something new, how are you ever going to do something good?