Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Taste: The Lemon Test

with 4 comments

Yesterday, I went crazy, looking all over the web for an image I wanted to post here.  Usually, this is not a problem.  I know it isn’t really true that everything is on the Net, but it sometimes seems like that.

In the end, I found only one image, and it’s from the Powell Books page on the very book I’m sort of half-reading in the afternoons.  The URL turned out to be War and Peace, so I shortened it at tinyurl.com, which gave me this:


With any luck, it will work. 

What it is is one of the intarsia panels made for the “studiolo” of one Frederigo da Montefeltro, and it exists in the book as an example of the growth of the use of perspective in painting. 

The trick in this case is this:  Frederigo da Montefeltro had only one eye.  And because he had only one eye, what he saw when he looked at that painting was much different from what we see.  The eyes work differently depending on whether we have the use of one or two of them.

I’ve got absolutely no idea if this is true, and I find the writer’s contention that this painting would look “much more impressive” to da Montefeltro than it does to us completely astonishing.  I find it impressive as hell as it is. 

And I’m a little worried about the image that URL leads to, because on my computer you can’t get the whole image up at one time.  You have to scroll.

But here’s the thing–I think the issue of taste is essentially an issue of perspective. That is, different people have different “tastes” in music, painting, literature, sculpture, food, you name it, because they are in some way situated differently.

I am not now talking about the endless drudging nonsense about “sex race class” that has come to substitute for actually understanding literature in some of our college English departments. 

Or maybe what I mean to say is that the “gender race class” thing is nonense not so much because those things don’t in some way factor in to a person’s enjoyment of (or lack of enjoyment of) the arts, but that the way in which these things are conceived in literary theory doesn’t factor in.

I’m falling all over myself here.

The problem with the “gender race class” thing is not that it wants to know what those things have to do with how people respond to the arts, but that it DOESN’T–what “gender race class” theorists do instead is decide beforehand how those things SHOULD matter in the way people respond to the arts, and then try to come up with rationalizations for why that isn’t the way they actually do.

That’s the point at which we all start to get endless lectures about “false consciousness,'” and the saner among up pack our bags and go home.

The problem, of course, is that “gender race class” matter in ways that are more complicated than a politicized analysis can deal with.  With sex, for instance, it’s almost certainly the case that we’re dealing with some things that are at least partially innate.

I’m not an essentialist, but I don’t have to be one to know that if it is true all behavior is socially constructed, Darwin was wrong.  Some differences in “taste” will just be there, because they are.  My older son was four years old the first time he tried escargot.  He ate the entire late in one go.  Some things, we’re just born with.

I don’t think we can change what we inherit in genetics, but I do think we can channel it–in fact, I know we can channel it.  So lived experience, and habituation, are both going to be factors. 

This would give the “gender race class” people their opening, if they actually knew anything about the lived effects of gender, race and class.  I suppose it would be petty of me to note, here, that if these people had spent some time actually reading and understanding the literature they claim to be expert in, they’d have a better chance of getting this right.

But I saw a beautiful example of not getting it right a few weeks ago on a television show called Countdown with Keith Olbermann. 

A man–I think he was an editor at  The Nation, but I’m not sure–at any rate, a guest on the show, went something like, “How do we explain to these people?  We don’t want to take your money and give it to somebody else.  We want to take the banker’s money and give it to you.”

And the guy was convinced that people couldn’t understand this, because he was sure if they did understand it they’d have to be in favor of it.

Which put me in mind of a Josh Thompson country song called “Way Out Here.” 

Which that guy ought to listen to, but won’t. 

The other thing, though, is that it’s fairly obvious that both the innate and the habituated can be overcome, either deliberately because we try to do it or accidentally.  Frderigo da Montefeltro didn’t start out with only one eye.  He lost one in a “jousting accident.”

And even in cases where it can’t be overcome, it can be channeled. 

If we could bring all these things together and actually examine them, we might come to some conclusions about what makes “taste.” 

And that might be interesting.  I’m fascinated by the idea that da Montefeltro saw something different in that painting than I do.   And there’s surely a part of me that would like to understand why some things become enormous best sellers–Chicken Soup for the Soul, for instance. 

But I think what really strikes me in all this is this:

When we talk about taste, we’re not talking about the arts we seem to be referencing.

We’re talking about ourselves.

And what the “gender race class” people in English departments have done–aside from nearly destroy the study of literature–is to find an analytical-sounding way to talk about themselves. 

For all the self-righteous blather about “confronting white skin privelege” and “empowring the other,” what modern college English departments have actually done is to install a system whereby they can hold perpetual lemon sessions.

In case you don’t know what a lemon session is–it’s when everybody in a group gets together to tell X what’s wrong with him.

And you’d think that would be awful. 

And it is, when X doesn’t want to hear it, or when it’s sort of thrust at you out of the blue.

But there are lemon sessions in various groups (like sororities, for instance, and consciousness raising groups) and for all the supposed negativity, it’s something a lot of people actively enjoy.  Hell, they’ll pay money to go to seminars where they know that’s exactly what’s going to happen.


Because, in the end, there’s one really good thing about a lemon session.

It’s all about you.

Never mind, feeling cynical this morning, I suppose.

I’m going to go off and think about harpsichords.

Written by janeh

June 6th, 2010 at 9:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Taste: The Lemon Test'

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  1. OK. Perspective first. As long as you’ve got two functioning eyes, you’ve got a range-finding mechanism which says “That’s NOT tiny and close: it’s big and far away.” One-eyed people don’t have that. They have to rely on “visual clues” which means tromp d’ouel (Sp?) works better with them. (I’m mid-range, since my contacts have different focal points. Call it one and a half eyes.)

    Taste. Agree that most taste probably reflects both DNA and experience. Two points to note: (1) Even DNA-based taste will change with circumstances. Get salt-deprived enough, and seawater will taste sweet to you–and be good for you, at that point. Which leads to (2) DNA-based taste can deceive. A cat which will turn down hamburger still fresh enough for me to eat will happily guzzle down anti-freeze until it kills him. Especially in the world of the artificial, just because you like it doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

    Lemon sessions. People PAY for that? Or need to? They can’t get free critics? I’m baffled. But then I never understood the bit with the chicken and the dominatrix, either.


    6 Jun 10 at 11:49 am

  2. Okay, here’s the thing.

    You can’t reference “the bit with the chicken and the dominatrix” without EXPLAINING the chicken and the dominatrix.

    And as for paying for lemon sessions–I give you Tom Wolfe’s “The Me Decade,” and EST.


    6 Jun 10 at 12:19 pm

  3. It looks a bit better to me when I cover one eye, but maybe that’s just because I know it’s supposed to look better with one eye.

    I have a vague feeling that I’ve heard the term ‘lemon sessions’ – probably here – but it isn’t part of my regular vocabulary. I can’t imagine volutarily submitting to one. I mean, sometimes there are good reasons to get unpleasant personal feedback – you submit an essay to a teacher or some work to an employer and you’ve really missed the desired mark badly. But although I’ve at least once experienced the ‘helpful’ spontaneous variety from ‘friends’, it’s not an experience I found useful or would ever voluntarily undergo, much less pay for it. I still consider myself a feminist of the old school equal pay for work of equal value type, but a lot of feminists lost me completely once I figured out what was meant by ‘conciousness raising’ in practice. It seemed like cheating to have some particular view on whatever it was set up to be the goal to which one’s conciousness was to be raised.

    And as for that jargon-laden stuff about privilege and empowerment….aaaarrrrgggh.

    But I don’t really see this sort of thing as some kind of weird desire of people to be put down and criticized – anything so long as the attention is on them. I see it more as a way to get others to jump through their hoops. Why the leaders of these movements believe in what they say, as I think most of them do, I don’t know. That they enjoy making others agree with them – well, it’s something I suspect strongly. Maybe some of them do it as a duty instead of out of enjoyment. They want to spread news of their revelation.

    I don’t know much about taste. I always feel I’m a prime example of that classic Philistine – “I’m not an artist (or a musician or a writer), but I know what I like”.


    6 Jun 10 at 3:40 pm

  4. The Chicken & Co. I stole it. There was once very briefly a televison show–a low-budget INDIANA JONES rip-off–called RELIC HUNTER, starring Tia Carrere. I regularly watch about three episodes on DVD.

    In “The Chalice of Truth” a disreputable recurring character is holding a goblet which compels those who hold it to speak the truth. He not only confesses his love–well, lust–for Tia Carrere, he begins owning up to his own faults and past. By the time he’s starting to confess and explain “the bit in Berlin with the chicken and the dominatrix,” (evidently it was just a one-time thing) people are fighting desperately to pry the goblet out of his hands before he tells them more.

    Probably only a Tory MP could tell you what actually went on.


    6 Jun 10 at 9:16 pm

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