A Discussion of Taste

September 2, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire certainly discusses the idea of taste. He has a very rigid understanding of what classical Roman art should be. In fact, according to Gibbon, the stagnation of Rome's art is one indicator of Rome's decline. Gibbon writes,

“The triumphal arch of Constantine still remains a melancholy proof of the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony of the meanest vanity. As it was not possible to find in the capital of the empire a sculptor who was capable of adorning that public monument, the arch of Trajan, without any respect either for his memory or for the rules of propriety, was stripped of its most elegant figures. The difference of times and persons, of actions and characters, was totally disregarded.” 

Admittedly, reusing the head of a previous emperor, does seem a tad cheap and weak.

For Gibbon, another indication of Rome's fall is when Roman artists begin to incorporate ideas from neighboring communities which they have conquered. One example arrives in the time of Alaric's rise and sack of Rome. During this time, Christianity was also in flux. With so many changes outside of Rome, change within is inevitable also. Gibbon notes that at this time, people began to adorn statues with jewels. He finds this gaudy and unnecessary. He writes, “We may observe the bad taste of the age, in dressing their statues with such awkward finery.” In his view, the embellishments demonstrate excess, not taste.

Ironically, during this same time of decline, Gibbon praises the superior skills of a single poet. He adds another layer to our understanding of Gibbon's idea of taste when he writes about Claudian. He says,

“These imperfections [of the times], are compensated in some degree by the poetical virtues of Claudian. He was endowed with rare and precious talent of raising the meanest, of adoring the most barren, and of diversifying the most similar topics; his colouring, more especially in descriptive poetry, is soft and splendid; and he seldom fails to display, and even to abuse, the advantages of a cultivated understanding, a copious fancy, an easy and sometimes forcible expression, and a perpetual flow of harmonious versification. To these commendations, independent of any accidents of time and place, we must add the peculiar merit which Claudian derived from the unfavourable circumstances of his birth. In the decline of arts and of empire, a native of Egypt, who had received the education of a Greek, assumed in a mature age the familiar use and absolute command of the Latin language; soared above the heads of his feeble contemporaries; and placed himself, after an interval of three hundred years, among the poets of ancient Rome.” 

This complicated passage about Claudian gives the reader more of an impression of Gibbon's taste. First, he appreciates Claudian's exacting language, soft and subtle, not overly dressed or forced. Second, Claudian is original. It is important to Gibbon that art be original and that imitation, again, lacks taste. Finally, the reader learns that Claudian's first language was not Latin. Gibbon clearly looks down upon his Greek education, and therefore praises him all the more for rising above it in order to grasp a clear understanding of the power and grace of Latin.

All of this leads me into a discussion of taste as supplied by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste. Obviously, here the word taste offers two different meanings. Brillat-Savarin's entire book discusses the enjoyment of food. More than that, however, it is a discussion of Taste, with a capital T. The category of taste, which Merriam-Webster lists as an individual preference or inclination, is an important indicator of virtue in both of these works. Much like Gibbon, Brillat-Savarin links virtue to elements of good taste. He judges food in the same way that Gibbon judges art, poetry and character. One gains access only through experience. Therefore, education is linked with taste in some primal way. The following excerpt comes from his meditation on the “Philosophical History of Cooking” in which he dedicates an entire section to “Roman Banqueting”. Brillat-Savarin concludes that the foreigners who sacked Rome were unfamiliar with fine foods. Gibbon labels all foreigners of little skill and education as barbarian races. Both Brillat-Savarin and Gibbon arrive at the same conclusion: they look down upon those without an educated sense of taste.

“The five or six hundred years [referring to the Greek and Roman times] which we have run through in the past few pages were happy times for cookery, as well as for those who nurtured and enjoyed it, but the arrival or rather the invasion of the Northerners changed everything, upset everything: those days of glory were followed by a long and terrible darkness.
The art of eating disappeared, at the first sight of these foreigners, with all the other arts of which it is the companion and solace. Most of the great cooks were murdered in their masters' palaces; others fled rather than prepare feasts for the oppressors of their country; the small number who remained to offer their services had the humiliation of finding them refused. Those snarling mouths, those leathery gullets, were insensible to the subtleties of refined cookery. Enormous quarters of beef and venison, quantities beyond measure of the strongest drink, were enough to charm them....
However, it is in the nature of things that what is excessive does not last long. The conquerors finally grew bored with their own cruelty: they mingled with the conquered, took on a tinge of civilization, and began to know the pleasures of a social existence.
Meals showed the influence of this alleviation. Guests were invited to them less to be stuffed than delighted, and some even began to understand that a certain attempt was being made to please them; a more amiable pleasure affected everyone, and the duties of hospitality had something gentler about them than before.
These betterments, which emerged toward the fifth century of our era, became even stronger under Charlemagne, and we can read in his Capitularies that this great king gave his own attention to making his lands furnish their best for the fine fare of his table.”

Perhaps there are cultural indicators which link Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin, since they were contemporaries of a sort. However, the idea of our education of taste is a broader discussion. Next week will continue with a discussion of art as it relates to taste.

Read more from Brillat-Savarin here.

Read more about Gibbon here or here or here or here or here.

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