On Taste

I own some fifty Frank Zappa CDs. I do not own any Frank Auerbach paintings but there is a perfectly good reason for that, which is that I would never be able to afford one. Zappa CDs are about $5 each on Amazon. 50 times $5, that's $250, and then I probably paid around $50 for postage, so that's $300 in total. However, an Auberbach painting would still be considerably more. E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V (1963) was sold by Bonhams in 2016 and went for $2.29 million (£ 2,042,500). And already this might seem to have turned a bit silly. Zappa and Auerbach have absolutely nothing in common and there is nothing connecting them, at least not that I am aware of. But, there is to me.

Frank Auerbach, E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V, 1963, oil on board 57.5 by 83 cm.

The reason why I started listening to Frank Zappa's music in the first place was that I hated it. I really did. Percussionist Ruth Underwood might be a complete genius and all that, but I couldn't stand those weird xylophone breaks or the sudden changes of rhythm. I used to have a friend who was a major Zappa fan and he would make me listen, over and over. It's not like I didn't know the music, it's just that I thought it was awful. Not―and this is important―without talent or artistic merit, but awful nevertheless. I thought it was ugly. So about nine or ten years ago I started buying Zappa CDs. It wasn't a case of me buying one of two CDs to give it another chance or just to check if it really was as hideous as I thought. I made a conscious decision to buy all of his albums, or at least all of the official ones, and to listen to them. And I did.

When I got the CDs I would transfer the music to an MP3 player and then I would listen to it each morning and each afternoon when riding on the bus to and from work. I would listen to the music when taking walks and so on, and gradually my ears began to tune in. I hated it but after a while I hated it less. Then I stopped hating it and started to like it, and eventually I became quite excited about it. I read some biographies and I listened to all of the interviews with him that I could find on YouTube. I went from thinking that Zappa was just about the worst there was to being ‘a Zappa fan’. Ask me today and I will tell you that Frank Zappa was some kind of musical genius, and I really think that he was. There's no reason to suspect that he was a particularly nice guy to hang out with, and many of his lyrics are rather rude and some of them clearly misogynistic.

Zappa with the Mothers, 1971 . Publicity photo of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, Herb Cohen Management. (Public domain).

Zappa with the Mothers, 1971. Publicity photo of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, Herb Cohen Management. (Public domain).

Contrary to what some might think, Zappa was not all about drugs or left-wing rebellion against the establishment. He was in fact very much against drugs, and if anything Zappa was an old school conservative with an old school perception of the sexes. Not a Christian conservative, obviously, but one who believed in hard work and in always doing your best. He also suffered from a huge inferiority complex, which (as with all such people) at times caused him to act tediously and to make really annoying things. I can see all of that and I accept it, but in all honesty it doesn't matter much to me. The fact that I can see it means that I can weed it out, and what remains, then, is his brilliance. But like I said, I used to really hate it.

And, similarly with Frank Auerbach. I used to hate Frank Auerbach's paintings. They had to be some of the ugliest paintings ever made, I thought. All of those fat layers and sickly combinations of colours, like dirt brown and red or orange with turquoise. And first of all: the lack of distinction. No clear seperation of elements on the surface, nothing hard or solid popping out and nothing to create a sense of Verfremdung. This was the kind of painting that I liked, Jasper Johns and the colour field painters, and Robert Rauschenberg who, despite all of his messiness, always managed to keep things tight. Also, I thought, aesthetically Auerbach was just old. Decades after Picasso and Pollock, Auerbach was still doing portrait painting, and not just portrait painting but the kind where you have a face in the middle and then the rest is basically just filling in the blanks, the background and the corners. It went against everything that I thought I knew about painting.

The lesson from Pollock was, I believed, that what's in the top right corner is exactly as important as what's in the middle. A canvas is a surface and no point on the surface is more important than any other because it's a field, and the purpose of making a painting is to make the field as charged with energy as possible. This was what I had come to think and this was what painting meant to me. Just doing a face in the middle of a canvas wasn't painting, it was (at best) illustration. And as if that wasn't enough, Auerbach made it look horrid. I thoroughly disliked it, all of it. And so I turned him into a project. I looked at as many of his paintings as I could find, I read books about him and watched documentaries―and then I looked at his paintings again. And again. Then I watched the documentaries again, and so on.

Auerbach is famously guarded when it comes to talking about his art and so there aren't all that many good interviews available. I highly recommend Hannah Rothschild's documentary from 2001, To the Studio: Frank Auerbach, which is available on DVD from a company called Demand Media. It is terrific. Not only did I come to appreciate Frank Auerbach's work, I came to admire it tremendously. With a friend of mine, at one time I went to Mornington Crescent, which is where Auerbach has his studio, just to soak up the atmosphere and to see some of the places that he'd painted. Apart from portraits, Auerbach also does cityscapes.

I don't think that my previous understanding of what painting meant was wrong, or rather: I think that it would probably be wrong to call it wrong. However, it was in a sense infantile or incomplete, and there was something preventing my understanding from developing further in a natural way. That's why I had to turn both Zappa and Auerbach into deliberate projects, to force it. And what was preventing me was taste. For an artist, I believe, taste is a blessing but it is also The Great Enemy. It's a blessing, initially, because it can serve as a guide. You see something you like and you are drawn to it. You learn about the artist and maybe you learn about other artists who influenced him or her, or maybe he or she was part of a group. Maybe it's an ism. Thus you learn about even more artists and you get to see even more art, and you will find more works that appeal to your particular taste. It's all good.

The problem is, however, that taste also works like an echo chamber. British comedian Stewart Lee does a routine where he talks about dolphins and how one should never keep dolphins in a tank with concrete walls because eventually the sound of their own echos will drive them insane. I think most artists would be able to relate to that. You can only do so many tasteful paintings or pieces of music before you start hearing the echoes, and you realise how limited you are. You start looking at, or listening to, other people's work, and you single out stuff that's much more messy than your own, and you think to yourself "I wish I could do something like that!" But you can't. There is reason to suspect, I think, that just like with morality, aesthetics is a superego thing. People keep telling me that Freud is dead, and it's nonsense.

Even when we know with 100% certainty that we are all alone and that no one is looking, every reasonable normal human being knows how hard it is to do something morally wrong or (perhaps even worse) something really stupid, like dancing in your underpants whilst clutching a raw chicken. Or maybe just sitting in front of a mirror, making funny faces. Things like that tend to make us extremely self-aware. It's like there's a secret eye in the sky watching us, which is the superego kicking in. It is the same thing with art and taste. Even when no one's ever going to see the painting, every painter knows how almost impossible it is to just do something ugly and then leave it like that. Personally, when I first started painting, I spent sleepless nights agonising about how to 'correct' things in order to make them look good. Taste isn't a harmless buttering on top of our intellect, our personality, or any such thing; it's deeply ingrained in us and it very much determines what we can and cannot do.

Making art is an attempt to continuously widen, deepen and enlarge the space that we live in, the experience-space, what Charles Olson has called "the human universe". Olson said something very apt with regard to me and Frank Zappa: "Which is why the man said, he who possesses rhythm possesses the universe" (The Human Universe, in: Selected Writings. New Directions, 1997). Clearly, with Zappa, I did not. The more different kinds of rhythms, the more complicated, etc, that one is capable of appreciating, the larger the world one lives in. What prevents us from enlarging our world is taste. Which is to say that no matter how good a guide taste might be, it is essentially anti-art because it has the completely opposite agenda. The purpose of taste is not to extend but to exclude in order to uphold. In political terms, taste is nationalism. Because it's psychologically so deeply rooted in us. it's not something we can just shed. It requires a kind of therapy.

Much ill has (often rightfully) been said about the amount of talking and writing in art, but this is one place where I feel it has some justification. Like people used to say about porn, this is where it has redeeming value. It's simply not enough just to look at things or listen to things that one finds ugly and/or to try to copy them, for it won't work. One has to persuade the superego to go along with it, and the way to do that is to appeal to it intellectually. By reading, by watching documentaries and so on. By studying and turning it into a project. One also has to look or listen, obviously, but one needs language to accompany it, arguments and insights. Only then will things begin to change. On February 18th 1949, Willem de Kooning gave a talk in New York, and he talked about desperation and he said, "Style is a fraud. I always felt that the Greeks were hiding behind their columns" (A Desperate View: Subjects of the Artist: A New Art School). Taste, in a way, is us hiding behind ourselves. It needs persuasion.


Bo Gorzelak Pedersen is a Danish writer, art critic, and visual artist who has exhibited in Europe and in the United States. He has self published more than thirty-five small collections of poetry and essays. His art criticism appears in the Danish monthly art magazine, Kunstavisen. The above text first appeared in his collection of writings titled How To Begin and Other Essays on Art. He is also a contributor to Art North magazine. His essay on Joseph Beuys appears in Art North no.1 (Spring 2019).