On Saturday 26th of November the fourth S.M.A.S.H. happened on the 4th floor of the Barbican. Three panels. Twelve guests. Lots of interesting chat.
For each panel we sent the guests a list of questions and asked them to write down their thoughts which they then read out at the start to get us going. With their very kind permission we now present their words below.
The final panel was – Taste.
Is everything subjective or are some comics better than others?
Can people be wrong about the reasons about why the like or dislike a certain comic?
Is it useful to make judgements about the value of comics? Why?
Is taste a social construct?
Where does your taste come from?
Can you evaluate a comic without knowing about the history of the form?
What do comics taste like, if you ate them?
In the 1950s a scientist conducted an experiment with goggles that turned the wearer’s vision upside down. The viewer, reacting wildly to the new found gravity, stumbled about unhinged at first, but eventually grew accustomed after nearly 2 weeks.
It is said that humans can get used to almost anything after 2 weeks.
Images reach the eye in a particular fashion, and if that fashion is consistent, a person will eventually adapt to perceive it as “normal”, even if peculiar.
Our tastes, being subjective, I think are similarly malleable, defined by the goggles of social constructs and circumstances.
Consider lobster. Now a symbol of high living, lobster was once the food of poverty, fed to slaves and prisoners, even prompting Prison reformists to protest, calling it “cruel and unusual treatment” akin to serving rats. Oysters too, now a delicacy delicacy, was a working-class food for the poor of Victorian times.
That says to me taste is an acquired and manufactured construct, subject to the material landscape and the whims of our perceived values.
What does that mean for “good” & “bad” taste? Can we be wrong about why we like something?
One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that heroes and villains aren’t that different. Protagonisation has more to do with screen time, questions asked, and how you cut the tape.
This is both a benefit and a burden I think. Because it means we can find forgiveness and understanding for the worst of villains. But also means we can make heroes and idols out of almost anything as well.
For example, I am extremely partial to a particular brand of cheap, American artificially orange-coloured macaroni & cheese. It is a food I am likely to yearn for when I feel in need of salvation, not because it is good for me or tastes good (in fact it tastes like cardboard and glue and what I imagine comics might taste like if you actually ate them), but because it was a staple food of my childhood and thus reminds me of “home”, though a home that no longer exists except in imagination.
If taste is acquired, perhaps the acquisition has more to do with what we are exposed to and in what quantities, and what populates our fears and desires. More so than if something is actually good or not. Just think of the Stockholm Syndrome, wild animals with a taste for confinement, or that other brand of cheap orange artificiality Donald Trump – if ever we needed more pressing reason to question our tastes and judge the value of the narratives we are selling ourselves, or more proof that our tastes are dangerously subjective and dangerously malleable.
Even the world turned upside down will begin to look right side up, if we look at it long enough and without question.
But perhaps our malleability is a good thing. Because that means we have the power to take hold of our goggles and turn them another way round. Whether we end up on the right side of wrong or not who can say. Taste is, after all, subjective. But taste is also a construction, and for better or worse, viewers and makers willing, we have both the benefit and the burden of being constant builders in that never-ending project.
(First draft written the day after the Trump Election)
Trying to define what I believe we are talking about:
I don’t see any value in talking about issues of ‘good’ taste and ‘bad’ taste. Good taste is just a way of creating a cultural hierarchy “my taste is better than yours, so I am a better person than you”. That’s clearly rubbish – most art that we would now describe as in good taste is pretty bad art, because it supports this petit-bourgeois view, it’s consoling and banal. Talk of bad taste is usually a preamble to censorship, which I obviously don’t agree with. I’m in favour of personal responsibility, not the thought police. And most of the art forms I love and value have started life in the dubious districts of bad taste or the low arts – comics, jazz, film, tango.
So are we talking about personal taste, in which case you have your top 10, I have mine, so what? Are we talking about some sort of culturally agreed taste, the 50 greatest things of a thing? The 1000 greatest lavatories of the world you must try before you die of constipation? These lists are mostly capricious, as are awards and honours lists. You judge the triviality of something by the number of awards it gives itself.
So are we talking about taste as a mechanism that allows us to form a personal view of ourselves, and how we relate to the rest of the world? If so, it’s only in this movement beyond the personal, and into public discourse that it has any lasting value – human interaction, not masturbation.
And so this is my main question, are we talking to each other?
In recent years, and especially this year, it seems to me that we are each of us existing more and more in an echo-chamber, personal playlist, social media hall of mirrors, where the algorithms and the like buttons just reflect ourselves back at ourselves. Places for actual understanding of contradictory views are becoming fewer, and in those places, the views on display are so entrenched, that proof, facts, science and logical argument are all brushed aside, in favour of incoherent anger and blind prejudice. If these bedrocks of civilization are dismissed so easily, taste, as some kind of humane, empathic form of human interaction, doesn’t stand a chance.
On subjectivity I think some comics can definitely be better than others, but within their similar comparative categories. The problem there, of course, is how do you categorise comics in the first place, when comics is a wide, all-encompassing medium, and not a genre? I see a lot of people in the UK comics scene – fans and creators alike – that are continually divided over their opinion of what makes a good comic or not, and often (and I think rather unfortunately) that is tied down with genre. For example, I know people who are vehemently against capes and tights, while others get livid just glancing at anything too experimental or conceptual.
I think in the end it largely boils down to what expectations you have of your reading material, as well as what you’re used to – if you consume comics for escapism, entertainment, or as a challenge/to broaden your perspective. It’s very easy to dismiss a comic as “bad” if you read it with the wrong intent or expectations.
People can certainly misunderstand the intent of a comic, but I’d be hesitant to say they are “wrong” based on just like or dislike. There are so many separate factors to judge comics by – the art, the writing and the structure – and within those, some things might work for you and others don’t. If you create a comic, it’s out of your hands, and the reader can take from it what they will. We’ve also got to be aware that when we’re talking about “taste”, and especially the binaries of “good/bad” or “right/wrong”, it can often be used to shut down conversations in ways that can be classist and gate-keeping.
In regards to judging the value of work, I do believe it is important to cultivate a more varied and grown-up comics criticism in proportion with the growth of comics’ popularity – it helps the industry and raises the standard of work. I can see that award shows are useful for creators from a purely promotional point of view, but I don’t find it useful to measure the worth of comics that are not even slightly comparable against each other.
After five years of working in comics retail and having easy access to all kinds of comics, I like to think that my taste is varied and I can appreciate the craft that goes into writing either a good narrative action-packed superhero comic, as well as the thinking behind more playful experimentations with comics as a format. In the end, though, it’s undeniable that I have the strongest response to comics I emotionally relate to, either story-wise or art-wise. In the end, wherever your taste comes from, it’ll always be something entirely personal to you.
I’d like to sketch out some dogmas in thinking about comics – that are all the more dangerous for not being thought of as dogmas but as common sense.
- Taste is just a social construct.
- People only really like a comic because of x y z.
- Regardless of what value a comic might have, talking about what the writer or artist might’ve intended is pointless
First, the social construct:
When people tell you taste is a social construct, especially in that tone of voice like they’re presenting the third tablet of Moses, it’s like they’re reminding you that objects are made of matter. How taste is socially constructed is another question… And what if framing the question of taste as a total democracy of opinion on one side, and on the other side, snobby Tastemakers and Gatekeepers – what if this misses the key point that none of us learnt by ourselves what was a good comic?
Secondly, why people *really* like a comic:
These hunts for motivation you get coming both ways between high and low brow, between art and pulp.
Of course, other people can sometimes read into why you think something better than you yourself realise, in everyday life as much as comics. But I’d argue that interpreting why someone likes a comic is a discussion of psychology, ideology. But only at the very last is it about the art and value of a comic.
And the odd thing is that it contradicts the last dogma: the death of the author. the idea is that it can only be up to us, the community of readers, to decide what a comic means and whether it’s good. But what if this apparent democratisation of comics appreciation is actually anti-social? Because it neglects the fact that someone still made the comic, and made it for readers and for a reason. To think that a certain comic is great is on some level to read it like you’d read a room, or a person: you ‘get them’. And not in the vain way of smugly catching somebody out. The ability to work out what a comics author is trying to say, is the approach that is most valuable and the most outward-looking – because in the end it is a kind of artistic empathy.