There’s a quote from Ira Glass that I think about when I get frustrated with my work:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

Okay, Ira, I agree. My work isn’t as good as the work that I like; ergo, I’m disappointed. But then there’s the matter of taste, rather than craftsmanship or quality: you can make “good” work that doesn’t fit what you like. What’s good taste, and what differentiates it from bad taste? Actually, how does taste even function?

In a society that’s grown increasingly information and image-saturated, it’s impossible to process all the things that we’re bombarded with: advertising, television, art, books, movies, fashion, food . . . there is a vast quantity of stuff available to be looked at, processed and consumed. In an effort to win our consumption, because late capitalism exists and it’s horrible, all these mediums play towards our various, specified tastes. And on the other end of the feedback loop, we are encouraged to cultivate our taste, because it becomes a reflection of ourselves.

Less cynically, everyone likes good things. Everyone wants a thing that’s better than the other things. Taste is liking one thing but not another thing, figuring out what the good things are, according to a series of somewhat arbitrary cultural constructions depending on your community and interests, and letting people know you know it.

Taste, in food, media, and fashion, has always been intimately linked to class and social status. Why else do we have the categories of highbrow and lowbrow art? Taste is the privilege to choose — and not only to choose, but to choose so selectively and episodically that a personal narrative might be created out of your decisions, whether it be the books you read or the music you listen to. Of course taste is simply what you like. But taste also marks you as this kind of person, not that kind of person.

Historically, presentations of taste have been confined to what we can physically display or describe with our bodies. Clothing is an excellent example of taste made manifest. A fur coat reads differently from a leather jacket reads differently from a denim jacket, even though all three will keep you warm. Going to galleries, sporting events, movies, and restaurants are all also signifiers of taste, descriptions made with the body and currency. They’re public displays of how something you are, whatever that something is: I might never be able to answer my query to Ira, “what’s good taste?” but at least I can talk about how it functions. With the growing usage of Tumblr and other image-based blogs, the function of taste and the way it’s described has evolved beyond consumption and adornment.

Sometimes I meet people and they say, “check out my blog.” Rather than the Livejournal-era confessional writing and diary entries that comprised the blogs of the early 00’s, image and repost-heavy platforms like Tumblr mean that these days, a blog might be devoid of “personal” content altogether. Instead, we get a different portrait of its creator: we get to know their taste. When I look at new friend’s said blog, more often than not it’s simply a collection of images that reflect the kind of person they wish to present to the world.

Advertising your good taste, whatever your version of good might be, is no longer exclusively the purview of the very rich or very mobile. Because blogs allow us to easily curate and display the material we find, anyone can be a cultivated collector. In an image-saturated society, taste has transcended consumption: we do not need to own nice things in order to be the kind of people who understand nice things. Instead of conspicuous consumption, we have conspicuous curation, ergo: CHECK OUT MY BLOG! It’s great. I have great taste. I’m great. Be my friend.

Blogs online allow us to enact and perform taste (inside and outside of wealth and status) in a way that we could not have previously. The ubiquity and visibility of such blogs means that taste-making can be the most distinctive feature of our personalities. A well-curated Tumblr can function as both signal and story; a narrative that stands alone on the strength of preference itself. Because there’s already so much stuff to sort out, we deserve recognition for trying. Performing the right kind of taste might get us membership into certain groups; the wrong kind might ostracize us from others.

Curation has been a word generally reserved for the collection and display of art. In the traditional sense, it refers to how one might put together a show in a gallery or museum, paying careful attention to the selection of pieces and the narrative it conveys. Of course, the idea of curation has been extended to other kinds of content, and it certainly isn’t new. Sites like Tumblr thrive on an economy of recycled and shared material, and provide personal outlets for curation and expression. It’s not so different from deciding what to share on one’s Facebook profile, creating a distinctly selective portrait of the self. Curation becomes an essential process in an image-saturated society. It’s a coping mechanism, but also a way to create a narrative of self. The existence of blogs devoid of original content is an effect of the convergence of image-saturation with easily accessible posting and curation abilities: if every blog is a miniature gallery, every blogger can be the curator of the group show themed “ME.”

In many personal blogs, which appear as endless streams of images and gifs, very little commentary is appended to images, and if it is, more often than not it has little relevance to the artist’s intent for the work. Framed only by the other media of the blog itself, the images exist only in the narrative created through their surroundings: the taste of the blog upon which this content is curated.

The phenomenon of these blogs might first appear distressing, as technological innovations tend to. When taste-making itself becomes a hobby, a defining characteristic of how people conduct their lives, what happens when you set out to create things? Are people even making things anymore, or just passively consuming them through conspicuous curation? It’s a lot easier to reblog a painting than to make one. The creative field is a hard one to break into, and you can achieve almost as much cultural capital by being a tasteful consumer (or curator) as you can by being a maker of things.

There are millions of blogs out there that don’t contribute anything to culture as a whole. Maybe nobody cares about your aesthetics blog. Maybe nobody cares about mine. But on the other hand, why confine the creative narratives of curation to established spaces like the gallery or the magazine? Isn’t judging the existence of Tumblr blogs making the same kind of class and taste judgment that this kind of innovative, individually motivated curation seeks to avoid? Tumblr may reproduce the pitfalls of consumer-only creativity, but it also provides a level playing field for those who wish to display their taste. Furthermore, the creative repurposing of existing imagery also has interesting implications for the art world.

In a piece for The New Inquiry, Brad Troemel, creator of art blog The Jogging, describes the creation of an “accidental audience” for his work, engendered by the way images move through the Internet and the way in which their framing is changed. Photographs and collages, presented without context, evolved as they moved through appearances and reappearances on various blogs, interpreted alternately as art or humor or absurdist. Framing is important. An image on The Jogging, with its clean white layout and art-gallery-esque caption (a recent post reads: “Sky chart on pickled gherkins jar, 2013, Digital image”) is immediately legible as some kind of art. Yet that same image, passed through many reblogs, changes function entirely according to its surroundings. Though creation of new material may not be happening at the origins of a Tumblr blog, the ways in which that blog reframes the work it displays is itself an act of creation. In making art, a piece of content is created. In taking that art and moving it somewhere else, reframing it and making it a matter of taste, a narrative is created.

The ways in which art is consumed have changed over the years. My taste is shaped by things that often only exist (to me) as digital artifacts. Art is primarily viewed through the Internet, on laptops and smartphones; it is a privileged few that get to actually traipse through the galleries worldwide that curate the shows I scroll through daily on my phone’s screen. In an article for this year’s summer issue of Artforum — which, astonishingly, I read in print — art historian Michael Sanchez describes how the confluence of art and its Internet distribution peaked in 2011(a pdf of the article is available here), with memes running through real-life gallery shows and abstract paintings inspired by how it feels to look at work, scrolling on a backlit screen.

Writes Sanchez, referring to the large, all-over compositions of recently popular scatter paintings: “as the eye is required ever more finely to isolate (and, of course, monetize) information, to filter signal from noise, this particular form of noise seduces through its very lack of information, the painting reprising the conditions of its distribution in a visually therapeutic form.” The painting is influenced by the conditions of its distribution — its display on a screen rather than a wall. This selection pressure makes paintings that are visually therapeutic more successful. Which means that we have paintings being physically made because they look good on virtual screens. To take this one step further: such a painting will certainly be eventually removed from its gallery context within the original post on an art site, and slotted into someone’s personal blog, occupying an entirely different function and narrative. At this point the loop might as well be closed: creation and curation have come round in a circle.

In these image-based Tumblr blogs, the role of the artist is irrelevant: well and truly dead. But the image lives again in how it is repurposed and framed. Those making art, or indeed, those in any kind of creative capacity, would do well to look at how their work might soon be absorbed and redefined, and what they might learn from how we exercise taste.

Anyway, that’s all to say: check out my blog. It’s great.

Illustration by Eliza Koch. See more of Eliza’s work here.

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