Editors' Letter: Taste & Appetite
From the ancient Greeks to the current Queer Eyes, the cocktail of knowledge, ideals, aesthetics, and manners that makes up the concept of taste has served as a tireless organizing principle for a class-based society (and really, is there any other kind?). Like all organizing principles, taste is a construction rather than a law of nature: It’s almost impossible to say why, for instance, we believe it’s in good taste to put flatware in a certain order, or in bad taste to wear vinyl pants to your cousin’s wedding.
But tastes mutate over time, thanks in no small part to fashion (chain mail: the new cashmere!), as do our means of achieving those standards of taste. Nothing captures the intertwined natures of taste and appetite so well as the world of advertising. Advertisers have long clamored to help us define our tastes and, by extension, ourselves by positioning their products as the key to better, happier, more successful lives. According to the American cult of consumerism, you’re not just what you eat but what you drive, what you wear, which cell phone you use, whether you use Swiffer Wet or the regular old Swiffer. Cleverly tapping into our latent desires for transformation, this aspirational element of popular culture is deep-rooted and insidious, manifesting itself not only in the plugs for product that permeate almost every part of our environments, but in the entertainment we consume—which, in turn, consumes us. (See “Triumph of the Shill, Part One,” page 50.)
The advent of reality television—and, more specifically, of the now-ubiquitous makeover show—has made for an advertising of taste and appetite that’s both more public and more prescriptive than ever before. Shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Extreme Makeover, and the strident, hectoring stateside version of What Not to Wear, as well as a new crop of home-makeover shows (see “Compromising Positions,” page 21), use the language of self-esteem and entitlement in their pursuit of the good taste implicit in an upper-middle-class appearance. When Carson Kressley, the queen Mary of Queer Eye’s Fab Five, proclaims, “We’re waging a war against bad taste, one straight guy at a time,” he’s talking not just about getting rid of a ratty futon and some questionable footwear, but also about the ways in which bad taste is putatively holding these men back from their rightful achievements: jobs, girlfriends, marriage, the ability to make mixed drinks.
In the end, taste is frustratingly hard to pin down. It’s far easier to talk about our appetites, which ultimately are expressions of desire and yearning enacted on a literal gastronomic level (see “Eat Wave,” page 60), or subsumed into consumerist urges (see “Beauty and the Feast,” page 34)—and thus are all too visible. With taste, like pornography or beauty, we may not be able to describe it, but we all know it when we see it. Taste, perhaps, is what we aspire to, while appetite is what we consume—or deny ourselves. —Eds.
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