Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash
Ira Glass of This American Life fame outlines so precisely the struggles of a young artist. He says that artists start making art because we have great taste and are inspired by what we like. But what happens is that our taste is better than the work we produce, so we feel like quitting because we think our work is bad—it doesn’t live up to the example that our great taste has set for us. So the challenge for the artist is to keep creating despite that negative internal voice, eventually closing the gap between the work we want to make and the work we are currently making.
What I want to encourage you to do today, though, is not just to keep creating to narrow that gap, but rather to keep developing your taste, too. As important as it is to work regularly and hone your craft, our taste is often what guides our growth.
But don’t we develop—
I hear you. You might argue that as creatives, we continue to develop our taste as we develop our craft. That’s true. However, I would argue that not only are there benefits to doing things that help develop your taste apart from simply creating, but that you can make better work by broadening your creative palette.
Also, in a world where the tools of creation are readily available and competition is as intense as ever, taste is often the difference maker in what makes someone stand out, in what makes you get hired over someone else. Take Tyler Mitchell, for example, a 23 year-old photographer who recently had the incredible opportunity of photographing Beyoncé for the cover of Vogue. There are enough politics involved in that for another blog post (or book!) but it’s undeniable that he was given that opportunity because of his taste and way of seeing and approaching photography rather than his technical ability (not that he doesn't have any, but the point is that for most jobs, it’s not always the most technically proficient person that gets hired—there are other intangibles that are necessary for great creative work). Mitchell himself understands what he offers, explaining in his Vogue interview how his success has been due to the fact that he “quickly formed [his] point of view” as a photographer. Your taste informs your eye, your ear, your approach, etc.
Okay, So How Do We Quote Unquote Develop Our Taste?
Honestly, I’m glad you asked. Here are
Three Ways to Develop Your Taste
ONE: You have to study the work that inspires you. The idea is to move away from personal preferences and begin to focus on the objective parts of your craft, the design principles at play, the rules of composition adhered to, the risks taken by the creator. Ask yourself not just why you like a piece but what makes it good. As a photographer, the more I learn about what makes good lighting and learn to appreciate it, the easier it is to spot it in other work and, most importantly, in my own. If I can notice a great thing a photographer did in lighting her subject, I can then try that same thing and develop new techniques.
TWO: Taste new things! I recommended a song to a friend recently and asked, “Why do artists always listen to the strangest things?” I was low-key insulted but high-key proud of the fact that she realized that this wasn’t run-of-the-mill stuff I was sending her way. Also, it revealed a truth: creative people tend to immerse themselves in strange and diverse things because that’s the easiest way to stay inspired. Musicians more than anyone seem to know this. Growing up, I’d often watch interviews of my favorite musicians and was always shocked to hear the range of music they listened to. They could just as easily enjoy obscure artists as well as mainstream ones who I was sure they would’ve otherwise looked down on. I had been narrow-minded in my search great work and realized that their attitude is what it’s all about: taste new things from everywhere, let your brain do its magical synthesizing of ideas and feelings and images you’ve collected, and make something fresh.
THREE: Live a little. (By which I mean live a lot.) There’s always room for commentary on form, structure, and craft. Meta work is cool. Movies about making movies, songs about writing songs, photos of photos—it’s all in. But when all you do is stay home and work on your craft, you end up with limited experiences to draw from and you can fall into the trap of creating work that is mostly self-referential or centered on the craft itself. There’s a whole world waiting to hear from you, from your unique filter, but you have to fill yourself not just with art but with life experiences that you can work through and put back into the world as something unique. Don’t just make art that’s about art. Make art about living.
That Was a Solid Line. You Should’ve Ended There.
True, but I have one last thing to add. As a photographer, people talk a lot about having an “eye” for photography. To me, the eye is almost synonymous with taste. Having an eye means that you know what’s good. You have a vision, can see a final product before it happens, and you know how to execute it. So developing your taste is a way of keeping your eye, your ear, your creative vision sharp. Don’t busy yourself solely with making better work--focus on broadening your taste so that you can make work that is more unique. Remember: when skills are equal, taste is the differentiating factor.