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The Unavoidable Necessity to Make Judgments

People, it seems, are increasingly unable to bear the presence in a room of someone who is of different political opinion from theirs. We have now become adept at gauging the general tenor of any gathering’s views and either join in if those views coincide with our own or hold our silence if they don’t. Moreover, a person’s opinions are now the main criterion that people use to assess the goodness or badness of his character; his actual behavior is much less important to them.

The only other criterion that has much salience in the assessment of character nowadays is a person’s taste. To be accused of having no taste, or bad taste, is extremely hurtful. Taste is one of the means by which we categorize people, and we are reluctant to be seen in public with persons of poor taste, for their poor taste reflects on us, too. We judge by appearances and very often there is little else to go on. Our tastes in art, music, reading matter, food, decoration, modes of entertainment, and so forth help to place us in categories. We tend to despise categories other than our own.

Twenty-seven years ago, there was a brilliant play called Art by the French playwright Yasmina Reza, on the matter of taste. Three friends discuss a painting bought by one of them for a considerable price. The painting in question is a canvas painted nothing but white, with a white border and some lines visible in the paint. The purchaser of the painting is a dermatologist called Serge, prosperous but not wealthy; one of his friends, Marc, an aeronautical engineer, is obviously intelligent but not a connoisseur of art; the third personage in the play, Yvan, is a relative failure who has no direction in his life.

Marc, the plain, inartistic man of intelligence, sees nothing in the picture (if picture it can be called), and even calls it shit. He thinks it is a confidence trick: After all, anyone could take a piece of canvas and cover it with white paint. But the fact that anyone could have done such a thing doesn’t mean that anyone had done it, at least not before this particular artist, apparently well-known and hence the high price of his work, did it. As for Yvan, he sees, or affects to see, something of value in the painting.

Serge, the purchaser and owner of the painting, thinks that Marc, its detractor, lacks the necessary education and interest to pass judgment on the painting. Marc, by contrast, thinks that Serge is prey to intellectual and aesthetic snobbery. Before long, their disagreement reveals other fissures in their friendship. Yvan tries to mediate between Serge and Marc but is turned upon himself by the other two. Disagreement about a painting has sown real dissension among them.

Matters of taste are indeed capable of sowing dissension and even hatred. As with political opinions, I find myself increasingly having to bite my tongue. When people express a liking for something that I consider an aesthetic abomination, I change the subject—if I value good relations with the person more than the temporary relief of feelings that expressing my opinion would give me.

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