To the end of taste: Douglas reads Carl Wilson's new book

I figure if movie reviews are fair game here, so's a review of a book with "lots of little words and no pictures," as Fred Hembeck once put it--especially when it's a book as relevant to criticism and savagery as the Excellent book I just read, Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, and especially at the let's-recap-our-judgement moment of the end of the year. Wilson's book never mentions comics, but it has everything to do with why people (including me) get so vehement about loving one cartoonist, or kind of comics, and hating another. It's the most recent volume in the 33 1/3 series of short books about albums (full disclosure: I wrote one in the same series a few years ago, about James Brown's Live at the Apollo). This one is about Céline Dion's 1999 album Let's Talk About Love--the one with that Titanic song on it. What's unusual about Wilson's book is that he can't stand Dion's music. But this isn't a book about why her music sucks: it's a book in which he tries to understand why he thinks so, and why the tens of millions of people around the world who adore it think it's wonderful.

And that takes him straight into the problem of taste. (The book's subtitle is a little joke--a reference to another famous Céline.) Dion, in Quebecois slang, is kétaine: tacky, naff, Liefeld-esque. The first few chapters of the book ("Let's Talk About Hate," "Let's Talk About World Conquest," "Let's Talk About Schmaltz") talk about how she got that way: they run through the curious particulars of her biography, her commercial domination of the globe, and the history of the particular pop-music aesthetic she embodies. Then we get to the core of the discussion, a pair of chapters called "Let's Talk About Taste" and "Let's Talk About Who's Got Bad Taste."

Wilson runs through the old but still vexing question of criticism's relationship to populism (e.g.: which is a more important or meaningful seal of approval: critics raving about Exit Wounds or Thor selling 100,000+ copies?); he talks about Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid's brilliant Most Wanted/Unwanted Paintings project, and the related Most Wanted/Unwanted Song project. (What would be the Most Wanted Comic, using the same principles?... I'm tempted to say Countdown: Arena or something.) He quotes David Hume's description of a person with good taste (which is essentially someone who likes things that will stand the test of time), and points out that that standard tends to favor tradition over innovation.

And then he gets into Pierre Bourdieu, whose name is commonplace in cultural-studies circles and not terribly well known otherwise. To quote Wilson's summary: "What we have agreed to call tastes, he said, is an array of symbolic associations we use to set ourseles apart from those whose social ranking is beneath us, and to take aim at the status we think we deserve. Taste is a means of distinguishing ourselves from others, the pursuit of distinction... In early twenty-first-century terms, for most people under fifty, distinction boils down to cool. Cool confers status--symbolic power. It incorporates both cultural capital and social capital, and it's a clear potential route to economic capital." Wilson has plenty of points of disagreement with Bourdieu (and so do I), but he notes that "even if Bourdieu was only fifty percent right--if taste is only half a sub-conscious mechanism by which we fight for power and status, mainly by condemning people we consider 'beneath' us--that would be twice as complicit in class discrimination as most of us would like to think our aesthetics are."

The rest of the book is Wilson playing around with taste in general and taste for Céline in particular. He interviews a handful of big fans (of one of them, he writes: "His taste world is coherent and an enormous pleasure to him. Not only does it seem as valid as my own, utterly incompatible tastes, I like him so much that for a long moment his taste seems superior. What was the point again of all that nasty, life-negating crap I like?"); he goes to see "Brand New Day," excuse me, "A New Day" in Vegas (and has a miserable time that leads him to meditate on why sentimentality in art gets such a bad rap, and how aesthetes tend to sentimentalize ambiguity); he forces himself, at last, to listen closely to Let's Talk About Love and write about it. And then, in the final chapter, he tries to imagine a new and more "democratic" kind of criticism: "What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it weren't about making cases for or against things?... It might be more frank about the two-sidedness of aesthetic encounter, and offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir."

Which leads me to the question I'd like to open up, as this calendar year ends, to the questionable democracy of the comments section. I've been asked, various times and in various contexts this year, where I think arts criticism is heading and where it should go. But Wilson's book suggests that people like me aren't the only ones who should be answering that question. So I'd like to know: what kinds of comics criticism are most meaningful or interesting to you, and why?