Aesthetic Identity #3: Develop Taste Using Numerical Ratings
Rating subjective things objectively can be good, actually
“How do you develop taste?”
It’s a question I see on Twitter all the time. And the answers are always the same. Be curious, consume good things, create more.
I’ve always found that a strange answer. Sure, you need to be curious, you need to expose yourself, and taste does develop when you create, but you can do all of the above and still take a long time to develop taste in one space let alone multiple.
The question gets asked so often for good reason. It’s actually pretty damn hard to develop good taste in any given field.
I’ve encountered many who consider it their profession to critique food but time and again betray how inconsistent their judgement can be.
Especially with food, we bear the burden of our experiences. Everyone thinks they know what good food is because they eat something at least once a day. Few people realise that indiscriminate consumption without reflection can be worse than a blank slate.
But if we’re careful about how we approach it, we can use that as a springboard into sharpening our taste.
I spent many years thinking about how best to hone my taste in food. I travelled around the world, eating and drinking in every possible place you can imagine. Fine dining in the Parisian temples of haute cuisine, one of the best burgers I’ve tasted in my life at a gas station in the middle of a Cambodian highway, a home-cooked lunch at a mezcal distillery in Oaxaca that also doubled as a small weed plantation, sushi in the basement of a non-descript office building in Tokyo.
How does one link such disparate experiences together? What commonality is there apart from the fact that it’s food to delight the tastebuds and satiate our stomach?
Enter the Subjectively Objective Scale
Despite how ubiquitous numerical ratings are (Yelp, TripAdvisor, Album Ratings, Wine Scores, Book Reviews, Play reviews), the enlightened always seem to balk at the idea of using any sort of number to rate the subjective.
“It’s all about taste and personal preference!”
“This restaurant got a 4.8 Yelp rating but it SUCKS!”
They’re right, to some extent. Scores are indeed subjective, and because of that you can never really trust someone else’s scoring. Plus we all love to be contrarian and rip on other people. But that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
If you learn how to calibrate your own internal, objective, scale, you can develop your taste at a rate much faster than most people. Here’s why.
Any craft or art-piece, defined in the broadest way possible, will always have some sort of technical element. You can tell when a piece of writing is bad, when a meal at a restaurant is objectively terrible, when a dancer is flailing around aimlessly, or when a song is just really badly played. All of this is separate from the stylistic element, which can have an element of personal preference to it.
The aesthetic then, is the sum total of the technical and the stylistic. You can have a strong sense of what you want a piece of writing or music to be, but without the technical ability it will not turn out the way you envisioned. Focus only on the technical without incorporating your own personal style and it will be soulless and without identity.
If you’re developing your taste within a certain field, you want to be able to quickly distinguish what elements boil down to technique and what boils down to personal stylistics.
Experts naturally do this from thousands of hours of exposure. But what if we don’t have the benefit of having been immersed in an environment to have that intuition?
Our society is moving towards judging a piece of art by the narrative surrounding the creator rather than the merits of the piece itself.
I think this is nonsense. I’m going to refrain from pointing fingers or naming names in this newsletter, but if we insist on cancelling all artists that were vaguely shitty humans, there would be very little art left in the world to enjoy.
If you want to support someone because you like who they are, by all means, but one should judge the aesthetic of a piece on its own. Developing your own internal scale helps separate the narrative from the object in question. We can look at things with a more critical eye as a result.
It is part of what I hate about the trend towards certain chefs leaning towards locavorism. Food should be able to stand on its own, and not because of a narrative about where the ingredients came from. Similar to people who make "natural wine" for the sake of being "natural". The best natural wine I’ve tasted can be very special, but most of it is just… bad.
We’ve always made celebrities out of artists, but it’s an issue that has steadily become more evident with the advent of social media. Certainly a good story can be part of the fun, but you need to be careful about separating your assessment of the quality from the story.
Being discerning about what you consume is important because it extends to what you subsequently create
Why do I place so much emphasis on distinguishing between what is objective and what is subjective? Because you can then tell the difference between having created something good or something bad, regardless of whether or not it is to someone’s taste.
Perhaps one way to think of something on an objective scale it how deliberately harmonious it is. A master is in control of all elements of his craft, and it is through deliberate emphasis of certain elements and the understatement of others that he achieves balance.
Over the years I have developed a framework to think about this. I primarily applied this to food and drink at first, but it has been generally effective in turbocharging taste development in many other subjects.
I would suggest first trying this out with food as well simply because it allows you to iterate very quickly to get a sense of how to make the scale useful to yourself. Being able to slightly adjust how you rate your food three times a day can be quite powerful.
Start by thinking of the best meals that you've had in your life
This shouldn’t be hard: Food is such an ingrained part of us that we will always remember the best memories that come with them.
I’d shy away for now from using things that were for celebrating special milestones such as a first sale, or promotion. Birthday and anniversaries are alright, but meals that celebrate achievements tends to have you riding on the high of success, which always makes things taste better than they normally do.
We’ll benchmark this meal as a 17/20 first. I like using 20 because it gives more granularity than a 10, but doesn’t hit ridiculous levels of arbitrary like 100. At some point you just end up overfitting your scores. From a purely statistical point of view, it is extremely unlikely that you’ve already had the best meal of your life. 17 is a good starting point which you can adjust later.
Just for perspective, when I first started scoring my meals, Gordon Ramsay’s flagship fine dining restaurant in London was a 19/20 for me. Today, I’ve internally re-rated it to 17. It hasn’t gotten worse, but my awareness of the range of possibilities have broadened.
Ask yourself why this meal was worthy of such a great rating from you
What about it made me enjoy it so much? Was it the atmosphere? Company? Food? Creativity? Chances are it's a combination of all of the above. It's ok if you can't describe it in too much detail at this point, the vocabulary will come later. In fact, when broaching any new subject, you don't want to try too hard and accidentally forcing the explanation of your score.
Let your intuition guide your score at first. Your subconscious knows best what it likes at present. Heck, you can even just start off by giving flat number ratings with no explanations. Trust that your brain will eventually make sense of the process.
Eventually, you will begin to be able to separate the subjective portions from the objective portions. Technical skills can be judged more objectively than ingredient quality which is more objective than service and ambience.
Subjective then becomes a case of preference, while you can rate the objective on a separate scale. This allows you to distinguish when someone is performing at the top of his game versus when you just don't like his style. I don't like modernist cuisine, for example, but I can agree that Joan Roca is one of the best chefs creating that style of food compared to anyone else in the genre.
Similarly, I can say that I prefer a certain meal even if the technical skill might not be quite on the same level because I am in love with the soul and style of the chef on display in the food. Or perhaps the food is really good because of the ingredients but not necessarily because the chef had a big role to play (such as at a steakhouse).
Your goal here is to eventually become internally consistent such that when you say you like one meal over another one you’ve had in the past, you’re able to distinguish between whether your reasons are on stylistic or technical grounds.
What's great about this is that once we get good at consciously distinguishing the two in one field, it's not difficult to translate it to another.
Sampling new earphones? What’s so good about it? Is it because there is increased clarity, separation and detail (objective)? Is is because there’s a wide soundstage (subjective)? Do you enjoy it because there more emphasis on the bass compared to the mids and treble (subjective)? Realise that even among the subjective categories, there are technical aspects to it, but whether you like one over the other is down to a stylistic preference.
How about a piece of clothing? For example, the quality of the cloth can be assessed objectively, as can the handiwork or the fit. The design itself can be subjective, but there are also certain aspects that can definitely be assessed more objectively. Take these two examples of green-ish windowpane jackets:
Same underlying concept but the one on the right is objectively better by any standard. The colours have a great contrast that go together, the buttons work as an accent rather than disappearing into the cloth. That’s not even before we go into the lapels, which has a beautiful roll towards the button and has the perfect width to accentuate the shoulders. None of this is visible in the specimen on the left, which just comes off as crass and garish.
You might not be able to pick out the specific reasons why the jacket on the right looks so much better to the same level of detail that I did, but most people would be able to at least say that the one on the right is much more aesthetically pleasing.
By having a consistent internal scale, you will eventually be able to discern without the need for comparison whether a piece of clothing is good. The ability to pick out the details as to why will come naturally after that.
I have deliberately kept the steps fairly open as I am of the opinion that taste is not something that can be necessarily developed with a rigid process.
Taste in the aesthetic will always exist in a grey area, and trying to force it into a fixed number of steps is probably counter-productive. What I’ve tried to do here was to note down ways that I think about the process such that my intuition is sharpened in a more directed fashion. It has certainly helped me, and I hope it helps you.
This took a bit more time to write than I thought it would, and it was difficult to put into words in a way that was both digestible and did the concept justice. I hope it provided some interesting food for thought, and any feedback or thoughts on the subject are always welcome! You can reply to this email, post it in the comments, or even drop me a DM. I would love to hear if you plan to implement this in your daily life, or if you already do this.
For those who didn’t arrive here through Twitter and want to hear my thoughts condensed in 280 characters, you can reach me @shrinetothevine. Always happy to start a conversation.