I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Whether you’re a fan of Apple products or not, I recommend picking it up. For me, it was one of those books that I thought about reading even when I wasn’t reading it — I just couldn’t put it down. Being that I’m fairly late to the game on this book, this isn’t going to be a review. I would, however, like to bring up one of the more interesting questions posed by both this book and Job’s life itself.
No, I’m not referring to the open vs. closed ecosystem argument which is often discussed in tandem with Steve Jobs; rather, I’d like to explore aesthetic taste and whether it is inherent or learned.
During his life, Steve truly loved just two women. The First was Tina Redse, followed by Lauren Powell, whom he married in March of 1991. Isaacson highlighted Job’s lasting regret that his relationship with Redse, which he described as a spiritual connection, was destined to fail. They fought a lot. Their biggest “philosophical difference [was] about whether aesthetic tastes were fundamentally individual, as Redse believed, or universal and could be taught, as Jobs believed.”
Not surprisingly, I’ve put a lot of thought into this question throughout my life — that’s not to say that I’ve got some-kind of exemplary taste, I just tend to waste ample amounts of brain power on marginally meaningless subjects. It would be so much easier if I could believe that nature and nurture were equally essential to the development of aesthetic tastes; but alas, that’s not who I am. When I truly think about it, I always land in the camp that aesthetic tastes are universal and therefore, can be taught. There are aesthetic rules that govern the universe and, although they allow for some wiggle room, there is right and wrong when it comes to taste.
The downside of having this opinion is that it means I also believe that someone can be wrong (philosophically, not morally) in their choices of what is aesthetically pleasing. Admittedly, I am just as often wrong as anybody else, but it’s offensive to some that I believe opinions can be wrong.
My argument for this is actually quite simple. As one becomes mored educated on a subject, artistic or otherwise, they come to understand the underlying principles of that discipline, and their tastes change in reflection of that knowledge. If you accept this to be true, which I do, then you must also accept that their tastes, prior to being educated, where wrong in comparison to their new, inspired tastes. This means that poor taste is simply an indication of ignorance in a particular subject and can therefor be rectified by an education of the governing rules of that discipline.
These rules apply to everything: films, music, photography, paintings, sculptures, industrial design, clothing, literature, food, etc. Some of these rules are known and written in stone — i.e. musical notes that combine to make chords. Others aren’t so hard and fast, giving artists much needed wiggle room. Still, I believe there are aesthetic rules man hasn’t even begun to understand. Much like scientists studying physics to unlock the mysteries of how our world works, artists search for new ways for us to contemplate the beauty of that very same world. I don’t believe Steve Jobs stumbled upon any of these unknown aesthetic rules, he simple spent his life reminding us of the most important one: less is always more.