Tastelessness, the lack of taste, is the inability to discern quality. People without taste will have a near-equal preference for something great and something mediocre.
To start very generally, taste is a mode. It’s a manner of interpretation, expression, or action. Things don’t feel tasteful, they demonstrate taste. Someone’s home can be decorated tastefully. Someone can dress tastefully. The vibe cannot be tasteful. The experience cannot be tasteful.
Appreciation is a form of taste. Creation is another. They are often intertwined, but don’t have to be. Someone could have impeccable taste in art, without producing any themselves. Those who create tasteful things are almost always deep appreciators, though. Mark Ronson listens to and loves a lot of music. Samin Nosrat tries and savors a lot of food.
There are degrees of taste, but we typically talk about it in binaries. One can have taste or not. Great taste means almost the same thing as taste.
You probably already have an intuitive sense of the people in your life who have great taste in something. They’re the people you always go to for restaurant or movie or gear recommendations. Maybe it’s the person you ask to be an extra set of eyes on an email or a project brief before you send it out.
Though taste may appear effortless, you can’t have taste by mistake. It requires intention, focus, and care. Taste is a commitment to a state of attention. It’s a process of peeling back layer after layer, turning over rock after rock. As John Saltivier says in an essay about building a set of stairs, “surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.”
Most people with taste can tell you, in explicit terms, how they came to it. That story typically involves someone else ushering them into it, directly or indirectly.
Taste comes in lanes. To quote Susan Sontag again, “There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion — and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It's rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.” The sought-after interior designer may not mind gas station coffee. The prolific composer may not give a damn about how they dress.