Last week I linked to Michael Rosen’s brief discussion of beauty at Guilded Birds. Rosen writes that beauty is the promise of happiness.
GB So what makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
MR I don’t think I can answer that but I still think if you had to have a single definition of beauty then Stendhal’s is the best – that beauty is the promise of happiness. We shouldn’t misunderstand that. Not all promises are kept. Some promises are beautiful because they’re a lie or an illusion – that we can be beyond pain or grief. But even acceptance of transience is a form of happiness. So Picasso’s decrepit old man with the guitar could embody beauty seen in that way.
I want to unpack that idea and see how it relates to food and wine.
I take it that he means it is not the works themselves that promise happiness but our relationship with them that produces that promise. For some works are tragic, sad, despairing, etc. But our involvement with them may nevertheless enrich our lives.
To find something beautiful is not just to think it pretty or attractive. When we find something beautiful we feel there is something more to it that has not yet been discovered, our relationship with it has not exhausted its value, we want it to be repeated again and again. Great works of art, when we find them beautiful, haunt us even when they are not present and we look forward to our next encounter as if it were a new experience. But even simple things—natural objects, a poet’s word, a ceremony, a piece of furniture, things that resonate with the spirit of who made them—can have that aura of mystery and incompleteness about them.
But since we don’t know what has not yet been discovered, we cannot articulate precisely what that quality is that we find so compelling. This is the bane of all art criticism. We can speak about the beautiful but the words are by necessity inadequate.
Food and wine can be beautiful in that they sometimes promise happiness. Of course “tasting good” is not sufficient. Chocolate ice cream tastes good but it’s hard to conjure a sense of mystery about it. But food and wine that refers to the people who produce it, that has the mysterious ability to gather people and create community, that succeeds in anchoring a sense of identity, that commands us to take time, focus on the moment and recognize the intrinsic value of things, or that is starkly and utterly original—such edible things can be beautiful because they promise happiness.