Do Food and Wine Provoke Wonder?

Jesse Prinz, at the new blog Aesthetics for Birds, argues that wonder is the primary emotion in our response to art, and the ability to provoke wonder, he claims, is an essential component in the definition of art.

I’m a bit skeptical that the ability to produce wonder is a necessary condition for a work to be art. Some of the ready-mades from the 20th Century would be counter examples.

duchamp shovel
Marcel Duchamp
In Advance of the Broken Arm

I suppose the inclusion of an ordinary shovel in an art gallery produces wonder about the nature of art, which I take it, is the point of the work. But the visual appearance of the shovel itself is not a rich source of wonderment.

However, I  think this notion of wonder helps solve the problem of emotional responses to art. I’ve always doubted that the feeling of a well-defined emotion on the part of viewer or listener was essential to art. Sad songs don’t make me feel sad (unless they are poorly performed). I can appreciate the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th without feeling exalted.

But all works of art, if they are successful, grab our attention because they promise something more. We sense an unrealized potential for further experience, we feel our interest aroused, curiosity piqued, as if we can’t quite get enough of the object—wonder is a good way of describing that feeling.

What about food and wine? Can they provoke wonder? New taste sensations, exotic cuisines, and the strange concoctions of molecular gastronomy produce wonder at least in culinarians who are open to exploring them as objects of fascination. Particular dishes and menus also provoke wonder about their origins and the traditions from which they emerge.

With respect to wine, perhaps the best characterization of its capacity to produce wonder comes from Terry Theise’ wonderful book Reading Between the Wines.

As this wine was poured, I watched a kind of spell settle over my friends. I hadn’t planned it, and I didn’t suppose the wine was any better than the wines around it. But the chatter died down, and people went from witty and sociable to pensive and meditative. What in a wine can bring about this rare and strangely truthful quality of evanescence? This strikes me as a vital question. When a wine is this searching, probing, it seems to offer something that is found no other way…

There’s a drawing among the many aching works of Käthe Kollwitz called Prisoners Listening to Music. In it we see the wretched trying to endure the divine. We suppose that beauty has been banished from their lives. And here it is, restored; their faces are afraid and hesitant and wondering, as they see perhaps for the first time the tiny cloisters that live inside each of them, and each of us. There are wines that convey these moments. There are wines that express without asserting, wines that show the little penumbra between joy and serenity, between brilliance and luminosity. (Reading, 88)

Prinz argues that perplexity is essential to wonder. Here is Theise describing wines of paradox:

I can scarcely recall a great wine that didn’t in some sense amaze me, that didn’t make my palate feel as if it were whipsawed between things that hardly ever travel together. My shorthand term for that experience is paradox; again, this component is in the hands of the angels and doesn’t appear susceptible to human contrivance, but when it is found it conveys a lovely sense of wonder: How can these things coexist in a single wine? And not only coexist, but spur each other on; power with grace, depth with brilliance. . . . (Reading,34)

Some wines are as mysterious and engrossing as a painting or musical work and can even supply that dimension of perplexity that Prinz mentions. There is nothing quite like a wine that combines power, elegance, and finesse.

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