Can Wines Be Works of Art?

wine_and_art Most philosophers would say no. Works of art are artifacts designed by human beings to express or represent something. Wines on the other hand are made from grapes the quality of which is determined by weather and soil. Winemakers can influence the final result but they don’t have the creative control that a painter or composer has according to skeptics. Burnham and Skilleas in their otherwise fine book The Aesthetics of Wine have a version of this argument:

“Great wines are often made by modest people, who claim merely to work in the service of their vineyard – though in my experience, this is mostly a pious pretence. A great many crucial decisions, in fact, hinge on precise human intervention.” These decisions are intentions, certainly, and wine is also a product of human artifice. However, it is not intention in the same sense as a painter might have when he approaches a blank canvas. Vintners’ decisions have only a very tenuous connection with expression in the arts, which is typically expressions of aesthetic intention, feeling, and the like. First of all, being a Pinot Noir, or having a certain place and time of origin, is something the wine is. These are not contents or messages. Moreover, there is no necessary connection between the decision to do this, that or the other, and the result. Wine is not as malleable to intention as paint, and the most important factor beyond the vintner’s control is the weather. Try as they might, few vintners can remove the sensory impact of the vintage. (Burnham, Douglas; Skilleas, Ole M. The Aesthetics of Wine (New Directions in Aesthetics) (p. 100).

There is much to disagree with here. But the argument’s most serious misfire is the exaggeration of the role of intention in the making of works of art. The form and meaning of a finished work may be quite different from the artist’s intention. We long ago gave up the idea that the artist’s intention is the definitive word on the meaning of a work of art. And artists often report that they aren’t always guided by clear intentions during the creative process.

Furthermore, Burnham and Skilleas ignore environmental art which is often subject to the same contingencies of weather and other natural processes that influence wine grapes. Andy Goldsworthy’s work is just one example.

A scene from the documentary “Rivers and Tides”

Goldsworty builds ice sculptures that melt, installations of leaves that grow moldy, a nest of sticks carried by the tide that is destroyed by the sea, etc. As Goldsworthy describes one of his “land works”:

“There are occasions when I have moved boulders, but I’m reluctant to, especially ones that have been rooted in a place for many years,” he says, noting that when he must do so, he looks “for ones on the edge of a field that had been pulled out of the ground by farming. The struggle of agriculture, of getting nourishment from the earth, becomes part of the story of the boulder and of my work.”

Replace references to “boulders” with “vineyards” and you have a good description of a winemakers commitment to the expression of terroir. Would Goldsworthy not count as an artist on Burnham and Silleas’s view?

Some performance art is similarly dependent on contingent interactions with the audience which the artist cannot fully control. The idea that for something to be art it must be thoroughly in the artist’s control assumes an overly narrow conception of art.


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