It’s All About Pleasure

whole-snapper-6526-520x346Bottom line. Food (and wine) has to taste good. Otherwise we won’t consume it no matter how interesting it is. We take food into our bodies, so we are very careful to avoid anything that might be dangerous or disgusting.

This fact about food consumption is often used to cast doubt on whether food can be an art. After all, the fine arts–painting, sculpture, music, or literature—have no such restriction. The fact that a painting depicts an unpleasant scene or a novel recounts a disturbing tale does not inhibit our experience of them. We readily consume the unpleasant when we can hold the object at a distance as we do with vision or cognition. We allow music to express negative emotions as well.

Kathe Kollwitz “War”

The violence of Picasso’s Guernica, the desolate personalities of Kathe Kollwitz, the brutal angst of Munch’s The Scream—all depictions of the horrible that we find fascinating or gripping, We are moved by the cacophony of Stravinsky or the strident, searing guitar work of Sonic Youth. But the Confit du Canard—it must be pleasing or it will be untouched. This leads many commentators to conclude that food lacks the expressive range of painting, music, or literature because, whatever food does, it must do so with pleasure; it cannot represent the ugly.

But I think there is a fundamental mistake in this argument. When painting, literature, or music expresses something unpleasant we don’t experience it as unpleasant–we take pleasure in the presentation. The depiction may be of something unpleasant but through the artistry of the artist our experience is of something vivid, intense, and full of life. The actual experience of violence or trauma is deeply unpleasant, but its presentation via art nevertheless gives us pleasure. If this were not the case we would feel repulsion rather than enchantment when confronted with great art. We are moved by great art but it is always the pleasure we take in the representation that participates in our being moved.

Art that gives no pleasure is simply a failed work.

Thus, fine art and fine food and wine do not differ in the role that pleasure plays in the experience—it is necessary for both.

Moreover, it is simply false that food does not represent violence or horror. The carcass of a dead fish with one eye staring at you is unlovely and it represents a variety of ideas—death, slaughter, power, and the creative destruction of heat among others. It is the artistry of the chef and our own powers of self-deception that cast that violence in the glow of phenomenological pleasure.

As it is with food so it is with art.


  1. Wow! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; your writing is a feast! The words, the ideas, all of it, a feast that I will need time to digest. May I re-blog this? I think it is absolutely stunning!

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