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wine-and-musicThe resistance to viewing wine as an art form is hard to grasp since there is very little rational basis for it.

Burnham and Skilleas in their tome The Aesthetics of Wine, insist that wine is not art, dismissing the idea in a couple sentences that are remarkable only in what else they would exclude from the realm of art.

Our claim that wine is not art means that the production of wine is not by artists, but by highly skilled artisans in cooperation with nature and tradition. It also means that wine does not contain a meaning or a discursive content that it is one job of the critic to decipher.

They insist that that wine lacks the “thematic, symbolic, or narrative content” typical of art and suggest that art must be “something invested with meaning by an artist”.

It is true that some art tells a story. Literature and representational art are obvious examples. But many abstract paintings tell no story and carry no explicit message articulable in an argument.

But the main counterexample to their view of art is music. Most music (setting aside music with lyrics of course) is not about anything—it doesn’t refer to scenes, situations, or worldly affairs at all. If it’s about anything it is about itself. The internal structure of musical works makes reference to other aspects of the work—a musical idiom creates expectations that later parts of the work may fulfill or frustrate as the music unfolds. But that is the sort of meaning a wine could have as well as it evolves on the palate. Initial impressions create expectations and wines are capable of surprise, congruence, or unity as they reveal their dimensions to a taster.

The most convincing account of meaning in music remains that of Leonard Meyer who in Emotion, Meaning and Music argued that music expresses “connotative complexes”.

Music does not [for example] present the concept or image of death itself. Rather it connotes that rich realm of experience in which death and darkness, night and cold, winter and sleep and silence are all combined and consolidated into a single connotative complex.

A musical passage is not about death, darkness, night, cold, etc., but instead evokes something common to all these events which enables them to be metaphors for each other—a mood that could stand for any of these if the listener’s imagination is activated.

But of course wines have the same evocative potential. Wines can be brooding, contemplative, darkly mysterious or light, fanciful and playful. The specific connotation depends on the taster. Like composers, winemakers make choices that determine the “connotative complex” a wine will evoke. I doubt that all music evokes “connotative complexes”; neither do all wines. But it is one way both music and wine can be said to have meaning.

Frankly,. if I were to hear a musical passage from any symphony, sonata, or jazz piece and someone were to ask “What does that mean”?, I would be at a loss to respond.

Unless Burnham and Skilleas are prepared to evacuate music from the realm of art they must permit wine’s entry into that realm as well.

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