Should Wine Tasting Strive for Objectivity? The No Argument

wine tasterIf by “objectivity” we mean “wholly lacking personal biases”, in wine tasting, this idea can be ruled out. There are too many individual differences among wine tasters, regardless of how much expertise they have acquired, to aspire to this kind of objectivity. But traditional aesthetics has employed a related concept which does seem attainable—an attitude of disinterestedness, which allegedly provides much of what we want from objectivity.

“Disinterestedness” refers to a kind of experience in which an object is perceived “for its own sake”, not merely for its usefulness at achieving some other goal. The idea is that in genuine aesthetic appreciation we must consider the object without the distraction of practical concerns or personal desires that govern ordinary life. By bracketing or “walling off” ordinary desires and everyday practical concerns, we are able to have a contemplative, imaginative experience that enables the full range of aesthetic properties of an object to emerge.

Last week I provided an argument for why wine tasting should be disinterested. Blind tasting and the use of standardized tasting procedures designed to eliminate distractions aim at this disinterested experience, preventing certain kinds of personal biases from influencing judgment. We can’t eliminate differences among tasters that arise from biology or life history, but we can minimize the influence of personal motives and desires that might distort the tasting experience.

But is something lost when we aim for disinterestedness? In the end, the concept of “disinterest”, if it is at all useful, must be disentangled from its historical origins and viewed as a limited practical procedure, not a distinctive kind of experience.

With regard to art, how an object fits into its practical context is often aesthetically relevant. For instance, part of the aesthetic evaluation of religious or political paintings will depend on how effectively they deliver the religious or political message, which cannot be disentangled from the actual desires that people have and the life choices available to them. Architectural works, dance music, and virtually any performance that must capture something of the moment can be appreciated only when considered in light of the actual life experiences that constitute their enjoyment in the moment. Surely such works can be contemplated, but that contemplation presupposes engagement with the circumstances of life.

Such considerations apply to wine as well. How well a wine works with a particular cuisine, the way the properties of the wine intersect with climate and weather, how the production and consumption of a wine intersects with the life of the community that makes it, and how it complements the social activities it accompanies–these are practical matters that must feed into and inform our judgments even as we adopt a contemplative attitude. In other words, not all practical matters can be screened off. No object is purely an imaginative object.

Immanuel Kant, the philosopher most closely associated with promoting disinterestedness, argued that in order for a work to stimulate the imagination and be available for contemplation, reference to the real existence of the object must be suspended. But in this Kant is mistaken. By failing to consider the object as a thing, a physical object with real existence, we miss crucial aesthetic features of the work.

Any work of art is an object in a web of relations. It invokes associations with particular persons, their culture and its place therein. But it is also inseparable from the physical materials out of which it is made that shine forth in the work regardless of how they are manipulated by the artist. You can’t subtract the paint from the painting or the stone from the sculpture; their aesthetic properties are a product of the paint, canvas, and stone trying to mean something—that tension has an intensity that can be appreciated only by attention to what Heidegger called the “thingly” character of the work. In other words, origins are essential in aesthetics. You can’t wholeheartedly enter the world of the art object without knowing its source, without recognizing the actual causal forces that operating on the object.

And this clearly applies to wine. In wine we must know the character of the grapes, the influence of weather and climate, the winemaker’s intentions, and the preferences and history of the community in order to know whether a work—a particular wine—reaches its full potential. All of these factors are “screened off” via blind tasting, the practical implementation of disinterestedness. As useful as blind tasting is for certain purposes, it is not a method for full aesthetic appreciation.

To be fair to Kant, he was motivated by the need to explain how objects that induce powerful emotions could be represented and made available for contemplation and imaginative play if they tapped into our actual desires and real life fears. We have to approach them at arm’s length, not as real objects but as imaginative objects, if we are not to run screaming from the gallery or symphony hall—we interpret the feelings rather than fully experiencing them. But this seems to apply to only some works of art. Some art is precisely designed to break down our defenses, to forcefully induce intense feelings that we then must work through. Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road or the film short by David Wojnarowicz A Fire in My Belly are among any number of difficult, contemporary works that engage our actual desires as we experience them. And if we are to decide if the feelings expressed by the work are to be made our own we cannot ultimately view them from a disinterested point of view. The process of integrating them into our lives requires, not the suspension of ordinary desires, but their articulation in light of the work. Some art might benefit from the lack of concern about the reality of the object. But some art depends on experiencing a genuine emotion that can come only from engagement. There is no general approach that is always correct.

In the end, we can deploy intense attention, thoughtfulness, perceptual acuity, and the mystery of aesthetic wonder, without positing a separate mode of experience. Can we distinguish aesthetic engagement from concerns with price, friendship, or politics while at the same time acknowledging that the aesthetic dimension is part of practical, “interested” activities. It depends on how powerful self-reflection is. If I know I might be influenced by price, can I reflectively suspend that concern? Kant seems to presuppose that I can. That is what it means to be disinterested. But this needn’t be a global attitude or a distinct kind of experience. Instead it is a specific mode of attention for a specific work in certain contexts.

I argued recently that beauty involves our motivational states—to find an object beautiful is to desire to have that object in my life and devote part of my life to it. (This post is temporarily unavailable)  The concept of disinterestedness seems to deny this dimension of beauty since it is precisely a desire for the object that is screened out. To be without interest is to refuse any thought of possessing the object in favor of contemplating it.

But it seems to me the crucial question to answer when evaluating a work of art, a piece of music or a wine is “how much do I enjoy it when I’m open to being moved by it?” Think about music criticism. It would be hard to answer this question without seeing to what degree we are moved by the music, inclined to make it part of our lives, to assess whether we want to experience this work again and again, to determine if it has staying power. The motivation to explore further is a constitutive part of the appreciative moment.

Appreciation of wine may sometimes require temporarily suspending judgments about cost, reputation, relationship with the producer, amusement, refreshment, social lubrication, etc. But our appreciation so gained must then be integrated with its promise and potential for further engagement and this is an integral part of the aesthetic experience. The beauty is in the eros, the mystery and its pull, not a bloodless analysis of the properties of the wine. The experience is always forward looking; whatever is gleaned from the experience must be integrated with one’s life if the work is to have meaning. It’s that pull that a work has that determines its value.

So disinterestedness is not the mark of beauty but a tactical maneuver to get focused on the right properties, a manipulation of the conditions for aesthetic experience, not the experience itself. Especially with regard to wine tasting, it may be that conditions have to be properly arranged to enable certain features to appear, but the appreciation itself need involve no special sort of experience disconnected from the rest of life.

Genuine aesthetic experiences are pervasive in everyday human life, from appreciating the glow of morning sun to enjoying conversations to sipping Chardonnay. If we think of aesthetic perception as focused, intense, attention on features of an object that views every feature as potentially relevant there is no situation or object that cannot be experienced aesthetically.

No doubt, aesthetic engagement offers us an alternative way of looking at everyday life, which is too often caught up in financial concerns, exploitation, instrumental thinking, time constraints and other limiting factors that prevent us fully appreciating an object. Engaging with art or other aesthetic objects is not an escape from that world, not a way of disengaging with life’s projects, but an alternative way of viewing those projects. Art and wine meld the world of imagination with practical, everyday experience and for that meshwork to occur we must be fully engaged in practical life.

Disinterest has only a limited role to play in certain situations; it is not an aspiration for all wine criticism.

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