A Bad Argument for Why Food Cannot Be Art

line cookThere are some serious although mistaken arguments for why some food preparations cannot be works of art. Then there are some really bad arguments for the same conclusion. Here is a really bad one by John Mariani which I rediscovered while going through some notes.

Thus, imagination and creativity go into cooking, often at a very high level, at which point it is called haute cuisine. But there is nothing that rises to the level of true art in a craft whose very existence depends on the constant replication of a dish, night after night, week after week. The replication of a series of stencils, even if originally designed by Raphael, does not constitute art, and I’m sure Andy Warhol was mumbling all the way to the bank when his work went from reproducing Brillo boxes to having assistants mimic his own work.

The claim that individual dishes are reproductions and thus cannot be original works is simple nonsense. Mariani apparently has never heard of a recipe. He is right about paintings.  Copies of paintings are indeed mere reproductions, not original works. A print of the Mona Lisa is not a work of art because painting is what we call in aesthetics  an autographic art—only the painter can directly cause the work to exist, and there can be only one legitimate instance of it.  Passing off a copy as an original is forgery.

But many arts are not autographic but are instead allographic. An allographic work has a master recording, score or some other form of notation from which individual works are derived. Thus, for allographic works, copies of an original are genuine instances of the original. My copy of Hamlet is a work of art even though it is a duplication of the original. The bookstore is not routinely guilty of selling forgeries. A streaming version of a Springsteen tune or live performances of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony are genuine instances of works of art despite the fact they are reproductions.

Cooking is similarly allographic. Individual dishes are instances of a recipe just as a performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is an instance of its score. So the fact that line cooks churn out 25 copies of a dish in no way shows that cooking is not an art–unless Mariani is prepared to claim Beethoven and Shakespeare are mere craftsmen.

For more on the philosophy of food and wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily


  1. You are right copies can be art and artful. Look at film. It is the experience that is a result of art. The paint on a canvas, the light on a movie screen, are just physical manifestations. Without perception, there is no art.

    I thought you were headed somewhere else about food and art, and I disagree with your justification that a recipe makes a dish for consumption art. The issue is that
    food is a necessity, that context drives perception, that hunger drives perception.
    Food is such a necessity, it can be artfully prepared, it can be beautiful to look at, but other messages pale in comparison.

    The cultural components of food are huge, and the history of food is fundamental
    to the study of humankind. But the act of eating, while political by implication (even in its denial of politics) does not usually rise to higher consciousness, self-knowledge, or specific social good.

    We need food so that art and understanding can be possible. In that respect food is a conduit for art, like your reference to a recipe, but not the art itself.

    You often discuss the esthetics of taste. Just because we can and should engage in serious discussion of food and wine for so many reasons, and just because we should be just as disciplined in those discussions to make them as meaningful as anything we do, does not mean that food is art. It gives tyrants the ability to do evil, just as it allows the rest of us to do good.

    Food is fascinating mystery, which is why so many call it artful.

    1. Hi Jim,
      Thanks for the comment. I apologize for taking so long to respond. I do not claim that all food is art. Only food that is intended to produce an aesthetic experience and displays the requisite level of creativity would count as art. You’re right that food is a necessity and our consumption of it is usually driven by hunger. But food designed only to satisfy hunger or eaten out of necessity would not qualify as art. When I visit a 3 star Michelin restaurant, I’m not hungry after the amuse bouche and I’m not there out of necessity. This is the context in which it makes sense to call food art.
      A also don’t think for something to be art it must produce “higher consciousness, self-knowledge, or a specific social good”. While art as a whole may be a social good, I doubt that individual works are. It isn’t obvious how a Mozart concerto produces self-knowledge. And if by “higher consciousness” you mean a robust aesthetic experience, I don’t see why some foods or wine would not qualify.

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