There is a long standing debate in the philosophy of art about whether art must represent something. One side argues that for an object to be a work of art it must be about something. It must present a subject matter as a focus of thought, which is fused to the perceptual experience of the work. If a work of art isn’t about something, it is mere decoration.
The other side argues that many important, successful works of art do not present a subject matter at all. Many abstract paintings or orchestral music without lyrics aren’t about anything. They are simply occasions for concentrated, unique perceptual experiences.
This is surely right. It just isn’t obvious what a Jackson Pollock painting or a Chopin etude is about.
But the rejoinder is that the perceptual experience of purely instrumental music invites us to think about patterns of resistance, development, attention and closure that are present in human actions. Similarly, abstract paintings invite us to explore the world of the work through which we encounter resistances, energies, balance, and distractions—again, abstract patterns of the experience we have in everyday life.
Architecture is about how we occupy space when conducting daily affairs. Sculpture is about arrested movement, repose, balance, or peace. Painting is about a point of view or the look of things. Music is about change and motion.
This view is not mistaken. No doubt many works of art present a subject matter although I doubt that all works do and I think this view underplays the importance of sensuous experience—some profound experiences can be had if we ignore questions about what a work means.
What about wine? Does it represent anything.
Many people have argued that wine does not have a subject matter. It isn’t about anything and thus cannot be a work of art. I think this is false. A wine can represent the flavor profile of a vineyard or an AVA. It can also represent the flavor sensibilities of a community or a tradition. Surely a good Barolo represents the flavor sensibilities and winemaking traditions of the hillside villages in Piemonte. Thus, wine can bring us to understand the terroir or culture of a geographical location. A wine invites us to explore its origins just as a painting invites us to explore its subject matter.
But that isn’t all wine does. We can forget about understanding the subject matter of a wine and enjoy its flavors and textures, just as we can enjoy a piece of music without thinking about patterns of resistance and development.
Is our experience less rich if we just focus on the intensity of sensual experience? I don’t see why. Wine offers both sensuous experience and intellectual pleasure. Some wines are to be understood; others are to be enjoyed; the great ones offer both.
We sell wine and art short if we insist that only their representational function matters.