Adonis, the poet and outspoken Paris-based Syrian exile, thinks art has that potential. In an interview at the New York Review of Books blog he explains:
The East and the West are economic and military concepts, and were created by colonialism. We can say geographically that there are East and West. Economics and colonialism took advantage of that.
But in art there is no East and West. You see it in the paintings of Paul Klee and how he was inspired by Tunisia and Eastern Arabia. You see it in the paintings of Delacroix and how he was inspired by Morocco. When you read Rimbaud, you see that the best thing about Rimbaud is that he is not a Westerner; although he was born in the West, he was completely against the West. When you read Abu Nawas, or Abu Al-Ma’arri, you do not say that they are Easterners or Westerners. The creative ones are from one world, regardless of what country they come from or where they went. They live together beyond geography, beyond languages and nationalism, and they belong to the creative world of humanity. In this sense there is neither East nor West. Whitman is just like Abu Tammam for me. He is a part of me, and I am a part of him.
It would be nice to think so.
The dangers of romanticism and worries about cultural appropriation notwithstanding, creativity always seeks to erase boundaries, especially the artificial ones the make sense only if violence and theft is your thing.
A world without art would be a world in which no one would be curious about shadows or impatient with limits—a world in which authority would be all to comfortable.
I think Adonis is essentially right.
Art is a confederacy of lepers and pariahs, affecting little except for its crucial role as testimony to the possibility of non-violence.
My Three Quarks post this month seems to stray far from the food and wine beat. But it was motivated by thinking about wine lovers and more generally why we love what we love. Hopefully there is insight there in explaining this irrational fascination with fermented grape juice.
Love in its quest for beauty thus directs the mind toward knowledge.
But not knowledge of generality, not of types or stereotypes, but of particulars, of individuality,
Of features so specific they belong to only one person, one work, one blade of grass.
Love seeks radical difference, how something differs from everything else.
Gesturing at the infinite, an unfulfilled hope.
Bottom 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.
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.
As far as I know, the blogosphere has never had a blog devoted to philosophical aesthetics. Other areas of philosophy are well-represented but not aesthetics, despite the fact that aesthetics is a promising topic for engagement between philosophers and the general public.
But that gap has been closed this week with the launch of Aesthetics for Birds, a blog that will consist of posts and interviews featuring artists as well as philosophers. The title is inspired by the quip from the artist Barnett Newman—“Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” Newman was skeptical that the study of art would be interesting or useful to artists. I had no idea that artists were as unreflective as birds. Perhaps Newman’s quip was a revealing bit of autobiography.
At any rate, the site administered by Professor Christy Mag Uidhir, will be a test case of whether dialogue between artists and philosophers will be useful. I am grateful that there will now be more blog discussions of aesthetics.
The first post by Jesse Prinz (CUNY) is up. He argues that it is characteristic of art that it produces a distinctive kind of experience in the viewer or listener (I would add taster as well) and considers wonder as a central element of that experience.
I’ll have some remarks about “wonder” and the edible arts shortly.
Joe Roberts (AKA 1WineDude) has an insightful discussion of the issue of objectivity of wine ratings. And to make his point he drags the word “qualia” into the picture.
But it’s the subjective stuff that really throws the money wrench into the works here. How we perceive those – and measure our enjoyment of them – will likely not be fully explainable in our lifetimes by science. That is because they are what is known as qualia: like happiness, depression, pain, and pleasure, those sensations can be described but cannot effectively be measured across individuals in any meaningful way scientifically.
He goes on to argue that there is no way to compare my qualia with yours, since these are thoroughly private, subjective states with no precise scale to measure them. Thus, there is no way to be sure that when a wine critic claims a wine is jammy or lacks acidity, her experience is similar to what another critic means by those terms, and assigning numerical value to such experiences is of limited value.
As far as I know, this is the first time the word “qualia” (a technical term used by philosophers and cognitive scientists to refer to subjective states) has been mentioned on a popular wine blog.
Perhaps that is a sign of progress (if in fact the use of philosophical terminology counts as progress, a debatable proposition).
At any rate, I commented on the post pointing out that most people who work in the field of cognitive science think qualia are reducible to brain states which can be measured.
I imagine wine tastings of the future in which critics are perched on the dais helmeted by portable fMRI machines to make sure their qualia match.