My Three Quarks essay this month is only indirectly about food and wine. It’s about the meaning of life. But would life have meaning without food or wine?
Presumably Sisyphus could not eat that stone.
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.
Despite being preoccupied with analyzing sensory experience, philosophers have ignored taste, smell, and touch, focusing instead on vision (and to a degree sound) as the most important sense.
Hans Jonas’s “The Nobility of Sight” is a representative example. Only vision, he argued, points us in the direction of the eternal, universal truths, which have been philosophy’s concern throughout most of its history. Vision puts us in mind of the eternal because time is not essential to its functioning. When we view a landscape we see the visual field displayed all at once, in no time; and an object can be visually identified immediately without a sequence of appearances over time, in contrast to sound, touch, or taste that need time to reveal the character of their objects. And visual objects have stability. We can view an object, look away, and then return to the very same object as if nothing has changed unlike the fleeting, ever-changing objects of taste, smell, and sound.
Furthermore, Jonas argues, with vision we can see things better if we maintain a distance from them. Touch, smell, and taste require that we be intimate with the object thus increasing the chances of personal bias might influence our understanding of it.
Despite their illustrious pedigree, these are very bad arguments. We learn nothing of the eternal through vision, or any other sensory mechanism, and vision without the opportunity for subsequent confirmation, in time, would be the source of constant error. Furthermore, our sense of the stability of objects is as dependent on the sense of touch as on vision. The stability of our visual field is dependant on the body’s orientation is space, which is maintained, in part, by our tactile contact with solid objects.
As to the alleged objectifying distance of vision, science shows that vision involves intimate contact with physical objects–swarms of photons. And we seem just as capable of misinterpreting those photons as we are the signals from taste buds. Recent psychological research is demonstrating the unreliability of eye-witness testimony. If anything introduces subjective bias into perceptual judgments it is the fact that objects are often seen at a distance or under conditions otherwise unsuitable for reliable identification. Apparently seeing is misbelieving.
At best, vision’s distance and the illusion of simultaneity allow us to spin metaphors about the eternal and universal. But misleading metaphors are bad metaphors.
There is an important contrast between vision and the other senses however. Through vision we do gain a sense of an horizon, an area beyond our present space. This is surely important for the development of our imagination.
By contrast, sound, touch, taste, and smell root us in the here and now. Objects must be spatially and temporally present for them to effect these sensory modalities. But why should experience rooted in the here and now be uninteresting to philosophy?
If taste is philosophically uninteresting, perhaps it is because philosophers lack taste.
Food and wine are among the consummate pleasures of everyday life. But philosophy throughout its history has largely ignored these pervasive satisfactions. Preoccupied with the life of the mind, the activities of the body were presumed to be quite separate from and inferior to thought. After all, we are biologically predisposed to enjoy salt, sugar, and fat and it takes only a little effort and no cognitive skill to reap their rewards. Since, food and drink are tied to our primitive, animal instinct to survive and socialize, philosophy’s conceit has been to remain chastely untouched by passions that stir likewise in pigs at a trough.
Furthermore, our tastes seem so irredeemably idiosyncratic, subjective, and immune to standards that philosophers have typically decided food and wine could not be systematically studied.
I think all of this is quite misguided. The study of food and wine is cognitively interesting and enhances our enjoyment. Although subjective up to a point, the appreciation of food and wine is no more subjective than the appreciation of painting or music, all of which are profitably understood as subject to standards of evaluation.
Edible Arts—the blog and the newsletter-is devoted to unpacking these dimensions of food and wine that please the palette, the intellect, and the heart.
And we should not be so disparaging to pigs. There is no part of a pig I dislike—although I must confess never to have tried a pressed sow’s ear. There may be a line to draw here some place.