In my Three Quarks essay this month I take on the mistaken platitude that beauty is only skin deep.
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.
“Live in the moment” has been the advice of sensualists from Epicurus to Camus. Peak experiences, moments of extreme pleasure or catalyzing emotion, can nourish life especially when not burdened with a guilty past or an anxious future.
Wine lovers and culinarians (“foodies” in the vernacular) are sensualists or at least we strive to be when the cares of everyday life are not too pressing.
But this advice to live in the moment seldom comes with a set of instructions for how we should do it. It is not easy and for genuine sensualists it is a bad idea.
We are all familiar with the shallow sensualists chasing after any source of stimulation with no thought of the future or the past. (Frat boys occupy one end of a spectrum that extends to the Jay Gatsbys.) But in addition to being a road to ruin, shallow sensations won’t produce a peak experience.
Finding peak experiences requires commitment over the long term. You, first of all, must find out what you like. That requires introspection and a confrontation with one’s own demons, weaknesses, or curmudgeonly ogres who like to stamp out the green shoots of pleasure before they bloom.
Once you discover what you like, you then have to make it persistently part of your life if it is to be satisfying. That means figuring out why you like it, so you can recognize other things that might produce the same response. Our senses must be trained to notice quality lest we miss opportunities. Finally, the genuine sensualist must learn how to acquire or create what she likes to insure demand does not outstrip supply. A life devoted to peak sensations is hard work.
Most importantly, genuine sensuality involves the desire to explore. Real beauty is always accompanied by the sense that there are hidden depths in the admired object, something lurking just beyond the horizon of “now”, a promise that only the future can keep. This sense of wonder or rapt curiosity is itself a sensual experience that boosts the dopamine deluge and makes the experience extraordinary. Pleasure is a means to further exploration; the experience of beauty produces a desire for more beauty.
Thus, to “live in the moment” is to be projected into the future on the wings of one’s curiosity.
But this curiosity and sense of wonder knows no temporal boundaries. Everything has an origin. A flavor is not just a flavor but a flavor pregnant with meaning traceable back to people, places, communities, and traditions.
In our moment of peak experience, we are connected to a world around us, one that antedates our own existence in this moment. Acquiring a deep knowledge of origins, a place and time on which the present depends, engages the mind and unites mind and body in one experience.
Moments, by themselves, regardless of how vivid, are just too ephemeral to stitch together meaningful lives.
“Living in the moment” requires the work of remembering the past and creating the future.
Last week in an interview with The New York Times, chefs Thomas Keller, famous for his innovative food at the French Laundry and Per Se, and Andoni Luis Aduriz, a rising star of Spain’s cocina vangardia,created a firestorm of controversy. Both argued that their responsibility is to create inspiring food, not to save the planet by buying local ingredients or worrying about sustainability issues.
Said Keller: “With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?”
Keller goes on to say it is the responsibility of government to develop policies that promote environmental values.
And Aduriz: “to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”
What we have here is an instance of a classical debate that goes back to Plato’s argument for tossing the poets out of his ideal polis. Should art be judged solely on its aesthetic value or should moral considerations influence our judgment.
But focusing solely on the aesthetics and disclaiming any other responsibility altogether is a cop-out. He can’t singlehandedly change food policy but a philosophy of abdication (deferring instead to the “world’s governments”) fails to acknowledge that change needs leaders.
Crossfield and Wiseman are right that the influence of chefs of this stature goes well beyond the service they provide to their patrons, and they are thus responsible for spreading a message that devalues sustainability.
But there is a genuine conflict between their obligation to uphold the standards of their art vs. their obligation to meet standards of social ethics. For artists, the former is a serious concern, one that most of us don’t face. To claim that the attitudes of these chefs is a “cop-out” is to discount the idea that artists have obligations to their artistic practice—which I would imagine forms the very substance of their lives.
It is not at all obvious that their obligation to rigorously adhere to standards of social ethics should be a weightier consideration.
We have a long tradition of letting artists off the hook for their moral transgressions. Paul Gauguin abandoned his wife and child to pursue his art, and the great poet Ezra Pound was an avowed Nazi. The world would be a poorer place without their works, despite their despicable behavior.
But we surely cannot compare Keller and Aduriz to Gauguin and Pound. Neither Keller nor Aduriz are indifferent to sustainability issues. They both assert that they use local, sustainably-produced ingredients when they can. We aren’t talking about moral monsters here. The fact is most of us are less than maximally virtuous when it comes sustainable practices, and most of us are willing to cut ethical corners when it comes to satisfying desires.
There is a good deal of the-pot-calling-the-kettle-black in this debate.
If we want great art, we have to let artists be artists. And that means putting up with their obsessions, especially when transgressions are minor.
Keller and Aduriz can continue to advocate for sustainable practices while at the same time maximizing the aesthetic appeal of their food. To do so is not hypocrisy. It is a recognition that there really are moral conflicts that have no easy resolution.
For decades, food was an afterthought at rock concerts and festivals, where experiencing the rush of live music meant enduring an icky wasteland of cold pizza, warm beer and stale pretzels. But over the last five years or so, gatherings like Outside Lands and Lollapalooza have responded to a national surge in culinary consciousness by upgrading the grub to epicurean levels and welcoming top chefs into the tent.
Now the viands are about to upstage the bands. The headliners at the Great GoogaMooga, a convergence of food and music that will devour part of Prospect Park in Brooklyn on Saturday and Sunday, are star chefs like April Bloomfield, Tom Colicchio and Marcus Samuelsson, serving a feast of elevated street food.
This sudden interest in food at rock concerts is continuous with the extraordinary growth in the public’s interest in food-related entertainment like the Food Network and food-related activism such as the slow-food movement, locavorism, etc.
So is food to the early 2000’s as rock was to the 60’s? There are some striking parallels.
The cultural protests of the 1960’s were, in part, a response to the perception that American society had become excessively conformist and repressed; the authentic individual was in danger of being swallowed up by the emerging corporate culture described in William White’s The Organization Man. Rock music with its loud, in-your-face expressiveness, throbbing, incessant rhythm, sexually liberating messages, and romantic veneration of guitar players as heroes was the embodiment of that search for authentic individualism well before the Vietnam War became a galvanizing issue.
A search for authenticity and an anti-corporate mentality also drives some of the current interest in food. The focus on fresh, local ingredients, the interest in how ingredients are influenced by where they are grown, the search for authentic ethnic cuisine, artisanal cheese, etc. suggest a longing for authenticity. Those factors as well as a concern for animal welfare and sustainability are part of a protest against the depredations of industrial agriculture.
The romantic individualism nonsense is in part replicated by chefs as “rock stars” –rock star chefs are just as dependent on an army of workers slaving away in the galley as the “guitar gods” were dependent on band mates to hold the rhythm together. In fact, chefs may have a greater claim to genuine expertise. Chefs need considerable organizational skills, business acumen, and a knowledge of ingredients. “Guitar gods” just had to play fast and look pretty. (Yes. I know there were exceptions)
Of course the 60’s and the present are alike in that both anti-corporate protest movements were dependent on corporations for their existence. The more things change…..
But this explanation of the parallels between rock and food only goes so far. The vast majority of rock fans in the 60’s and “foodies” today are not much involved in a protest movement. We can’t ignore aesthetics in explaining cultural trends.
Part of the attraction of rock music was that it exposed a new way of listening to music. The introduction of electronic instruments and electronic processing meant that rock was defined by the production of new soundscapes. Rock music had textural layers and a focus on timbre every bit as complex and intriguing as classical music. This focus on texture and timbre was enhanced by the use of the human voice to express individual personality rather than a “pure” operatic tone. The difference between the Stones and the Beatles had little to do with song structure, melody, or harmonic structure—all of which could be analyzed in 2 minutes by any first semester music theory student. The difference was their sound, and every rock band, to the extent they were concerned with originality, was striving for a new way to sound.
I suspect the recent interest in food is in part driven by new ways of tasting. The increasingly globalized food trade and the movement of populations via immigration has made new flavors available to anyone who lives near an urban area. And food science and molecular gastronomy have made kitchen experimentation an exciting field driven by constant innovation.
Thus, our age is unique in the possibilities presented for expanding the pleasures of the palate—and human beings, when left to their own devices, seldom miss an opportunity to enhance their pleasure.
At bottom it is aesthetics driven by technology that explains both rock stars and chefs as rock stars.
Alder Yarrow at Vinography gets the affiliation of wine and art.
Wine ultimately embodies connection. The connection between the earth and the sky, or as Galileo so beautifully put it “wine is sunlight, held together by water.” The connection between man and earth, and the cycles of cultivation unbroken across millennia. And of course, the connection between people, brought together as they break bread and sip the fruits of their labors and their lands.
One thing that distinguishes works of art from ordinary objects is that works of art are about something. They refer to something beyond themselves and thus have meaning. The quote from Yarrow expresses the idea that wine is about the traditions (social, viticultural, and aesthetic) that link human beings, the earth, and cycles of cultivation. Winemakers, at least those who make distinctive wines that maintain their connection to place, exploit those connections and extract meaning from them. This is the main reason to think winemaking is an art form.
Of course to understand that meaning you have to be aware of those traditions and know how to “taste” them. Flavors and textures unique to a region or to a winemaker’s style are part of the symbol system of wine just as particular arrangements of line and color, deployed as a depiction, are part of the symbol system of a painting.
Using Leonardo Da Vinci as an example along with some ruminations about creativity, Yarrow points to a variety of other similarities between the world of wine and the world of art. It is well worth a read.
The Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer wonders why good wine lovers tell bad lies.
If You Like It, It Is Good. This is, without question, the biggest lie of them all. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard wine lovers—fellow writers, merchants, consumers—serve up this whopper.
Why do they do it? The answer is actually simple: They think it will make wine more accessible to more people. They think they’re doing everyone a favor by “democratizing” wine. Wine is too elitist, you see. It’s important—nay, essential—that wine be taken down a peg or two in order to make it accessible to all.
Kramer is right. This advice is indeed misleading. “If you like it, it is good” assumes that there is nothing beyond your merely liking something that accounts for its quality, nothing more to be discovered and nothing more to be enjoyed. Thus, if you endorse this claim you have no reason to recognize the limitations of what you like or search for something better. It is a shame to encourage such an attitude in novice wine drinkers.
Sommeliers, of course, know this is misleading—that is why they put in the work to gain expertise. But they pretend otherwise because customers want their palates validated and are perceived to be intimidated if wine becomes too serious. Granted, not every situation is a “teaching” situation and sommeliers/merchants must be sensitive to what the customer is looking for. But to dismiss the possibility of educating a palate is irresponsible.
Kramer’s remarks stirred up some controversy. Wine blogger Chris Kassel takes Kramer to task for his alleged elitism.
People like Matt want to be the arbiter of what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’, what’s ‘hot’ and ’not hot’, because that’s precisely how they justify their paychecks.
Kassel proceeds to give us a dissertation on the ambiguities of “good” arguing that “good” is best understood as “good for some purpose” or “good at some price”. People who are satisfied with inferior wine are judging with a different set of criteria than an expert like Kramer would use, criteria that are more meaningful to them, according to Kassel.
That is no doubt true. But it doesn’t follow that there is nothing to be gained by expanding one’s horizons. Kassel is skeptical that there is any absolute sense of “good” that can be applied to wine (mistakenly using the Sorites paradox to make his point.) But that question is needlessly “metaphysical”. What is important is that we maintain a distinction between appreciation and evaluation. We can appreciate a wine for all sorts of reasons that are only modestly related to its quality—when relaxing after work for instance. Enjoying what is in front of you regardless of merit maybe all that matters in that context. But when we evaluate wine we are asking a different question—does the wine meet a less subjective standard, consideration of which can teach us something about the character of a wine when compared to others of its type. Discovery, learning, and insight ultimately depend on evaluation.
Kramer is engaged in this task of evaluation and is right to insist that “if you like it, it is good” will not do.
Wine journalist Jamie Goode asks What is fine wine? and Who gets to decide? His answer is:
Fine wines are thought-provoking; they have something to say. They enthral; they inspire. These qualities don’t exist in the wine. They are the result of the interaction between the wine and a taster, and the qualities are a property of the taster in response to the wine.
And who gets to decide? Wine experts would seem to be the only authority. But expert opinion on wine is all over the map.Thus, Goode argue,s a subset of wine experts have the requisite qualifications
I’ve noticed that in recent years a new generation of wine people have emerged who seem to get wine – a group that encompasses winemakers, retailers, critics and agents. They have a more-or-less shared taste, in that they prefer elegance over power, dislike over-ripeness, delight in wines that express a sense of place, aren’t afraid to explore new flavours and lesser known regions, and at the same time respect the classic European fine wines.
These are the people who should get to decide what is fine and what isn’t.
Afficionados of powerful wines and ripe fruit—roughly, the Robert Parker set—might strenuously disagree. Is there a reason to consider elegance over power the mark of fine wine?
We might take a page from art history to help sort out this issue. The distinction between fine art and craft is usually drawn as follows. A piece of craftwork has a job to do, a function that the craftsperson well understands. The craftsperson thus skillfully creates a work that does its job exceedingly well, without flaws, and achieves technical excellence in how it performs. Style matters but is subordinate to function.
A work of fine art commands our attention, not because of the function it performs or because the technique was excellent, but because it is a personal expression of the artist’s viewpoint and because it stimulates the imagination and intellect. Great works of art have a sense of mystery about them; there is something to be understood that requires focused attention on the part of the viewer or listener.
Wines that exhibit power require great technique in the vineyard and in the winery ( and good luck with the weather) in order to extract maximum flavor and texture. Modern technology has made this more readily achievable. And the virtues of such wines strike you right in the palate—without ambiguity. They are well-crafted. But all that power can obliterate any sense of mystery or sense of place. And because elegance is in part a matter subtlety and nuance, elegance may be hard to detect in highly extracted wines. It is this sense of mystery, place, and the tracking of elegance that stimulates the intellect and the imagination.
So I think Goode is right that in fine wine we should prefer elegance to power. But it is important to note that power does not preclude elegance. Perhaps the mark of the finest winemakers is their ability to achieve both power and elegance.
After all, few would want to say that Beethoven, Picasso, or Pink Floyd were limp or flabby.
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.