My recent visit to Alinea, the temple of modernist cuisine in the U.S., prompted some thoughts about whether molecular gastronomy is maintaining it’s radical edge. I ponder the issue in my essay this month at Three Quarks Daily.
Anneli Rufus has decided this is the year of weird ingredients.
Based on what I’ve seen these last few weeks at the Fancy Food Show, Good Food Awards Mercantile and Food Fete in San Francisco, plus what this city’s trendy restaurants are serving, food-makers are battling it out to see who can use the most obscure, incongruous, virtuous, freaky and/or allegedly life-saving components. I’ve seen Oreo Cookie-flavored popcorn. Coffee-leaf tea. Sriracha-brined salmon. Calendula-flower kraut. Energy bars made from spent beer grain. Toasted, sugar-coated, chile-lime and chocolate-covered mealworms (“farmed and raised with a natural diet of bran and carrots,” reads the maker’s website). Not one but two brands of chips made from ground-up crickets. Ghost-pepper chocolate. Seawater beer.
Mmmm. Cricket chips. She then asks several pertinent questions:
Is hot-cocoa mix containing “wildcrafted shilajit” — aka mineral pitch, which I have also tried — a pinnacle? Or is it desperation, difference for the sake of difference in a jaded, I’ve-tried-everything-already world?
I vote for desperation.
Regarding the “grilled-bone gelée, Dungeness crabshell gelée or duck-liver toffee crowned with bubbly foam” served at top San Francisco restaurants, she asks:
Is the new übermensch he or she who can speak of such foods straight-faced afterwards without a trace of shock?
No. That is a bit of a come down for übermenschen I would think, who are after all charged with standing athwart history resisting the tide of nihilism. (Is Hillary Clinton an übermensch?)
And then we get to the real pressing question:
…are culinary arts at last on par with painting, theater and dance, attaining unprecedented subjectivity? If so, is mealworm candy the equivalent of butoh?
I think the answer is yes, finally. The U.S. took flavor for granted for so long. Now that we’ve discovered how fascinatingly rich the world of flavor is, we are like the proverbial kid in the candy store shoving anything into our mouths we can imagine.
But there is one difference between the art world and the food world. The art world has had several centuries to make decisions about what counts as a good painting or masterful work of literature. The art world may seem chaotic, and indeed artists wildly experiment with new forms that seem bizarre to the uninitiated. But art movements come and go, the bad stuff is eventually ignored, the old masterpieces continue to inspire us for good reason, the works that survive eventually yield standards of judgment that we use to bring some order to the process of canon formation.
The food world has yet to develop those standards. But I suspect we will in time. In any case, the rampant experimentation is better than the conventional orthodoxies that used to characterize fine dining in the U.S.
That is a world well lost.
Most philosophers who write on the arts take a dim view of food and wine as genuine fine arts. Aside from Carolyn Korsmeyer, who is open to the view and has done great work in the philosophy of food and, well, me, I can’ t think of anyone else who pushes this line of thought. The reason may lie deep in our intellectual history.
Plato, who gets Western philosophy off the ground wanted little to do with food.
…the gods made what is called the lower belly, to be a receptacle for the superfluous meat and drink and formed the convolution of the bowels, so that the food might be prevented from passing quickly through and compelling the body to require more food, thus producing insatiable gluttony and making the whole race an enemy to philosophy and culture, and rebellious against the divinest element within us.
There is no doubt about where he stands. Plato, of course, was also a dualist believing that the mind was not only distinct from the body but vastly superior to it. The body and the senses were a hindrance to the attainment of genuine knowledge and the quicker we were rid of that lumbering bag of bones the better.
Other traditions take a different view. The Chinese since ancient times have considered cookery to be an art. And their seminal philosopher Confucius thought of proper cooking and eating as part of one’s spiritual development:
“[The gentleman] … did not eat his fill of polished rice, nor did he eat his fill of finely minced meat…. He did not eat food that had gone off color or food that had a bad smell. He did not eat food that was not properly prepared…. He did not eat food that had not been properly cut up, nor did he eat unless the proper sauce was available” (form The Analects, bk. 10,no. 8, p. 103).
Good eating nourishes both the body and the mind. But of course Confucius was no dualist. The tradition of Confucianism views the universe as an integrated unit, with its parts unified and interconnected, including the mind and body. It is probably no accident that he viewed cooking and eating more favorably.
Contemporary philosophers have abandoned dualism of the Platonic sort, but have not discarded Plato’s negative attitude toward food.
Could it be they are still closet dualists?
I don’t agree with the underlying assumption of Alain de Botton’s recent work that art’s value lies in what it is for, the purposes it serves. As an expression of human capacities, art is valuable in itself regardless of whether it can be used for some purpose.
But that doesn’t mean that art doesn’t sometimes serve a purpose. So I quite like this animated video by de Botton which lays out 5 purposes that art serves.
The first one is especially noteworthy because it is often ignored. Art encourages hope.
As Botton points out “it is an obvious but striking fact that the most popular works of art in the world show pretty things—happy people, flowers in spring, blue skies.”.He goes on to argue that without the “pretty things” depicted in art we are in danger of slipping into despair. Prettiness is an “emblem of hope” he asserts.
My fellow academics along with many people in the art world simply laugh at such sentiments. They would argue that prettiness has nothing to do with genuine art that must, if it is honest, represent all that is painful and troubling in human life as well and have meaning that runs deeper than its surface appearance. And of course much art is not pretty. But still Botton has a point that the art that the public seems to crave, that survives the centuries in the public imagination, is pretty. The popularity of impressionism is evidence for the thesis.
Thus, it would seem that for most people, who are not art experts, perhaps art is an emblem of hope.
This perspective is important in the question about whether food can be art. Food must be delicious in order to qualify, and I take it “delicious” is an analogue of “pretty”—its sensory surface is pleasurable.
Good food is also an “emblem of hope”.
Jan Davidszoon de Heem, Still Life with Fruit and Ham, 1648-49
Our capacity for generosity rests on inspiration, and beauty is among the things that inspire us most of all.
As life in our increasingly corporate world begins to resemble the bleak cityscapes of our worst science fiction fantasies, the search for meaning becomes our abiding preoccupation. The joining of art and life is one way to restore that meaning, and art and life come together rather nicely in the culture of the table.
In the not too distant past, Friday was the end of the work week, 5:00 was the end of the work day, loyalty mattered and bosses cared. Some things were just too valuable to trade off for greater efficiency. Today we work 24/7 just to stay ahead of the robots that don’t complain about being used as efficient producers of profit . The intrinsic value of things has fallen by the wayside.
A life devoted to beauty is one way of recapturing that sense of intrinsic value.
But that beauty cannot be limited to the gallery or the stage. If meaning and value are to be recaptured in our lives it must penetrate everyday life. And perhaps nothing is more ubiquitous in everyday life than food and drink.
The means of transcendence are as close as the cupboard or the refrigerator.
Jesse Prinz, at the new blog Aesthetics for Birds, argues that wonder is the primary emotion in our response to art, and the ability to provoke wonder, he claims, is an essential component in the definition of art.
I’m a bit skeptical that the ability to produce wonder is a necessary condition for a work to be art. Some of the ready-mades from the 20th Century would be counter examples.
I suppose the inclusion of an ordinary shovel in an art gallery produces wonder about the nature of art, which I take it, is the point of the work. But the visual appearance of the shovel itself is not a rich source of wonderment.
However, I think this notion of wonder helps solve the problem of emotional responses to art. I’ve always doubted that the feeling of a well-defined emotion on the part of viewer or listener was essential to art. Sad songs don’t make me feel sad (unless they are poorly performed). I can appreciate the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th without feeling exalted.
But all works of art, if they are successful, grab our attention because they promise something more. We sense an unrealized potential for further experience, we feel our interest aroused, curiosity piqued, as if we can’t quite get enough of the object—wonder is a good way of describing that feeling.
What about food and wine? Can they provoke wonder? New taste sensations, exotic cuisines, and the strange concoctions of molecular gastronomy produce wonder at least in culinarians who are open to exploring them as objects of fascination. Particular dishes and menus also provoke wonder about their origins and the traditions from which they emerge.
With respect to wine, perhaps the best characterization of its capacity to produce wonder comes from Terry Theise’ wonderful book Reading Between the Wines.
As this wine was poured, I watched a kind of spell settle over my friends. I hadn’t planned it, and I didn’t suppose the wine was any better than the wines around it. But the chatter died down, and people went from witty and sociable to pensive and meditative. What in a wine can bring about this rare and strangely truthful quality of evanescence? This strikes me as a vital question. When a wine is this searching, probing, it seems to offer something that is found no other way…
There’s a drawing among the many aching works of Käthe Kollwitz called Prisoners Listening to Music. In it we see the wretched trying to endure the divine. We suppose that beauty has been banished from their lives. And here it is, restored; their faces are afraid and hesitant and wondering, as they see perhaps for the first time the tiny cloisters that live inside each of them, and each of us. There are wines that convey these moments. There are wines that express without asserting, wines that show the little penumbra between joy and serenity, between brilliance and luminosity. (Reading, 88)
Prinz argues that perplexity is essential to wonder. Here is Theise describing wines of paradox:
I can scarcely recall a great wine that didn’t in some sense amaze me, that didn’t make my palate feel as if it were whipsawed between things that hardly ever travel together. My shorthand term for that experience is paradox; again, this component is in the hands of the angels and doesn’t appear susceptible to human contrivance, but when it is found it conveys a lovely sense of wonder: How can these things coexist in a single wine? And not only coexist, but spur each other on; power with grace, depth with brilliance. . . . (Reading,34)
Some wines are as mysterious and engrossing as a painting or musical work and can even supply that dimension of perplexity that Prinz mentions. There is nothing quite like a wine that combines power, elegance, and finesse.Follow @DwightFurrow
The experience of transience and of the mortality of things can be profoundly moving and in itself a kind of aesthetic experience. Both Japanese art and environmental art depend on it.
It is also in part what gives performance art its character.
I recall many years ago attending a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra. (The orchestra’ members were often from the highly regarded Eastman School of Music and thus enormously talented.) One of the more meditative sections—with the audience silent, and the pianist really on his game—I found especially moving despite the fact that I had heard the passage many times before. It struck me that this experience—the perfect realization of the passage and my listening to it under optimal conditions—may never happen again. That recognition of the impermanence of the experience gave it greater depth and weight.
So it is with all performance art—the performance lasts a few moments and then it is gone. Of course, a similar performance may recur, but that singular moment of connection when that performance and that listener at that moment are in sympathetic union is both rare and vanishing. Such losses are routine in improvisational jazz—the piece may quite literally never be played again in that way. That recognition of the pathos of impermanence is part of the appreciation.
So I’m puzzled when people claim that food cannot be art because it must be consumed to be appreciated, and thus lacks the permanence of genuine works of art. To endorse permanence (or, better, something like semi-permanence or stability) as a necessary condition of art is to exclude that performance of Tchaikovsky from the realm of art, which of course is a reductio of the argument.
The reasons given for such a position are that works that disappear in their performance cannot be re-evaluated over time. Thus, we are unlikely to have an objective view of them since any evaluation will inevitably be caught up in the vicissitudes of circumstance. As a consequence, no such work can withstand the test of time and achieve the greatness of works appreciated over many generations.
Of course, it is not quite true that performances must disappear. With regard to music as well as food, the compositional structure of the work—which is part of what we appreciate in a performance—is preserved in the musical score or the recipe. And today, we can preserve musical performances by recording them, although such reproductions are missing the context that often informs the aesthetic appreciation of a performance. (No word yet on the technology to “record” taste experiences)
But why should any of this matter? The impact of the work is not reduced by its impermanence. Its impermanence is in part what is appreciated—it contributes to aesthetic value. No doubt it is more difficult to evaluate an evanescent work. But using that consideration to reject their status as works is like refusing to play baseball because the balls and strikes are hard to call. To make such a fetish of objectivity is to value more highly the measurement over the experience.
We don’t go to ballgames to watch the umpire; and we don’t think reading the reviews can replace the listening or dining experience.
It is the evanescent quality of a dish or meal that contributes to its nature, and its appreciation is part of the experience. As an argument against the aesthetic status of food, this will not fly.
One reason for denying that food and wine are proper objects of aesthetic attention comes from the German philosopher Kant who argued that food and wine provoke in us only an immediate hedonic response—I like it, or I don’t like it. We don’t contemplate, we just enjoy or not. By contrast, when appreciating genuine aesthetic objects, like works of art, we do more than that–we contemplate them, approach them from an impartial point of view, and they engage our imagination and understanding. The enjoyment comes not only from the sensuous engagement with the object but from the interplay of understanding and imagination.
So according to Kant, the pleasure we get from a work of art is fundamentally different from the pleasure we get from basking in the sun, enjoying a cold beer on a hot day, or setting down to a fine meal. These latter pleasures are based purely on desire satisfaction. But art is enjoyed because, in appreciating art, we are forced to engage in an interpretive project that disrupts our settled way of conceiving the world and requires that we experience reality differently. In artistic appreciation, we take pleasure in the play of our imagination and understanding.
I’ve argued in a previous blog post that Kant was mistaken in claiming we cannot contemplate food and wine and wrong that there is a disinterested point of view from which we properly experience works of art. But what is this “play of understanding and imagination” and does that apply to food and wine?
According to Kant, through experience the mind naturally builds up a collection of schemata—templates for various kinds of objects—that help us recognize a dog as a dog or table as a table. When we encounter an object, it is the imagination that selects and structures sensory data so that it matches these templates according to what is the best fit. New experiences of dogs and tables can thus be easily assimilated to our conceptual scheme.
But we are not born with all the templates we need for understanding reality—we have to create new ones when new objects are encountered that are vastly different from our templates. So the imagination also has the ability to sort through sensory experience and invent new templates. When doing so, it can’t simply apply the old templates since they don’t fit the new experience very well. But it can still make use of them if they are close enough to the new experience to be useful. This is what Kant means by the “free play” of the imagination and understanding. The imagination is searching for a concept to fit the new experience but to find a match it has to shape the sensory data to fit existing concepts as best it can, while also shaping existing concepts so they match the new sensory data.
In this exercise of the imagination, we may succeed or fail. There may not be a concept or schema adequate to the new experience. It may elude our understanding.
This is how we are able to make genuine aesthetic judgments.
In a genuine aesthetic judgment, rather than a mere sensuously enjoyable experience like basking in the sun, the imagination experiments with possible ways of restructuring the object. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable, especially when that restructuring makes sense to us, when the understanding and the imagination harmonize despite the fact that the imagination is not being thoroughly directed by the fixed templates that normally govern our concepts. We see that the work has an order and unity to it without clearly deciding on a single judgment of what it is or what it does. There is no concept adequate to the experience but that indeterminacy is itself pleasurable. This is when we judge an object beautiful. It is intriguing, mysterious, not fully understood, yet at the same time balanced, harmonious, and well put together.
Thus, an aesthetic judgment is not based on the object, as much as it is based on our reaction to our reflection on the object.
I doubt that this account of aesthetic pleasure accounts for all genuine aesthetic judgments—it seems too remote from the sensuous experiences we typically associate with the appreciation of art. But it captures perhaps some of our aesthetic judgments. The question is whether the appreciation of food and wine ever takes this form.
And I think it clearly does. This kind of indeterminate play between our concept of what something is and an intriguing, sensual experience that we cannot quite place in any traditional category is precisely what molecular gastronomy aims for. The moments of uncertainty, surprise, and deconstructive gestures of their dishes aim to provoke the kind of intellectual playfulness that Kant thought was the essence of aesthetic experience. When the flavors are genuinely delicious and we experience the harmony and unity of the flavor profile along with the intellectual pleasures of searching for indeterminate meaning, a judgment that the object is beautiful seems appropriate.
Caviar made from sodium alginate and calcium, burning sherbets, spaghetti made from vegetables produce precisely this kind of response. They challenge the intellect and force our imagination to restructure our conceptual framework just as Kant suggested.
Thus, Kant was right to point to this kind of experience as genuinely aesthetic but wrong in his judgment that food could not be the object of such an experience.
One wonders what the old professor, who never ventured more than 10 miles from his home in Königsberg, had on his plate for dinner.
In his wonderfully eccentric cookbook Eat Me, New York chef Kenny Shopsin writes:
I think the difference between art and craft is that in craft you care what the person consuming your product thinks. I’m a craftsman, and I believe that in many ways it is a more noble profession than being an artist.
I doubt that this is true as a generalization. I know plenty of artists who care about what their audience thinks. This is a matter of individual temperament. But there is something right about Shopsin’s distinction. Chefs, after all, are in the instant gratification business. We consume their work, quite literally, and in a relatively short period of time. The aesthetic qualities must grab us quickly or they will be missed. And so the chef must know and aim at what will immediately light up the diner’s palate.
Most artists and musicians create more enduring works that can be sampled over time, returned to, puzzled over, etc. Understanding may come in stages after lengthy reflection—they need not grip us instantaneously. Artists and musicians have a bit more liberty than chefs to create works that lack immediate appeal.
The distinction between craft and art has nothing to do with an aim to please. Rather, a craftsperson is making an artifact that serves a purpose. It will be used for something, decoration being among the most common of uses. That means that the nature of what she creates has already been conceptualized and formulated—the end result must serve its purpose well. Thus, the craftsperson must have a clear idea of what the finished product will be when beginning a project.
Art has a different starting place and a different aim. Works of art typically don’t begin with a fully worked out conception of what the finished product will be because they don’t serve a practical purpose. Artists are usually trying to clarify a vague intuition or vision. There aim is to explore an impression, perception or idea using a sensuous medium. The end may not be clearly in sight because the point just is the exploration.
“I like to surprise myself” is something you hear artists say often. And artists often talk about starting off in one direction and during the process finding themselves making something quite different with its own momentum.
The British philosopher RG Collingwood thought this is what distinguishes art from a craft. While the craftsperson, if she is skilled, knows what she wants to do; the artist “does not know the end in the beginning”.
I doubt the truth of Collingwood’s generalization as well; I doubt that there is one method of creating art. Some artists work with clear intentions; others not so much. But regardless of the creative process deployed, successful works must be open to reflection, exploration, and interpretation outside of known boundaries. Their horizon cannot be shut down by a relentless focus on serving a practical purpose.
So can chefs be artists? It is a challenge because they must simultaneously produce immediate gratification while maintaining that openness to reflection, exploration, and interpretation. The fleeting, transitory nature of food makes it an unlikely candidate for an art object. But this is a practical challenge, not a logical roadblock. The best chefs—Adria, Keller, Achatz, Redzep-manage to create food that is gratifying and an exploration as well.
But because cooking often requires great precision and thus planning, the creativity may not be in the execution but in the conceptualization.
Should we consider food among the conceptual arts?