Well not quite. But I’ve made some progress on it. I’ve collected all my recent mutterings about good taste in my monthly column at Three Quarks Daily.
One of the most widely held intuitions about the differences between the fine arts and crafts is that genuine works of fine art cannot be used for anything other than aesthetic appreciation. When we attend to a painting as the source of a genuine aesthetic experience, the painting’s value as a commodity, the appropriateness of its color scheme as a wall hanging for one’s apartment, or its value as a doorstop are irrelevant. Art objects should not be useful for anything aside from aesthetic appreciation. They have what philosophers call “intrinsic value”. They are not valued for anything other than their aesthetic qualities.
This is in contrast to craftwork which, regardless of its aesthetic properties, is designed to serve some purpose. Furniture, quilts, pottery, and clothing are intended to serve a variety of functions; thus, they are not works of art even if they are attractive and pleasing. Since the primary function of food is to give us energy and nutrition, the preparation of food seems clearly to fall under the category of a craft. It has instrumental value.
The motivation for this distinction between fine arts and crafts comes from Kant who worried that if we took an interest in an object’s function we would not be objective about evaluating its aesthetic quality. If we desire an object because it is useful or valuable our judgment will not be “disinterested”. (See here for more discussion of Kant’s view)
But this reasoning that disqualifies useful objects from being art rests on a mistake.
The fact that something has instrumental value does not logically preclude it from having intrinsic value as well. A piece of pottery may be useful for holding liquid, but its usefulness as a container need not enter into my judgment regarding its aesthetic value. In fact, the argument seems to be applied selectively. Architecture has long been considered a fine art despite its obvious connection to the function of buildings. Until roughly the 18th Century, people did not sit raptly before a group of musicians contemplating sounds as aesthetic objects only. Music has always played a functional role within ceremonies or as a stimulus for dancing or socializing. Today, arguably, music is primarily used as a mood regulator or as background to provide atmosphere. Yet, the fact that music and architecture are useful for some purpose does not prevent them from being enjoyed as aesthetic objects under the appropriate conditions.
Why should food be different? No doubt we sometimes eat because we’re hungry; and hunger may unduly influence our judgments about flavor. But once we are no longer ravenous there is no reason to think judgments about flavors will be distorted or lack objectivity. We can then focus on aesthetic properties just as we can enjoy the beauty of a building without worrying about whether it will withstand earthquakes. We do not practice the culture of the table merely in order to relieve our hunger. Kant got this wrong.
So food and wine experiences can have intrinsic value—they are valuable in themselves, not because of some additional purpose they serve. But the issue is what kind of intrinsic value they have. Is a good meal valuable in the way a warming sun or a massage are valuable—as momentary sources of sensory pleasure. Or is the satisfaction we get from food and wine of a more profound sort more closely associated with art?
I argued in a recent post that food and wine produce pleasure by stimulating the imagination in the just the way works of art do. But I think the intrinsic value of art and food go beyond the merely contemplative domain in which classical aesthetics usually operates. Art (and I include the edible arts in this category) involves a particular, intrinsically valuable way of engaging with reality—an invitation to shape reality that ties us to physical objects.
But I need to think more about this. I’ll have more to say about this in future posts.
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.
Among philosophers who think about aesthetics, the position of food and wine is tenuous at best. Food and wine receive little discussion compared to painting or music, and when they are discussed, most philosophers are skeptical that food and wine belong in the category of fine arts.
Food and wine have not always been marginalized in discussions of aesthetics. In the 18h Century, taste provided a model for how to understand aesthetic judgments in general—until Kant came along to destroy the party. Kant argued that food and wine could not be genuine aesthetic objects and his considerable influence has carried the day.
What were his arguments? Kant thought that both “mouth taste” and genuine aesthetic appreciation are based on an individual’s subjective experience of pleasure. But with “mouth taste” there is no reflection involved and no imaginative involvement, just an immediate response. The pleasure comes first and then we judge based on the amount of pleasure experienced whether we find the flavors “agreeable” or “disagreeable”. Thus, our judgments about food and wine are based entirely on our subjective, idiosyncratic, sensuous preferences. By contrast, when we experience paintings or music aesthetically, contemplation ensues whereby our rational and imaginative capacities engage in “free play”. Our pleasure is not an immediate response to the object but comes after the contemplation and is thus based on it. We respond not just to whether the object is pleasing but to how the object engages our cognitive capacities of understanding and imagination. This yields a judgment that is not merely a subjective preference but involves a more universal form of appreciation.
As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts (here, here, and here) we have the capacity to contemplate food and wine beyond an immediate hedonic response–Kant was wrong about that. Food and wine can be thoughtfully savored and various components of the tasting experience can be analyzed. But that fact by itself doesn’t really refute Kant’s view. What mattered for Kant was not just the fact of contemplation, but rather how the contemplation unfolds and what its result is. So we have to look more closely at what Kant had in mind.
So what does the contemplation of painting or music supply that cannot be accomplished by savoring food? According to Kant, such genuine aesthetic contemplation results in (1) disinterested satisfaction, and (2) must involve the “free play” of the imagination and the understanding.
What is “disinterested satisfaction”? Like the pleasure we get from “mouth taste”, disinterested satisfaction also refers to a feeling of pleasure or displeasure upon which we base a judgment. But such pleasure is not based on any interest we have in the object—whether that be an interest in having our senses gratified or in some practical interest like an interest in profiting from the object. In other words, in genuine aesthetic experience the feeling of pleasure and the judgment of beauty do not rest on a desire.Thus, the experience does not depend on a private condition or idiosyncratic preference, according to Kant.
Once we are free of the distracting influence of desire, we can contemplate the way the object causes the free play of the imagination and understanding which gives rise to a disinterested form of pleasure or satisfaction.
Because our judgment is disinterested, and because we all share the faculties of the imagination and understanding, we are, therefore, justified in expecting others to find the object pleasing as well. We think that others should agree, although we may realize that such agreement is unlikely. Thus, our judgment of beauty, because it does not rest on something thoroughly private and peculiar to an individual, is capable of being communicated to others, although Kant insists there is no rule or way of proving via argument that the object is beautiful.
Since is it not our desires speaking through our genuine aesthetic judgments but rather our shared cognitive faculties, aesthetic judgments aspire to be universal. The problem for mouth taste is that it is inherently linked to desire and personal preference, and is thus never disinterested, unlike the satisfaction we get from music or painting.
So what is wrong with this picture? Many critics have pointed to difficulties in understanding how taking pleasure in the way an object engages one’s imagination could be disinterested. If something causes pleasure don’t I have an interest in experiencing it again? Why doesn’t taking pleasure in the beautiful produce desire?
But there is a deeper problem that I think is fatal to Kant’s view.
The most plausible contemporary account of desire is provided by Timothy Schroeder who develops a view of desire and pleasure that incorporates what contemporary neuroscience has to say on the subject. In the course of analyzing the nature of desire he defines pleasure as follows: “To be pleased is (at least) to represent a net increase in desire satisfaction relative to expectation.” (See Three Faces of Desire, Chap. 3)
In other words, there is no such thing as a pleasure that is not dependent on a desire. Pleasure just is a representation of a change in desire satisfaction. Thus, according the best evidence we have, there is no such thing as a disinterested pleasure. Kantian aesthetics rests on a fiction.
If there is no distinction between pleasures based on desires and pleasures not based on desires then at least part of the basis for Kant’s distinction between pleasures we get from food and wine vs. pleasures we receive from intellectual contemplation evaporates.
Of course, it may be the case that the second dimension of Kant’s theory—contemplation based on the “free play of understanding and imagination” might give us some reason to maintain Kant’s view of the inferiority of mouth taste as an object of genuine aesthetic appreciation.
But this is enough Kant for now. I will take up the free play of understanding and imagination in a future post.
Do you have to think about food to appreciate it? Most people would say no. Indeed, it would be obtuse if in response to a question about whether your dinner was good or not you responded with ”let me think about that for a while”.
Our critical judgments about food tend to be immediate judgments based on a hedonic response—we experience pleasure and judge the food good or experience displeasure and judge the food bad. Little analysis or reflection is required. On occasion we might give a brief account of why the food is good or bad but that analysis itself requires very little extended thought. One is still just reporting on a perception—the flavors are bright, the meat was bland, the bread soggy, etc.
And food criticism tends to reflect this assumption that judgments about food are nothing more than reports about one’s sensations. Most reviews of restaurants give food descriptions and a verdict with very little extended analysis.
This is different from our experience of art or music, at least when we are intent on being critical. Judgments about art require extended contemplation, and significant engagement of our cognitive capacities, especially the imagination. Think of the mental labor involved in interpreting a work of literature, making sense of a painting, or understanding the nuances of a symphony. Entire books are written on the interpretation of art and music. Not so with regard to food.
Similar considerations likely led the 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant to argue that “mouth tastes” could only be judged agreeable or disagreeable. You either like something or you don’t and there is no further thought that is relevant to the food’s aesthetic value and no argument to convince you otherwise. Tastes and smells do not engage our cognitive faculties, and thus works based on them cannot be works of art.
Most writers on aesthetics have agreed with Kant, although there have some exceptions.
The great 19th Century gastronome Brillat-Savarin responded to Kant by pointing out that the tasting experience has a variety of dimensions that contemplation can clarify. In his Physiology of Taste he divides the tasting experience into stages: the first impression, the sensations that arise with chewing and swallowing, and finally the sensations that arise from considering the whole experience. He demonstrates that tastes evolve in the mouth and exhibit multi-dimensional flavors that must be contemplated and thought about to be fully grasped.
Distinguishing qualities, comparing them with previous experiences and passing judgment on the unity of the experience as a whole would appear to be an intellectual judgment, not simply a report of how much pleasure one is experiencing. Furthermore, correct judgments about food often require knowledge and familiarity with how dishes are supposed to taste and what the proper methods of preparation are. This involves the application of standards, again, not simply registering flavors and reporting likes and dislikes.
So it would seem that Brillat-Savarin has the better of this argument.
Yet despite the rather obvious complexity of taste there is still no extensive, thoughtful, critical discourse around food. Even the practice of wine tasting, which on the surface seems to support Brillat-Savarin’s contention, falls short of a fully critical practice. Much wine evaluation in both competitions and major wine publications involves quick impressions of dozens of wines tasted over a short period of time—and the assignment of a numerical score that measures little more than a judgment about quantity of pleasure.
So if Kant is wrong about the potential for cognitive engagement with food, what explains the poverty of critical, genuinely aesthetic discourse about food? Perhaps there is some additional feature that food and wine lack that both Kant and Brillat-Savarin failed to identify.