Monday, September 23, 2013

Carolyn Korsmeyer's Argument Against Food as Fine Art

Previously in this blog I had discussed Elizabeth Telfer's argument that food, although aesthetically interesting, can only be a minor art form.  In her "The Meaning of Taste and the Taste of Meaning," Carolyn Korsmeyer replies to Telfer, but in the end agrees that food can only be a minor art.  Her reasons are a bit more complicated and are also nicely developed.  But in the end they are unconvincing.  It is arguable that most food preparation does not even rise to the level of aesthetic interest, although even here we often apply aesthetic terms, for example "tastes good," "disgusting," or "yummy."  A fairly large range of food preparation, although somewhat distinguished as compared to ordinary cooking, amounts to no more than a minor art.  The question is whether there exists logical and actual space for food as a major or "fine" art.  That is, could food be fine art in Kant's sense of a product of genius.  I will argue that it can be.  Korsmeyer complains that Telfer's approach is overly-focused on aesthetic experience and "any brief for foods that focuses on the enjoyment of the sensation of tasting alone is going to reach a limit very quickly."  Telfer had argued that food could not be fine art partly because it does not represent anything else.  Korsmeyer thinks that food often does represent something else, and gives many excellent examples (e.g. gummy bears, gingerbread men).  She also provides an excellent basis for arguing that food can be a fine art, but then backs off.  Following Nelson Goodman's taxonomy (from his Languages of Art), she observes that food can not only represent but also exemplify.  Moreover, food can have expressive properties, as in chicken soup being soothing.  It can even, on rare occasions, provide us with a "truth."  In an innovative move, Korsmeyer also observes that food can have an abundance of meaning in ceremonial contexts.  For example, a Thanksgiving meal can exemplify properties both in a literal and a metaphorical way:  "literal exemplified properties such as warmth, flavor, texture, and weight contribute to the metaphoric exemplified properties of comfort, well-being, and plenty."  Of course the meaning of the food depends on the traditions associated with it.  The individual dishes, by themselves, without these associations, would not be rich in meaning.  Here is the crux of the problem.  For Korsmeyer, although food can have the kind of rich meaning we find in fine art, it only has it in special ritual and ceremonial contexts.  Moreover, and this is the key point, this is not where we look usually for aesthetic qualities in food as food.  Instead, we look for that in a fine restaurant where the emphasis is placed not on ceremonial context but on sensuous delights.  So, although food can have both cognitive and sensuous dimensions equal to those of fine art, these are never combined, and therefore, her argument goes, food cannot be fine art or qualify art "in the full sense of the term."  Korsmeyer thinks instead that "art" is a poor concept for capturing the nature of food, for describing food as art distracts us from the ways in which it is different from art.

There are two major problems with Korsmeyer's argument.  (1)  The various fine arts diverge quite radically from each other.  So, to point out a divergence of food from music, for example, is not impressive in itself if there is an equal divergence of music from literature, and both of these from painting.  (2)  When Korsmeyer defines "fine art" she does so in a way that is reminiscent of ways fine art was viewed in the first half of the twentieth century but in a way that does not much relate to fine arts today, and since most theorists today see fine art as tremendously context-dependent (note that this is the case for Danto, who believes that Warhol's Brillo Box is art whereas the warehouse boxes that look just like it are not) then to say that context-dependency of food distinguishes it from art is to go against this now widely accepted view of fine art.  Korsmeyer says that "foods seem to be heavily dependent on either ceremonial context or personal or cultural narrative to attain their cognitive and aesthetic significance" and, from, this she argues that "one may suspect that it is not the food itself that has meaning."  Yet this does not follow any more than that taking Brillo Box out of its artworld context would make us suspect that it in itself has no meaning:  it has meaning because it is not just the physical thing we see.

Let's look at an example.  Korsmeyer argues that "without the tradition of Zen philosophy, displayed equally in the setting, the utensils, and the surroundings of the [tea] ceremony, the cup of tea is only a cup of tea."  Sure, but this is true for everything meaningful, and is certainly true for works of art.  Such things cannot be completely divorced from their contexts and remain themselves.  Her argument should, instead, show us that the Japanese tea ceremony is art, and that food, in this respect, is art.  Her main argument is that unlike art, the sort of reflection we get with food in ceremonial contexts "is not a mark of greatness of food as food"  for "many of the symbolic features of food may be fully present in food that is not particularly tasty" and, again, "for food to be 'great' as food, its sensuous exemplified properties" need to be especially impressive.  As I said above, much of Korsmeyer's argument is based on a certain understanding of fine art as something that is distinct from craft, as being autonomous and as being valuable for its sake alone, so that "the various cognitive and aesthetic qualities of works of art...inhere in the works themselves, free of surrounding context."  This is the way fine art was seen until, roughly, the 1970s.  With the rise of postmodernism and subsequent movements in the artworld, however, this view of art, by 2013, has come to seem distinctly old-fashioned.  So, the idea that food cannot be art is linked to the idea that to be so it would have to fit into a model of art that was basically abandoned by most of the intellectual world almost fifty years ago.  Korsmeyer insists that the aesthetic qualities of food "emerge from practice and art embedded in the festivals and ceremonies and occasions in which they take on their fullest meanings" which seems true, but also seems true not only for art prior to the 19th century but also for art in general when we realize that the ideology of autonomy of art was essentially a mask that made us less aware of the ceremonial contexts in which art gained its meaning even in the area of so-called "autonomous art."   There is, for example, a lot of ceremony and ritual surrounding the placement of art in art galleries.  Moreover, there is a lot of ceremony and ritual (at least in a metaphorical sense) surrounding the creation and presentation of food in the context of fine dining.

Still, even if we were to accept that some food, for example food as presented in the Japanese tea ceremony, is art, it is arguable that food is different from the other arts in that there is a disconnect in food between the presentation of exemplified properties and of its symbolic use.  Korsmeyer, that is, may be right that there is a "lack of symmetry between the features of foods that are comparable to central aesthetic features of art and the measure of the quality of the individual objects under assessment."  It remains, however, to wonder whether the Japanese tea ceremony does not in fact combine these two elements, the sensuous and the symbolic, quite nicely, thus qualifying as a perfect refutation of Korsmeyer's overall claim that food can only be a minor art.  Korsmeyer seeks to separate food that is deeply important from food that is sensuously delightful, and yet one wonders whether the ceremonies associated with a truly fine dinner might not also count to give food significance.

Still, although food can be a fine art, we should not downplay the fact that, for many of the reasons given both by Telfer and Korsmeyer, it is seldom so.  Nor should this particular debate occlude the importance of food as an aesthetic phenomenon in everyday life.  I and my wife are walking to school and I run across an elderly man who is working in his garden, a Mr. Ramirez who came from Mexico to the US originally in 1949.   He gives us guavas from his tree to eat, showing us how to take off the top and eat it whole, even with the seeds.  It is delicious, and has a novel sweet taste somewhat unlike the guavas I know.  Moreover, this eating is part of an overall experience of meeting someone new, learning some history, a shared experience of eating, and seeing the large cacti in his garden in a new light.  Food takes on a meaning here because of an overall context, and it is not required to see it, here, as a minor or a major or fine art.

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