Friday, December 14, 2012

On Marcus Aurelius and the everyday aesthetics of baking bread by Max Goldberg

"Take the baking of bread. The loaf splits open here and there, and those very cracks, in one way a failure of the baker's profession, somehow catch the eye and give particular stimulus to our appetite." - Marcus Aurelius, source: The Extraordinary in the Ordinary by Thomas Leddy, page 25.

Adolf Loos submits that the items of highest aesthetic value are those free of ornament, those which express pure form. Dennis Dutton points out that we see beauty in a thing done well. I agree with these concepts, yet I doubt that looking at a smooth crust would give me the same pangs of hunger which I get looking at the cracked crust of the bread described in Aurelius' quote.
What is going on here? It certainly seems that the imperfections, or failures, are adding a desirable aesthetic effect. Perhaps its a certain humility which causes us to appreciate "deficient" talents of a baker. Maybe it is, as Leddy describes, about viewing the whole, that the cracks in the surface give us an appreciation of the totality of reality; the crust, the doughy center, the tiny pockets of air and steam.
I think what is going on here is more significant: the aesthetic cross-connecting of the senses. If you read the sentence. "The waiter brought fresh baked bread to the table," you may think about the process of tearing off a piece and smothering it with butter. But modify the sentence to "The waiter brought fresh bread with a crackling crust to the table" and your aesthetic experience is heightened. Suddenly you are thinking of the smell of the bread, the sound it makes when you tear off a piece. You think of the consistency of the crust in your mouth juxtaposing the center.
I bring up this point because of a phenomenon which exists today: the valuing of "hand crafted" objects above those produced by machine. By all rights, a machine can produce a product of higher quality, consistency, and detail than a craftsman, as long as the machine is designed right. Yet many products, such as rugs, furniture, and automobiles, are valued at a significantly inflated price when made by hand.
One common example would be "artisan bread." For the purposes of this argument I'm going to ignore the fact that most artisan bread is actually produced in a factory of some kind, and just focus on the idea of the imperfections adding value. One may argue that a machine is unfeeling, and doesn't care about the quality of the product it churns out, and thus the artisan will make a better quality product. In some cases this may have a truth to it, as corporations tend to use the cheapest ingredients they can to make their factory-baked bread. But this is not the fault of the machine- this is merely the result of corporate greed.
Lets consider then two hypothetical loaves of bread. One Artisan bread and one pre-sliced loaf. The sliced bread was made by machine. The Artisan bread was made by hand. Though the ingredients may differ slightly, the quality of the ingredients are the same, as is the taste of the breads. The only differences are those which one would expect when comparing the work of a machine to the work of a person.
A child would prefer the sliced bread for a variety of reasons which are worth noting. Children like consistency in their food. They generally dislike bread with thick crusts. It is important that when they have a kind of food and request it again, the experience is the same. This is why children's menus often vary little between restaurants, and why children particularly enjoy fast food.
As tastes grow with age, however, most people would choose the artisan bread. Not because it is of higher quality, but because when you view, smell, feel, and eat the bread, you get a more complex aesthetic experience. If we are allowed the definition of aesthetics which encompasses all the senses, then the artisan bread provides sensations which are not available from the factory-baked bread.
It is necessary to point out that the word "imperfection" is a troublesome one. I would be in no position to argue with someone who insists that the artisan bread is perfect because it conforms to their idea of what a loaf of bread is. I am considering the form of bread to be more like the one derived from Plato's theory of the forms. In that sense, perfect bread would have no irregularities in its surface, it would not have any inconsistencies inside. Each slice would be of equal thickness, and each slice would have the same surface area. Every way in which the artisan bread deviates from this is an imperfection.
Imperfections, it would seem, create a more meaningful aesthetic experience, in the same way that listening to Don Giovanni is more meaningful that listening to a minor scale. The complexity is increased, but importantly, not in a way which overwhelms you (again this ties into the notion of children liking the sliced bread; the thick crust AND Don Giovanni would likely overwhelm them).
Still, I find it difficult to understand why people buy hand-knit throw rugs which have obvious imperfections when a machine is capable of creating one of higher quality.
The only explanation I can find is that we put a special value on uniqueness. A machine may make a more perfect rug, but then your rug will be identical to thousands more. A hand knit rug may have the same pattern as another, but any imperfections will belong to your rug alone.
When we eat a sandwich on artisan bread, perhaps we are aware that the bread is unique. This aesthetic quality may add to our emotional experience.

So the big question is this: Does imperfection improve the aesthetic experience. Unfortunately I retire onto the most cowardly phrase in philosophy: It depends. Imperfection itself is not alone an aesthetic enhancer, but in multiple respects, it can improve a situation which may be somewhat lacking in aesthetic effect.

For my last example, I'll call upon a recent experience at Davies symphony hall in San Francisco. Michael Tilson Thomas was playing piano with an orchestra behind him. During some fancy finger work, he hit a wrong note, and continued unphased for the rest of the performance. Now if I were to hear a recording of this, I would likely be frustrated with the mistake, especially on the third or fourth listening. It is an imperfection, one which is unacceptable to me if I were to purchase the track on iTunes. Being in the hall, however, it was a different experience. It added to the reality of the situation, and it made the wholeness of it apparent. This man, whose images are all over the lobby and outside of the hall, proved himself to be only human, and capable of making mistakes. Only myself and those people in the hall on that date will ever hear that particular mistake, and that makes it special. That makes the experience memorable.

The more I think, the broader and broader my definition of aesthetics becomes. I think at this point I would have to define it as "The study of how sensory stimuli provides emotional relationships between thought and reality." To those of you trying to make rational sense of all this, its fun to talk about it, but I don't envy your job.
Max Goldberg, student, San Jose State University