Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When is Food Art? And Can it Ever be Fine Art?

Philosophical defenders of the aesthetics of food tend to stop short of saying that food can be fine art, although the position that food can be a minor art form is popular.  Elizabeth Telfer ("Food as Art" in Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley, Routledge, 2008, 11-29) sees food as art sometimes, at least art in the classifying sense of the term "art."  After all, the creator of a recipe is like a composer in music, and the cook is like a performer.  Moreover, if one believes, as D. W. Prall did, that something that offers an object for sustained aesthetic appreciation is art, and since smells and tastes can do this, then plausibly food could be art.  Some might hold that although food  might sometimes be classified as art it should not be called art in the evaluative sense of that term, but Telfer disagrees.  One cannot exclude food from the domain of art (in this sense) because it is useful:  architecture is useful and yet it is commonly considered an art form.  Telfer notes that someone could argue that it is hard not to think of the usefulness of food when eating (i.e. it makes you less hungry).  Although food is necessary for nourishment, this does not take away from the aesthetic properties it might have in terms of its smell, taste and (Telfer forgets to mention) look.  That we actually touch food but do not touch the medium of the other arts might seem a reason not to allow food as art.  However this ignores the importance of touch for performers in dance and in music.  The aesthetic experience of performers is seldom as distanced as it is for audience members, and one should not forget about this when considering the nature of aesthetics in general.  Moreover, as Telfer observes, it is not clear why directness of physical touch in the case of food should matter.  The idea that contact with the body somehow "taints" aesthetic experience and that we should try to escape the body into a freer realm of mind is hard to credit given that eyes and ears are equally body parts interacting equally with a world of physical things.

The main argument against food as art is that it does not provide sufficiently complex combinations of elements, and hence the observer does not have to make fine distinctions (i.e. that would require good taste).  Sometimes it is also argued that it is hard to remember tastes.  At best, these arguments refer only to the cruder forms of food experience.  A wine taster with considerable experience will have no trouble making fine distinctions or noting the beginning point of his experience in relation to the end point, thus exercising memory (as also he would do in his memory of earlier wine tastings.)  

So far, so good.  But then Telfer argues that food can only be a minor art, and here it is harder to follow her.  Telfer thinks that food is limited in three important ways:  it is transient, it cannot have meaning, and it cannot move us.  Sure, food is transient, but is it more so than music or dance was before we had recording instruments?  In the case of music a certain permanence was achieved early on by passing pieces on from teacher to pupil, and later by the production of scores, but so too in cooking where there is a process of training involving a master chef.  Similarly, the recipe created by a great chef plays a similar role to a musical score.  Telfer thinks that little time is allowed for contemplation.  But if it takes an hour to eat a fine meal and an hour to listen to a fine concerto, where is the difference with respect to this?  The only difference seems to come with the advent of recording technology:  but surely that does not distinguish between art and non-art.  After all, such technology was not available in the early 19th century when the art non-art distinction was very much in use.  Telfer says that to be a great work of art something needs to be able to speak to different generations.  But how does this differentiate dance from food?  That a recipe may "not be able to speak to different generations" also does not distinguish food in any important way from music or dance, where a musical or choreographic score may cease to speak to us or at least to those of us who are not steeped in the appropriate historical background.  Just as we prefer less sugar in our pies these days so too our taste even in classical music has changed over time.  Telfer is left with the argument that we "cannot reliably record the performance of a cook."  Yet I have watched several impressive performances by great chefs like Julia Child on TV.  The only disappointing thing is that I cannt eat the very meal  she has just made on her show: so it is a very partial culinary experience, one that is easily supplemented by using the recipes she provides to make the same dish!  Here's another point.  There are always differences between art forms:  our recording ability is different for music and dance, and it is not even (usually) relevant when it comes to literature and painting. 

Telfer wants to categorize food as a minor art in line with fireworks and flower arranging.  This way of thinking makes me nervous too.  Are these necessarily minor art forms or only accidentally so?  I would think that the key question would be whether or not there could be a genius artist in that particular form.  Flower arranging seems sometimes to reach the level of fine art in the Japanese art of Ikabana, for example.

Telfer also thinks that food cannot be fine art in that it cannot have meaning in the same way that major art forms can.  For example, it cannot represent anything or tell us something about our world.  Of course an art form does not need to be representational to be a major art form, and music is not, but, Telfer argues, music expresses emotion, and food cannot do so.  First, it is not clear that food cannot express emotion. I wonder whether food cannot express emotion in some way, for example by referring to the emotions associated with family and cultural memories.   Moreover, the argument itself is odd in that it seems tailored simply to include representational visual art and music and to exclude food.  One could just as easily say that music is not a major art because it does not represent anything (Peter Kivy goes so far as to say that music without words has no content!) or that anything that does not express emotion, including some types of music, fails to fall into the category of great art. 

Is it impossible to be moved by a great dish or meal?  Telfer says that food cannot move us in the way the major arts can:  "food can elate us, invigorate us, startle us, excite us....but cannot shake us fundamentally" in such a way as to cause tears and even a "sensation almost of fear."  Well, sometimes the major arts can do all of these things, but there are no guarantees here.  And people respond differently to different arts.  I have never been moved to tears or some special fearlike sensation by music.  But this does not give me reason to reject music as a major artform.  After all, there are some people who are moved in that way.  Perhaps there are people who are moved in that way by food too.  When Telfer says "we are not in awe of good food, and we hesitate to ascribe the word 'beauty' to it" I wonder what she is talking about, since I have had meals that have transcended ordinary experience and have left me in as much awe as some of the better works I have experienced in the other art form.  As for "beauty," there are certain social conventions here:  we tend to limit this term to examples of visual and aural beauty, although we do sometimes refer to beautiful character, and as Telfer herself admits, to a "beautiful dish."  So what exactly is the big difference between the beauty in a beautiful dish and the beauty in a beautiful song? 

The key issue, perhaps, is whether food can have an "earth-shaking quality," as Telfer puts it.  I agree with Telfer that not all food is art, not even a minor art, and also that the aesthetic pleasure in food taken in ordinary everyday contexts (including the social aspects of those contexts) might actually be hindered by over attention to the qualities that would make it an art form.  I just do not see any reason to have to come up with reasons to proclaiming that it never reaches the level of a major art form or that the experience of food can never be earth-shaking. 


Lauren Liedel said...

Mr. Leddy,
Following the current popular interest in foodie culture, I found this blog post tackling Tefler’s controversial dismissal of the edible as a minor class of artworks relevant in the education of the budding philosopher gourmet. Being a student of aesthetic philosophy and an avid follower of culinary trends, my rejection of her claims expand upon yours in a more aggressive manner. Your extended use of Tefler’s analogy comparing the chef and his recipe to the composer and his music creates an opportunity to show where Tefler’s argument weakens. She rejects cuisine as a major art on the grounds that it provides “little time for contemplation.” You justly provide a counter example of the hour of eating and the hour of listening to a musical performance; in my opinion, this contemplative component of aesthetic experience depends heavily on the mental state of the audience. True, people do respond to different aesthetic genres, but that has minimal bearing on whether or not they actually have an aesthetic experience. Theatre has been a largely agreed upon “major art,” but modern drama also provides another case of lacking contemplation. Immersive productions leave minimal time for the audience to ponder due to the constantly engaged style of their story-telling. The uninterrupted creation of space between the viewers’ interpretation of actors’ movements and spatial interaction unconsciously dominates the full mental faculty of the public.

Tefler attempts to continue her argument dismissing food as art on the grounds that it is transient. Before the emergence of recording music, as UCLA Musicology Professor Susan McClary explains that a listener “comes away with [his or her] impression of that piece from that one [live] experience.” Much like the chef presents his particular dish to the connoisseur once, the audience often heard musical works in a singular performance. If Tefler believes that food is transient, music must necessarily be considered transient as well on this basis. While recording “freezes on particular performance,” McClary suggests that “as long as we recognize that we will be fine.” The music world has changed significantly, but the case still exists to disprove Tefler’s basis for categorizing food as a minor art. The existence of minor arts as a whole makes me uncomfortable. I find that this is the result of confusion between ontological and evaluative claims. Minor arts are often seen as less valuable arts. Rightfully, you reject Tefler’s placement of the edible as a minor art by citing the flower arranging example of “the Japanese art of Ikabana.” However, to me this is only the first step. When caching out what it means to be a part of aesthetics, Tefler creates a slippery slope by even asserting minor arts exist. Eliminating this unnecessary distinction streamlines aesthetic theory and separates any potentially mistaken ontological and evaluative claims.

Tom Leddy said...

Hi Lauren:

Thanks for you excellent comment. I am inclined to agree with you that there are no minor arts. At most there is a distinction between arts in which there have been many genius level productions (unlike many others I take the concept of genius seriously) and those arts in which the number of genius level productions are far fewer. Usually it is the later that are called "minor arts" but what falls into this category would change over time. So, for example, film is clearly now one in which there are many genius level products. Video games is one in which there are probably few, but this will be changing, no doubt.