Saturday, August 15, 2015

Food as art, again.

I have previously posted on the question of whether food can be art here and here.  Right now I am preparing a paper that will be given at the American Society for Aesthetics annual meeting in Savannah, Georgia.  So this is an occasion for further thoughts on the topic, somewhat disorganized I'm afraid.  

-  "Food is art" is not too helpful a phrase since not all food is art. The claim seems to be that there can be a unique artform for food just as there is for painting.  Not all painting is art:  most house painting does not fall into the realm of art.  But then if you define "painting" as a "the art of painting," or consider this one of its meanings, perhaps you can do the same for "food."  That is, there might be one sense of "food" that is quite general and another that narrowly refers to food as art.  The problem is that this is not the way the word "food" works in our language.  The OED definition of food as "substances taken into the body to maintain life and growth, nourishment, provisions, victuals"  hardly seems to be a definition of an art form.  Interestingly though, the OED definition of "painting" fails to mention painting as an art form and only defines it as "the result or product of applying paint, coloring, pictorial decoration or representation.  Also, an instance of this, a picture."  On this view, a painted door would be a painting every bit as much as a landscape painting.  So, the dictionary definition should be rewritten to show how we actually do often use the term painting and also to show how we often refer to food (although this would be a revision in language.)

-   There would seem to be little reason to oppose the idea that food can be used as a medium of art, just as paints can be used as a medium for paintings (the paradigmatic medium in this case.).  We have lots of art forms these days often loosely associated under the term "contemporary visual art" which allow for the use of a wide variety of media, from objects found in the street used in collage to various natural objects and substances such as dirt and leaves. Food is by not means excluded.  The claim, however, that food can be used as a medium of art is not the same as the claim that food is an artform.

-   Most food does not count as art.  But this should not exclude food as an artform.  When we are talking about food as an artform we are not talking about food merely used as a medium in what is now called visual art, or even as a medium in performance art.

-  The debate over whether or not food is art often moves to the level of whether it can be more than a minor art.  Can it be, for example, a fine art.  I am inclined to think that any form of making can be refined to the point that instances of it count as fine art.  If some but not all paintings count as fine art then why not also say that some gastronomical presentations, but not all, count?

-  The impulse to count food as fine art sometimes might seem to come from democratic sympathies, but then there are also arguments against this, for example that the finest gastronomical presentations are only available to the truly wealthy.  Food is somewhat different from painting in this respect:  although only the wealthy can afford fine art paintings, it is still possible for a great many people without wealth to observe such paintings in museums. I just cannot afford to eat at elBulli, as much as I would like to. Because of this, some might see the claim that some food is fine art as elitist and exclusionary.  Perhaps it is, and yet this does not make it false that some food is fine art.

-  Since the 1990s, when the issue of food as art was originally raised, we have had some important changes in world culture.  It is perhaps indicative of this that although aestheticians during the 90s could hardly consider food as art, much less fine art, the 2014 edition of the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics has an article on "Food" which treats the possibility more positively, having one section titled "Food art, edible art, research cooking, and revolutionary cooking."  At the same time, the author, Jessica Jaques, excludes food as one of the arts when she says "Gustatory aesthetics is to food and cooking as aesthetics is to the arts."  This would not only divide food from the arts, although treating it as something similar, but also would divide gustatory aesthetics from aesthetics proper. Jaques also writes that "research and revolutionary cooking have to do with aesthetic practices that are close to the arts but keep some degree of autonomy."  This again would put the most artlike food productions alongside the arts but not within their domain.  Of particular interest is what is now called "research cooking" and which Jaques defines as "a twenty-first century practice that inherits all the creative impulse and innovation of twentieth-century avant-garde cooking, from nouvelle cuisine to the so-called molecular cooking and techno-emotional cooking."  She points out further that the term is analogous to "artistic research" and points out "increasing intersection between cooking and the arts."  She mentions several features of research cooking but the one of most interest here is the "tendency to artification:  increasing awareness of sharing artistic beliefs."  She argues that it follows that "research cooking understands itself as a mode of communication similar to art, including ways of reference such as imitation, expression, quotation, metaphor, and even humor and paradox."  A this point it seems almost arbitrary to exclude research cooking from the domain of art and thus cooking itself from the domain of fine arts.  In addition to eBulli, Jaques mensions great chefs from several places in the world as involved in research cooking.  Jaques also mentions that a specialized form of research cooking, called "revolutionary cooking" has these additional features:  "involvement in the narrative of its own history and creative process by revealing and inquiring archives, recipes, and critics in order to point out the essential moments of the paradigm shift" and "expansion beyond the restaurant as an institution to reach the public sphere, with books, catalogs, conferences and, especially, through the internet and social networks...."  These two features also make this type of cooking more art-like, particularly in the 21st. century. 

I should also mention the relevance of the concept of "artification" to this.  Check out the special issue of the journal Contemporary Aesthetics on this topic.  See also my article there on artification here.  The idea of artification is present in Jaques' article when she uses the term "artiness" as in:  "Food art, edible art, research cooking, and revolutionary cooking are now topics of deep interest in artistic institutions in their exploration of new fields of artiness."  He example of this is that Documenta XII listed elBulli as a "pavilion" even though hundreds of miles away from the show.

-  In writing my previous posts I had forgotten about Glenn Kuehn's "How can food be art?" which appeared in one of the founding texts of everyday aesthetics, The Aesthetics of Everyday Life ed. Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith  2005.  Kuehn takes a similar approach to mine in that he is deeply inspired by the writings of John Dewey, especially Art as Experience.  Dewey certainly brings food withing striking distance of being an artform insofar as he defines art in terms of what he calls "an experience" and also describes a meal in a fine French restaurant as "an experience."  Kuehn is the only writer I know of who attempts to establish food "as a very significant and profound art form."  

-  Some would hold that it is a waste of time to argue that food is "fine art" since this assumes that the very distinctions between fine art and "minor art," "popular art," "folk art" and "decorative art" are ultimately unimportant.  My own take on this is that the particular art medium is not of any great importance:  even though most quilts are only of decorative value, some pieces can be referred to as masterpieces.  Most paintings are not products of genius just as most quilts are not.  Although it goes against conventional meanings of words, there is nothing particularly wrong with saying that quilt-making or car-styling can be a fine art.

-  One of the main arguments against food as art is that an experience of food can never have the self-transcending power of a truly great experience of a truly great work of art, for example the ecstasy of a full experience of The Last Judgment of Michelangelo. Telfer, for example, say that one cannot be moved to awe by a meal.  I do not know why not.  My personal experiences of awe in relation to great works of art are rare.  So too are my personal experiences of awe in response to meals.  I just don't know whether I could get more such experiences if I pursued the matter more, and I do not know that in either the case of painting or in the case of gastronomy.  

-  When, drawing from Dewey, Kuehn says, "all food has the potential to be art because its production, presentation, and matter of appreciation (i.e., eating) necessarily involve one in an interactive engagement with the qualitative tensions that underlie experience" (195) that sounds right to me.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I tend to disagree with Telfer on the matter and feel that you can be "awed" by a meal. Especially if we consider Dewey's concept of art as experience as a platform for our judgments. A meal alone can stir up nostalgic feelings and create an experience similar to one that an individual might have viewing some of the great pieces of art (from around the world). A meal can stir up nostalgic feelings from its smell, taste, visual appearance on the plate, etc. Also, the experience as a whole can be amazing. The restaurant, the people, the entire ambiance can be considered a "work of art."