You probably did not have to think about your answer for more than a moment: Whether yes or no, you likely responded to a gut feeling (if you’ll excuse the phrase). On the ground, most of us identify works of art with our own variations of the famous Supreme Court stance on obscenity — I know it when I see it. But try to expand your instinctive response into an argument, as William Deresiewicz did in American Scholar last week, and you’ll find yourself on shakier ground. For good reason: That tiny word, art, has launched a thousand volumes theorizing what can or should go by its name. To mine a few treatises on the subject: Should art teach and guide, or exist without purpose and for its own sake? Should looking at art feel violently awakening or pleasantly contemplative? Does the finest art refer to larger stories and ideas or nothing beyond its own composition? Deresiewicz makes his case that food is not art on the premise that art must be narrative or at least symbolic — which would also designate Imagist poetry, abstract expressionism, and numerous musical compositions as mere craftmanship. It’s a good illustration that without a solid defense of what art is, any judgment about what art isn’t will be unsound.
But integrity of argument aside: “Is food art?” is the wrong question to ask.
One reason that art is such a jealously guarded term is that we use it to elevate sensory experience to something special — the implication being that sensory experiences are not all that special on their own. After all, we see and hear and taste every day, as a matter of course; we rely on our notoriously unreliable senses to navigate our messy, clumsy bodies through the world with a minimum of damage. Senses seem to have their own appetites, too, but these are not always governed by the what we’d call the best of human nature: The phrases “eye candy” and “ear candy” exist for a reason. So we rely on the word art to separate out sensory experiences that feel more present (or, perhaps, more proper) in the mind: Reflection, wonder, the apprehension of a feat of skill or imagination, the pleasure of beauty. In the branches of philosophy that seek to describe the relationship between the body and the mind, these cognitive responses to sensory stimuli are called aesthetic experience (although less refined experiences such as disgust also qualify). Let’s bracket the word “art” for the moment, then, and consider the cognitive faculties invoked by the aesthetic experience of eating.
At minimum, eating exercises judgment. Bite or sip anything and consider: Do you like it? Dislike it? Does it fulfill your expectations of how it should taste? Does it seem good — for any value of that multifaceted word good — to eat? Aesthetic judgment is fundamental to a sense of individuality. At risk of becoming too abstract: To enjoy (or even to dislike) is to feel yourself feeling enjoyment (or dislike); it’s one way you know you exist, and that “you” are a being who enjoys (or dislikes) a particular thing. It’s less abstract when you consider how many cultural or political identities are defined in part by what you will (or will not) eat.
But back to the bite or sip. If you’re at leisure to savor, the experience of taste encourages more elaborate cognitive faculties: What is it like? What does it remind you of? There’s often something of simile in tasting; the cultivated appreciation of fermented products depends on it and even takes the literary elements of taste to the next level. We want wine to allude to the ground in which the grapes were grown; we want the complexities of flavor to unfold like a story after the suspenseful swirl of the glass and the foreshadowing deep inhale. We don’t expect to find chalk in a wine with mineral notes, but the idea of chalk helps us to apprehend the taste.
Wine and other artisanal goods are designed for this sort of aesthetic contemplation, but food doesn’t require fine craftsmanship to be meaningful. Any meal, even those taken alone, represents an intersection of human relationships. It’s not exactly symbolic: Since most of us don’t grow and process our own food, we literally depend on social contracts to furnish our tables with the world’s spices, the locally grown produce, your family’s recipes, and even the tastes you’ve cultivated as a member of a particular class or community. Like a concert or a staged production, that particular convergence of influences and ingredients will never happen the same way twice. Last weekend, for example, my neighbor and I made a soup that could only have been made last weekend. The sweet potatoes and tightly curled kale were from the final sweet, tough harvest of our farmshare season; this particular batch of homemade broth was somewhat reminiscent of sundried tomatoes. But despite being one of a kind (and soon to disappear), our comforting soup reminds us of other soups. We’d each had a version of this soup once before: she made it when her sister was in town, visiting and laughing as they chopped garlic and rosemary; I ate a pint that they left in my fridge as a surprise when I returned from a long trip. It reminds us both of being cared for.
Memory, allusions, personal and cultural relationships, and aesthetic judgments are meaningful associations that anyone can experience, though of course we don’t all experience them the same way. In fact, I suspect this is one reason people balk at considering food to be art — it would imply a far more democratic vision of art than some would like to allow. Sure, there is a price tag to certain kinds of artisanal and gastronomic experiences. Sure, the concept of an “educated palate” and some contemporary trends of bourgeois domesticity carry a whiff of classism. All the same, eating and cooking can be expressive or even transportative to whosoever wants it: The novice cook and the master chef; those who bake from scratch to save money and those who do the same to show off expertise; our grandmothers who made something-out-of-nothing suppers during times of scarcity and the younger relatives that try desperately to imitate them.
To ask whether these experiences count as “art” is, I think, to miss the point. Instead, we might ask:
Can food be crafted with artistry — not just with skill, but with an ability to elicit higher cognitive faculties? (Yes, of course.)
Can food convey meaning, sometimes complex and multiple meanings, and allude to larger narratives? (Yes, of course.)
Can food be a vehicle or inspiration for some of humanity’s better qualities? (Yes, of course.)
Should food be taken seriously as a subject of study, a medium of expression, or a form of cultural exchange? (Yes, of course.)
But is it art? If you still think the question matters, let’s just say you’ll know it when you eat it. • 6 December 2012