Penne for Your Thought

By Gerald Dworkin
It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that.
–Clive Bell
Penne Except for the purchase of a house my greatest expenditure has been on eating. I include in this total the amounts spent traveling to various gastronomical destinations –which is basically the same as my expenditure on travel for pleasure. And indeed most of my non-acceptances of various invitations to give talks, etc. is based on the fact that the destination is not an interesting place to eat. I also include a fairly substantial number of books–fewer cookbooks than essays on eating, reflections on cooking, and so forth. I cook but since my wife is an exceptional cook and I am only a good one the rational division of labor is for her to do most of the cooking.

I attribute my interest in food to my mother who from an early age used to take me to various restaurants in New York City (where I grew up). I remember in particular meals at the Automat, Schrafft's, and Patrissi's– very different kinds of restaurants and all now closed. I also remember fondly a Spanish restaurant on 14th street called La Bilbaina where my favorite dish–at age 8– was squid in its own ink. Obviously, being Jewish meant many Christmas meals in Chinese restaurants. Riddle: If, according to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5764, and, according to the Chinese calendar, the year is 5724, what did the Jews eat for forty years? Variation: The Jewish calendar begins in 5758; the Chinese in 4965. So the Jews had to do without Chinese food for 1063 years. (For an excellent ethnographic study of the Jewish-Chinese link see Gaye Tuchman and Howard Levine, “Safe Treyf: New York Jews and Chinese Food”). Not a joke.

So much for biography. By and large two central interests in my life–food and philosophy– have gone their separate ways. I propose in this essay to combine them by considering the question in aesthetics of whether cooking can be considered an art form. Now, philosophers since Plato have thought about what makes something a work of art and almost all the analyses they have come up with seem to exclude the invention of a recipe or the cooking of a dish as artistic forms. Plato thought that all art is representational, or mimetic. Kant thought not only was it representational butmade a sharp distinction between the fine arts, the crafts and agreeable art, i.e. mere entertainment. Even Mill whom one might have thought would give some serious attention to the pleasures of eating distinguished sharply between the physical pleasures of eating and drinking which are shared with the beasts and the mental pleasures which employ the “higher faculties” of human beings.

Contemporary aestheticians have either tended to be conventionalists–defining art as an artifact produced to be presented to the artworld or where the work and its interpretations requires an art historical context– or list makers. By the latter I mean a collection of conditions, none of which is necessary and which together are supposed to be sufficient. Here is one:

(1) possessing positive aesthetic properties; (2) being expressive of emotion; (3) being intellectually challenging; (4) being formally complex and coherent; (5) having the capacity to convey complex meanings; (6) exhibiting an individual point of view; (7) being original; (8) being an artifact or performance which is the product of a high degree of skill; (9) belonging to an established artistic form; (10) being the product of an intention to make a work of art. (This is taken from an article on the definition of art in the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which is an invaluable reference work for all things philosophical) Whatever one thinks of this list, conditions 2, and 5, seem to be in tension with the notion of cooking as an art form, and condition 9 begs the question.

The first question that has to be asked is what difference does it make whether cooking is classified as an art or not? The philosopher Quine once said that the only people who should be interested in certain kinds of classification are librarians. My own view is that classifications and definitions are either simply stipulative, ( here is what I shall mean by “art” ; I don't care whether you normally use the term the same way or not. If you don't like the way I use it, then let us call it “zart.” Let us now talk about zart.) or provide an interesting or useful or provocative or illuminating classification in order to think in fruitful ways about some problem or issue.

For example, suppose we consider the issue of whether animals have linguistic abilities. One set of comparative psychologists use criteria such as whether animals learn from their mistakes or generalize from past experience to argue that they have something like a language. When some bonobo puts a ball in a box having heard the scientist say “Put the ball in the box” although that command has never been given before–but commands such as put the banana in the cage have been and the animal rewarded for obeying–the claim is made that linguistic competence has been demonstrated. These creatures should be classified as language using.

Other psychologists resist this classification. Among the reasons for skepticism are the differences in ease with which human beings and apes can learn language, questions as to the whether there is a clear beginning and end to the signed gestures, and whether the apes actually understand language or are simply being conditioned to do something for a reward. Other scientists are studying the content of animal vocalizations in terms of their evolutionary and ecological significance, i.e. warning cries. They see no need to translate “awk awk” into “watch out; predators near.”

Questions of classification here will be settled in terms of which research program proves most successful in making sense of animal communications and which leads to interesting new predictions.

Now discussions of whether to classify some activity as an art form are not like this. We are not trying to investigate why humans engage in a certain kind of activity–thought that is a perfectly good thing to think about. Rather it is an interpretive exercise. We are trying to understand how certain forms of human experience give us pleasure, enlighten us, increase our human powers, bring us together (separate us), cultivate discrimination, have expressive dimensions, force us to pay attention to things, give meaning to some lives.

We value art in certain ways and we want to understand the nature of that valuing and how it differs from other valuable forms of human activity such as science or athletic achievement or chess mastery.

What issues might we be thinking about in trying to decide whether to classify cooking as one of the arts? Here are some.

1) Is the person who says of the Chateau Petrus they have just tasted that it is a work of art to be taken literally?

2) Is the experience we have of a Beethoven String Quartet sufficiently different from that we have when eating a great meal so that we should
distinguish them as different kinds of experience?
3) Does it make sense to say of someone that they have been moved by a meal?
4) Is it significant for classifying something as an art form that a meal is consumed in the process of appreciation?
5) When I say of Grant Achatz that he is an artist in the kitchen how does this differ from saying he is a genius at the stove?
6) Why do we distinguish between the architect who designed Notre Dame and those who built it by designating the latter as craftsmen and the former as an artist? Is there a class bias exhibited by this distinction?
7) A piece of music can express sadness. A pate cannot. So?
8) Consider the following list: painting, Japanese flower arrangement, conceptual installations, origami, construction of Shaker chairs, weaving handmade rugs, ice dancing, architecture, calligraphy, films, Javanese shadow puppet shows, fireworks displays, beating out rhythms on a oil drum top, making Duchamps Fountain ( a toilet), drawing political cartoons. Would whatever unity this list possesses be retained or destroyed if we added cooking? Or is the original list more like Borges famous classification of animals into: those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained,suckling pigs,mermaids,fabulous ones,stray dogs,those included in the present classification,those that tremble as if they were mad,innumerable ones, those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, others,those that have just broken a flower vase, those that from a long way off look like flies.
9) We think that a civilized society ought to promote and, perhaps, subsidize the arts. Should we subsidize cooks, customers or restaurants?
10) Are smell and taste different from the other senses in ways which prevent them from being organized in the way that sound is organized into music, or visual perceptions into film?
11) The words on a page, or the images on a canvas, represent the world. But a great dish is not representational. It doesn't stand for something else. Does that matter in evaluating the aesthetic experience of the object?
12) The arts are thought to provide us with pleasure, but they also expand our world via the power of imagination. They sharpen and stimulate our emotional powers. They can transform us in such a way that we can say we are a different person before and after. They can provoke our anger or arouse our fears. Can the experience of eating, or the weaving of a quilt, do something comparable? If not, should we withhold the title of art from them?

Each of these questions deserves an essay of its own. I shall confine myself to presenting some kinds of considerations that have been taken to count against classifying cooking as an art form. Aquinas always presented at least three replies to any thesis he considered. I will not hold myself to such a high standard.

Objection: Food is destroyed by the very process–eating–which allows us to appreciate it.
Reply: True, but this is also the case with some conceptual art as well. It is also the case that the recipe allows the artist/chef to recreate the work of art–the dish– so that we may re-appreciate it. In any case, what is the relevance of the fact that the process of appreciation destroys the instantiation of the artistic process? When he hear a particular performance of the Rasumovsky String Quartet our listening does not cause the sound to disappear but the sounds are gone as much as the osso buco.

Objection: Food is useful; it nourishes us. Art has to be appreciated for its aesthetic value only.
Reply: Architecture.

Objection: Art is defined by the intention of the creator to produce an object to be perceived by the senses for its own sake
Reply: Architecture, again. But if you don't like that reply consider the fact that objects which were originally intended for a practical use (worship) are not admired as artistic objects (cathedrals). Bach has been played to stimulate cows to give more milk. So original intentions cannot be decisive.

Objection: Tastes are not capable of being arranged in “systematic, repeatable , regular combinations.” (Monroe Beardsley, Aesthetics (1958))
Reply: As Elizabeth Telfer point out in her excellent Food for Thought, foods can be arranged in sequences from least salty to most salty, or from sweet to sour, and not all art forms have systematic, repeatable combinations, e.g. sculpture. In any case why doesn't the following count (from a review of Coi in San Francisco) as a culinary systematic, repeatable, combination: “The chef's playful techniques work beautifully in a pea soup. The waiter brings a wide bowl with just a small knob of uncooked peas, mint and a scoop of ricotta sorbet, then puts it on the table and pours in a chilled broth. It's a multi-sensory sensation: cool, thick soup. Icy, milky sorbet. The fresh snap of peas. The subtle perfume of mint. “

Objection: The cooking of food is a craft not a form of art.
Reply: There is a sense of craft,exemplified by the carpenter, which emphasizes a technique or skill. But many crafts–pottery, weaving, origami– are instances of creativity not just technique. So some crafts can be art. Both army cooks making MRE's and Albert Adria ( El Bulli) cook using vacuum-packed bags. But the point of sous- vide techniques is to produce effects that enhance flavors, creating multi-layered tastes, new textures, and extraordinary colors.

Objection: Of course wonderful food can create great pleasure. But so can a well-done massage. There is more to art than the production of pleasant–even exquisite–sensations.
Reply: Agreed. But it is crucial what the “more” is. One seems to be that appreciation requires making sensitive discriminations. One can improve one's appreciation through wider experience with the art object and learn to see or hear ( or taste) new things in the object. This will often come about by having these things pointed out to one by those with more and more refined sensibilities. There will be a critical vocabulary which helps– talk of hues and palettes, of jump cuts and montage, of unreliable narrators and diction. All of these are lacking in massages or jokes or listening to the sound of waves breaking against the rocks– great pleasures all. Food seems to have the complexity of taste, aroma , texture which allows for this kind of learning and criticism. Here is a passage from a review of Alinea in Chicago.

On the menu is a dish… “called snap peas, a dish that quite literally floats on air. It arrives to the table on an Irish linen pillow filled with lavender-scented air–the weight of the shallow bowl gently forces out the vaporized lavender so it wafts around and above the plate. “Eat your peas,” says the waiter with mock severity, and indeed you will gobble up these sweet shelled peas, along with sharp-tasting grilled ham (“I wanted the ham almost burnt,” Achatz says), crispy yuba (tofu skin), and bits of lemon puree and fresh tofu that add citrusy and creamy notes.” (Vettel)

Here is a passage of a dish called Earth and Sea from a review of Coi in San Francisco.

It's a dish that works on many levels, both gustatory and intellectually. The combination offers an explosion of flavors and textures in a few bites, but for Patterson the dish captures the meeting of land and ocean. The black squid ink resembles rich soil. The grass and sea beans come from the salt water close to land, and the squid represents the deep sea. Even if diners don't understand his thought process, he believes this approach will subliminally deepen their enjoyment. (Bauer)

One need not agree with the judgments in these evaluations. We might think the pillow with scented air is “over the top.” Or that a dish that requires subliminal enjoyment is not for you. But the point is that such discussion is possible.

Objection: Food is not representational. A dish does not stand for something in the way that a stone can represent a person in agony.
Reply: Food can represent as the as the matzo at the Passover meal represents the haste with which the Jews fled Egypt and the bitter herbs
the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. And note the claim that the squid represents the sea in the previous reply. In any case what about non-representational painting? Look at Malevich's Black Square.

Objection: Great art must be capable of expressing deep emotions. We can be moved and transformed by art. Art is capable of stretching our knowledge by harnessing the power of imagination–particularly poetry and fiction. Having read Remains of the Day I know understand what it is to have a professional ethics–in this case that of a manservant– in a way which I did not before.
Reply: I saved this for last because I think there is something right about it. . As the aesthetician Frank Sibley puts it: ” …flavors, natural or artificial, are necessarily limited: unlike the major arts they have no major connections with emotions, love or hate, death, grief, joy, terror, suffering, yearning, pity or sorrow.”

I would like to think about this some more. But my tentative conclusion is that, at most, what this shows is that cooking is what might be called a minor art form. It is not as deep as literature, or music, or painting. It is what it is, and our lives would be less rich without it.