Food as Art: Representation and Meaning

by Dwight Furrow

ScreenHunter_1234 Jun. 22 16.56One of the main hurdles confronting the view that fine cuisine is a fine art is to say what fine cuisine is about. Paintings refer to something beyond the painting and thus a painting can have meaning and can be interpreted. What do dishes refer to? Are they just flavor combinations that refer to nothing beyond the meal or do the flavors have meaning that can be decoded and elucidated, as a reader might grasp the symbols in a poem? Here is a quote from essayist and literary critic William Deresiewic articulating the standard puzzlement often expressed when confronted by this question of the meaning of food:

But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art. A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.

This dismissive argument from Deresiewic receives support from many philosophers throughout history writing on the arts. Even Carolyn Korsmeyer, the philosopher most responsible for putting food on the philosophical map, while granting that food is worthy of serious aesthetic attention, has reservations about food being a fine art. “Ought we now to take the next step and conclude that foods also qualify as works of art in the full sense of the term? That they represent in their own medium the same sorts of objects as paintings, sculptures, poems, and symphonies? I do not believe we should.” (Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste, 124)

Korsmeyer argues that food acquires meaning only because of its context, the ceremonies and rituals that surround the serving of food. Food, of course, is richly symbolic. The apple in Eve's hand represents the fall of humanity. The apple in Mom's apple pie represents her loving solicitude. For the Genoan, pesto is the taste of home; for coastal New Englanders it’s a clambake. Chicken soup is a symbol of healing; the Thanksgiving turkey a symbol of gratitude, abundance, and the gathering of family. There is plenty of meaning here to keep the semioticians busy.

The skeptics do not deny the symbolic significance of food but will distinguish two kinds of symbols, only one of which is characteristic of fine art. When food has meaning, they claim, the context in which food is produced and consumed supplies the meaning, not the features of the food itself. There is a narrative that makes Eve's apple a symbol of the fall of humanity. Without the Biblical story, the apple is just a piece of fruit. There is a habit of association and a story about Thanksgiving Day that makes turkey a symbol of gratitude. Without the narrative and the habit of association, the turkey is just a cooked bird. There is nothing about turkeys, themselves, that demand interpretation unless there is a surrounding narrative to make the demand. The intrinsic aesthetic properties of a dish or meal—their flavor and texture—cannot supply meaning on their own[i] without substantial cultural, family, or personal context to lend significance.

This is not how meaning develops in works of art. Consider, for instance, Edvard Munch’s The Scream as an example of how features internal to the work acquire meaning. The scream

The Scream is a symbol of alienation because of the aesthetic properties of the painting. The skull-like shape of the head, feature-less face that focuses attention on the mouth, and the position of the body in relation to the other people on the bridge indicate alienation; and the swirling, lurid colors express intense negative emotion. These meanings are in the painting; not in an external narrative or context. Granted, even for a painting such as The Scream, context is important for a comprehensive interpretation. It helps to know that Munch intended that the painting express alienation and that he was painting at a time when modern humanity was confronting an industrial age that ripped people from their traditional moorings. But, nevertheless, much of the meaning of the painting is carried by features of the painting itself, not the surrounding narrative.

The internal features of a dish do not represent in this way, according to critics of food as art. Those flavors and textures are not about anything unless we supply some story that makes them be about something. But then the task of generating meaning is not performed by the work (the dish or meal) but by the cultural narratives that surround it. Works of fine art seem to be less dependent on ceremony, ritual, and personal memory than the symbols that attach to food. Furthermore, food doesn't seem to be the source of new insight in the way works of art can be. Certain foods may remind us of home or reinforce one's cultural identity, but the flavors themselves don't provide us with new discoveries or even tell us much about ourselves or our world. Flavors are not about anything; they just give us pleasure. The intellectual content of food and wine seems thin compared to painting, literature or even music.

Put aside the fact that this argument exaggerates the intellectual content of non-representational painting and music. The critics are nevertheless right to point out the limits of flavor, by itself, as a representation of moral identity, romance, or the comforts of home. But that is because we don't quite have the subject matter of food and wine fully in focus.

So what do food and wine represent when functioning as a work of art? Certainly not the mysterious smile of a model sitting for a portrait, which is the subject matter of the Mona Lisa, or the horrors of war as with Picasso's Guernica, or the obsession of vengeance as in the novel Moby Dick. The flavors and textures of food and wine lack spatial organization and thus cannot depict, via resemblance, the scenes we associate with objects or human action. And our conventions of assigning symbolic meaning to flavors and textures are not complex enough to form representations analogous to the linguistic representations of psychological states or states of affairs we find in literature. Food and wine do not depict or describe. Their representational capacities are of a different sort.

A dish is quite straightforwardly a representation of the food tradition from which it emerges and bears the marks of that tradition in its flavors and textures. A preparation of linguine and pesto is a representation of a kind of cooking and eating characteristic of the food traditions of Genoa, Italy. Fried chicken is a representation of certain food traditions from the American south. Burgundian pinot noir is a representation of the winemaking traditions of Bourgogne, France. Food and wine cannot effectively represent human action in general. But they do effectively represent a particular domain of human action–a history of food production, eating, and cooking, a domain that painting or music would struggle to represent. Furthermore, food preparations can generate new insights into food traditions; we discover new realms of taste and flavor, new things for a tradition to be, when foods are prepared as an interpretation of a food tradition.

This is the domain of meaning characteristic of the edible arts. Particular culinary masterpieces are representations of food traditions and culinary artists, through the flavors and textures they create, highlight, interpret, and comment on features of a food tradition. It is this “aboutness” relationship and the meanings it generates that qualify food and wine as an art form. *

This focus on tradition might sound a bit conservative. Why would a repetition of the past count as art? Don't we expect art to be innovative? Although a dish is a representation of the tradition from which it emerges, the mere repetition of tradition is not sufficient to create edible art. The everyday task of putting food on the table may be embedded in a food tradition. But each dish is not a work of fine art—far from it. In fact most of us have no intention to create works of art in the kitchen. Feeding a family is not, typically, artistic activity. However, when the aim of cooking is to illuminate, call attention to, interpret, critique, or exemplify, via its aesthetic properties, some dimension of a food tradition, we are then in the realm of art. Successful works will magnify, glamorize, or ennoble those aesthetic properties thus calling attention to their meaning as an intervention within that tradition. Creative chefs do not slavishly follow tradition; the sincerest form of taking something seriously is to reinterpret, transform or overcome it. A chef who challenges tradition must be deeply immersed in it.

It is important to note that food traditions encompass more than just the cooking practices and flavor sensibilities of a people. All of the dimensions of meaning associated with food—cooking practices, flavor principles, home, romance, family, and cultural/moral identity—refer to a set of relationships with people, places, things, and institutions that form a culture with a history that traces our participation in it. To the extent cultural traditions are related to food and wine, food and wine make reference to them and thus are part of the world of meaning opened up by the culinary arts.

In fact, of all the activities we pursue, food may be the one that best illuminates the various aspects of our cultural traditions. For food speaks to the way we produce our material existence, and form relationships in the production and consumption of that material existence. But more importantly, food exemplifies a sensibility, a way of perceiving the material surfaces of reality that marks each culture as distinctive and in part explains our attachment to that culture. I suppose those who doubt the artistic credentials of food and wine might try to argue that representations of food and wine traditions are trivial when compared to the areas of life represented by painting or music. But such an argument would appear unmotivated and absurd on its face. The way we relate to the material surfaces of reality is central to human well-being, hardly a trivial matter

Thus, just as the Mona Lisa is about a particular model (probably Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Franceso del Giocondo), an enigmatic smile, and a sense of mystery encouraged by the ethereal ambiance of the painting, food and wine are about food traditions and the social traditions that encompass them. Particular dishes provide an interpretation of a food tradition and their flavors and textures give us insight into that tradition and its sensibility, fissures, debates, and limitations, all of which supply a depth of intellectual content that rivals the other fine arts.

*The theory of art I rely on here is roughly that of Nelson Goodman in The Languages of Art, who treats exemplification as a fundamental feature of artistic symbols.

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts.