Wine and Food: Are They Craft or Art?

by Dwight Furrow

Winemaker at work 2The explosion of interest in the aesthetics of food and beverages over the past several decades inevitably raises the question whether certain culinary preparations or wines can be considered works of art. I have argued elsewhere that indeed food and wine can be works of art. But within the wine and food world many winemakers and chefs prefer to think of themselves as craft persons rather than artists, and in philosophy there is substantial resistance to including food and wine in the category of a fine art. The question of how we distinguish a craft from an art is thus germane to this debate.

Unfortunately, traditional ways of drawing the distinction between craft and the fine arts are inadequate. In fact, a too sharply drawn distinction between art and craft will mischaracterize both. Nevertheless, I think there is a distinction to be made between art and craft and at least some wines and culinary preparations are best viewed as works of art.

As Larry Shiner has pointed out, both the term "fine art" and the term "craft" are relatively recent inventions. ""Craft" as the name of a category of disciplines only goes back to the late nineteenth century when it emerged partly in reaction to machine production, and partly in reaction to the fine art academies' exclusion of the "minor," "decorative," or "applied" arts." Fine art, according to Shiner, was a phrase used to market works of art to the emerging middle class marking off craftwork, works that are merely useful, from works that were "the appropriate object of refined taste."

In the past we might have used the type of material being worked on to distinguish art from craft. Paint on canvas, words on a page, notes played by instruments were candidates for works of art. The transformation of wood, clay, metals or fabric was craft. But since the birth of installations and the expansion of materials used for artistic expression, artists today work in media such as textiles, plastics, metals and wood. So the type of material will no longer suffice to mark the distinction. Why then not food or wine as candidates for artistic expression?

Since the 18th Century, as noted above, the usual way of drawing the distinction between art and craftwork, relying especially on the work of Immanuel Kant, is that works of art are intended for contemplation while craftwork is intended to serve some utilitarian purpose. Kant argued explicitly that food, regardless of how finely prepared, does not induce reflection and thus cannot qualify as art. Regarding this latter point about reflection, Kant is entirely wrong. Certainly food and wine can be and are, in the right context, capable of inducing reflection and are appreciated for their aesthetic properties. After the work of Korsmeyer and others that seems no longer up for debate. Nevertheless, food and wine do serve purposes other than contemplation, and thus would still fail to qualify as an art on Kantian grounds. Yet the very distinction that Kant wants to draw has really fallen on hard times. Many works of art serve a function other than contemplation—architecture is the most salient example but music serves many purposes as does commemorative sculpture, religious paintings, political art, etc. All are typically intended to have non-contemplative uses, yet they remain art objects despite their versatility. Thus, the claim that having a non-contemplative function makes an object a work of craft rather than art seems indefensible given the plethora of counter examples.

Charles Collingwood in the early 20th Century argued that craftwork had a clearly defined end that the craftsperson is aiming at whereas art is open-ended with the artist adjusting her aim as the process of creation proceeds. This is an interesting claim because Collingswood is rightly focused on the process of creation. But I'm afraid Collingswood's distinction misconstrues the processes of craftwork. Some crafts involve continuously working back and forth between initial ideas and their embodiment and there is nothing inherent in the idea of craft that precludes the craftsperson making spontaneous discoveries and modifying her aim in light of these discoveries. As Shiner points out, people who work in crafts build a repertoire of intuitive skills over time that enable them to manipulate their media, giving them the opportunity to spontaneously modify their process in a way that involves constant monitoring and judgment.

More recently, Stephen Davies has argued that craftwork lacks aesthetic properties or was not made with the intention to express aesthetic properties. But this too seems implausible. Even a well hung door or a finely tuned engine are aesthetic and intended to be so, in that a kind of perceptual appreciation is inherently part of the achievement. I think most would agree these are crafts.[i]

A more substantive distinction between art and craft has been advanced by Shiner. He argues, following the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, that the distinction between art and craft is a continuum that involves the subordination of meaning to process. For Danto, works of art must have meaning; they must be about something, express ideas, and invite interpretation. According to Shiner, craftwork does not have the robust structures of meaning that require interpretation or express ideas.

I do think some culinary preparations and some wines have meaning and demand interpretation. A dish refers to the tradition from which it emerges and invites interpretation in light of that tradition. Wines refer to both regional traditions and the expression of both the vineyard in which the grapes are grown and the vintage which significantly alters the aesthetic properties of the wine; wines invite interpretation in light of these factors. Thus, I am happy to argue for them as works of art on those grounds. Yet, I worry about this move as a general theory of art. It is not at all obvious to me that some abstract painting and especially instrumental music demands interpretation or expresses ideas. This depends on what we mean by "interpretation" but to the extent we think of interpretation as a cognitive operation involving ideas and semantic content it isn't obvious that the sensual and emotional aspects of music or certain abstract paintings are well captured by this notion of meaning. Furthermore, craftspersons also work in traditions and their works make reference and invite comparisons to other works, a process that would seem to require interpretation. Thus, I'm not persuaded by Shiner's view that it is meaningfulness that marks the distinction between art and craft.

Nevertheless there is a meaningful distinction between craftwork and art. I'm going to rely on an observation to mark the distinction. It seems to me that part of our modern notion of art (and here I mean our normative notion of art, art that we admire and think of as good) is that art must exhibit creativity. It must be innovative, in some sense original, and the innovation must be important and valuable. Above all, works of art are works of imagination that constitute a departure from the everyday and the mundane. They surprise us and move us because of their unfamiliarity. Creativity constitutes the distinctive kind of accomplishment that is a work of art. I don't think we have the same demand for innovation or originality with regard to craftwork. We admire the skill with which a piece of furniture is constructed and appreciate the way the grain of the wood is highlighted without much concern about whether it is innovative or original and without assessing the degree of imagination or creativity that went into its making.

According to this standard both some cuisine and some wine qualify as works of art. Cuisine, today, is a surely a medium of creativity, especially the concoctions of modernist cuisine which fundamentally modify the molecular structure of food in order to create new taste sensations. Creative chefs are continually striving for innovations that transform the boundaries of taste. Thus, although traditional cooking may be more craft-like because it is for the most part focused on the execution of traditional recipes, modern food design appears more art-like in its pursuit of originality.

Winemaking appears to be a harder case because many top winemakers insist that winemaking is not about their creativity but about the quality of their grapes. Yet this modesty belies the fact that winemakers are similar to artists in their general intentions regarding aesthetic creativity and innovation. Winemakers intend to produce something of aesthetic interest that has meaning in light of the winemaking traditions they work in. They also are cognizant of the creative possibilities within their medium and materials, the genres and styles they work in, and that emerge as the work is evolving.

Furthermore, originality and distinctiveness are abiding concerns of most winemakers, with the exception of those producing commodity wines that you find in the supermarket. I seldom meet artisan winemakers who would be content to discover their wines taste like those of the guy next door. Thus, part of this background of creative intentions is an implicit understanding of what counts as original within their winemaking culture. The fact that it's the distinctiveness of their vineyard that, in part, makes their wines original does not reduce the need for aesthetic creativity and imagination since aesthetic creativity in any artistic genre relies on taking steps to recognize and preserve distinctiveness. Imagination enters very early in the winemaking process when winemakers taste their grapes in the vineyard and must then imagine a range of aesthetic outcomes that what they taste will make possible. Thus, the most important background commitment that yields distinction and originality in wine is an aesthetic sensibility developed through years of tasting. Winemakers taste repeatedly throughout the process of winemaking from sampling grapes in the vineyard to determining the final blend. In the end, it is what they taste that influences what they do. And because each individual tastes differently, their final product, if not distorted by the goal of homogeneity or consistency, will be different as well. Even though the goal for many artisan winemakers is to preserve terroir, the distinctive features of grapes from a particular vineyard or region, what that means will differ for each winemaker; each has an interpretation of what it means to preserve terroir through the idiosyncrasies of taste. (See this post for more on the creative process of winemaking.)

There is of course a question in particular cases about how much creativity is required to qualify as art. But there can be no clear dividing line between art and craft if only because there is no precise way of measuring creativity. As with any distinction there will be clear cases and then cases that are undecidable because they're too close to call. Only the terminally pedantic allow a sorites paradox to disrupt a perfectly good distinction in clear cases.

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution