Taste, Organic Unity, and Creative Tasting

by Dwight Furrow

Is there such a thing as tasting expertise that, if mastered, would help us enjoy a dish or a meal? It isn’t obvious such expertise has been identified.

The most prominent model of tasting expertise is derived from the practice of wine tasting and has been extended to the assessment of cheese, coffee, chocolate, beer, spirits, and a variety of other products. These products are notably complex and exhibit flavors and aromas that are difficult to detect yet important to the quality of the product. The aim of expert tasters is to break the taste object into its component flavors, aromas, and textures so each element can be clearly identified and named with the help of flavor wheels that sort these flavors into categories. The expertise required for such analytic tasting is one of discernment—identifying hidden aromas or flavors that untrained tasters might miss. Analytic tasting is useful for assessing products, identifying the origin of a product, or training one’s ability to discern flavors. However, analytic tasting pays only cursory attention to how flavors and textures are then knit together to form a coherent whole.

By contrast, typical diners when enjoying a dish or meal are less interested in identifying hidden aromas or flavors and more interested in whether the elements fit together coherently. The enjoyment of complex dishes, as well as several dishes served as part of a meal, involves tasting relations between multiple taste objects rather than discrete, individual taste objects. But what kind of relations are we tasting? Part/whole relations would be the obvious type. For a dish or meal to be aesthetically successful, ingredients and flavors must be perceived as being fully integrated parts of a coherent whole.

In aesthetics, this relationship between whole and parts has traditionally been understood in terms of organic unity. Read more »

The Fly On The Wall Always Gets The Best View:
Drone Aesthetics In A Time Before Drones

by Brooks Riley

Something odd happens when I look at the elder Pieter Bruegel’s paintings: I experience a jolt of vertigo, as though I’d stepped out on a ledge somewhere—not too high up, but high enough to initiate a physical reaction more like titillation than terror. I didn’t notice this right away: For a long time, I was too busy taking in all the business going on in those paintings: the crowds, the tussles and bustle of the marketplace, the hawkers, the wagons, the houses, the animals, and in some of his works a topography rather alien to his own very flat province of North Brabant in the Netherlands. A master of ‘everything everywhere all at once,’ Bruegel knew how to crowd a wooden panel.

In The Fight between Carnival and Lent, faced with a multitude of finely-rendered characters alive with attitude, it’s easy to be distracted from the shot itself—its acute angle, its distance from the action, its extended scope and high horizon achieved through elevation. This is a classic content-over-form dialectic that faces every viewer looking at a painting. What am I seeing? What am I supposed to see? Where am I seeing from? 

In this case ‘where am I seeing from’ has everything to do with ‘what am I seeing’’: It’s the high oblique angle that enables the viewer to take in all those individuals spread out over the market square. (An AI command to make each character look up at the painter, might force the viewer to think about where Bruegel is situated as he paints, even if he’s up there only in his imagination. It’s like the fourth wall: you’re unaware of it until a character turns and speaks to you directly.)

A cinematographer would recognize this as a crane shot, or its replacement, the drone shot. This crane or drone doesn’t move. It defines the POV (point of view) of the painter, and shows how far his perspective can reach and how much he can cram into the in-between, that 2D surface which expands vertically with every higher angle of his POV, as in this crane shot from Gone with the Wind. Read more »

The Aesthetics of Fine Cuisine

by Dwight Furrow

In a previous post, I began to articulate a conception of gastronomic pleasure loosely based on Aristotle’s view that pleasure is the natural culmination of unimpeded activity. I make use of such an ancient theory because it strikes me as true that when we exercise fundamental human capacities, and that activity proceeds without impediments or obstacles, we experience pleasure. When we don’t get pleasure from activities that engage basic human capacities, it’s because we’re not very good at them or some obstacle to completion was put in our way.

Eating, and its component activity tasting, is one such exercise of basic capacities that naturally aims at pleasure when the food is good, the company is right, and one’s sensory mechanisms are functioning properly. Tasting involves the basic skill of pattern recognition. When we eat, we build memory images of what various foods taste like and whether we like them or not. When the flavor/texture patterns in the food we are eating match, without impediment, the memory image of that food (which include hedonic responses), we experience pleasure.

One virtue of this conception of taste is that it accommodates a central feature of our enjoyment of food—familiarity is an important value. We are naturally reticent about taking something into our bodies that might be unpleasant or dangerous. Thus, we experience enjoyment when a present stimulus conforms to the familiar hedonic patterns of past experience. But of course, that memory image of what food should taste like is constantly being updated. We learn to taste new foods if only to avoid boredom since our sensory mechanisms are designed to experience repeated stimuli less intensely. Read more »

Aristotle and the Pleasures of the Table

by Dwight Furrow

It might strike you as odd, if not thoroughly antiquarian, to reach back to Aristotle to understand gastronomic pleasure. Haven’t we made progress on the nature of pleasure over the past 2500 years? Well, yes and no. The philosophical debate about the nature of pleasure, with its characteristic ambiguities and uncertainties, persists often along lines developed by the ancients. But we now have robust neurophysiological data about pleasure, which thus far has increased the number of hypotheses without settling the question of what exactly pleasure is.

Part of the problem is that we have this word “pleasure” that seems to apply to any positive affective state, and we therefore think there must be something common to all the diverse experiences designated by the word. But that unity may be an illusion. There is a vast experiential difference between the pleasures of basking in the sun and the pleasure one experiences from having run a marathon. I doubt that Aristotle’s theory can explain the former; the latter seems more amenable to his focus on activities which would include the pleasures of the table. And so I will set aside attempts to define pleasure in general and focus on the pleasure we take in our activities, specifically the activity of eating. Read more »

“Flow” and the Paradoxes of Art

by Dwight Furrow

In debates about hedonism and the role of pleasure in life, we too often associate pleasure with passive consumption and then complain that a life devoted to passive consumption is unproductive and unserious. But this ignores the fact that the most enduring and life-sustaining pleasures are those in which we find joy in our activities and the exercise of skills and capacities. Most people find the skillful exercise of an ability to be intensely rewarding. Athletes train, musicians practice, and scholars study not only because such activities lead to beneficial outcomes but because the activity itself is satisfying.

The idea that there is a distinctive and uniquely rewarding form of pleasure generated by skillful activity is not a new idea. Aristotle argued that pleasure is the product of unimpeded activity. Since skills diminish impediments to our activity it follows that we take pleasure in skillful activity. More recently, in a research project that has now spanned several decades, the Hungarian/American psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has understood the pleasure we take in skillful activity in terms of the concept of “flow,” a state of intense immersion in and focus on a task which is intrinsically rewarding.

The pleasure we experience from skillful activity is most often associated with a performance. It is less often associated with skillful perception. However, it isn’t obvious why the exercise of perceptual skills is not similarly rewarding. If so, that has implications for how we understand the nature of aesthetic experience. When we experience pleasure from viewing a painting, are the properties of the painting generating pleasure or are we taking pleasure in our own skill at apprehending those properties? If it is the latter, the capacity of a work of art to engage the skills of the viewer may be an element in evaluating a work. One enduring question in aesthetics is why we enjoy works that are grotesque, painful to experience, or just plain difficult to understand. If part of aesthetic pleasure is the satisfaction we experience in deploying perceptual skills, that question can be answered by the way in which the work engages perceptual or interpretive skills. Read more »

The Aesthetics of Dispassionate Observers

by Dwight Furrow

Aesthetic properties in art works are peculiar. They appear to be based on objective features of an object. Yet, we typically use the way a work of art makes us feel to identify the aesthetic properties that characterize it. However, dispassionate observer cases show that even when the feelings are absent, the aesthetic properties can still be recognized as such. Feelings seem both necessary yet unnecessary for appreciation of the work.

How do we square this circle?

When we ascribe to works of art properties such as beautiful, melancholy, mesmerizing, charming, ugly, awe-inspiring, magnificent, drab, or dynamic we are typically reporting how the work affects us, and we often use what we loosely call “feelings” to help in the ascription. A painting is charming if the viewer feels charmed. The architecture of a building is awe-inspiring if an admirer has the feeling of being awed. To say that a musical passage is beautiful but it leaves me uninspired and bored is peculiar and would require some special explanation for what is meant by “beautiful” in this case. We typically use the degree and kind of pleasure we feel about an object to be one measure of its beauty. The feelings involved in our response to artworks or other aesthetic objects need not be full blown emotions. As many commentators have pointed out, a sad song does not necessarily make one feel sad if you have nothing to be sad about. In fact, we often find sad songs exhilarating. Yet sad songs make us feel an analog to sadness which helps us attribute the property “sad” to the song.

In other words, there is something that it is like to feel charmed, awed, in the presence of beauty, or “sad-adjacent” that typically accompanies the identification of that property in an object. And the feeling state helps us identify the property. We know a film is amusing because it makes us feel amused, joyful because it sparks feelings of joy, etc.

But this raises a puzzle about dispassionate observers. Read more »

Nomads and Gastronomes

by Dwight Furrow

Chef Morimoto’s Buri-bop

Flavors are nomads. They lurk in disparate ingredients and journey from dish to dish. They cross generations and geographical borders putting down roots in far-flung locations, pop up when least expected, and appear in different guises depending on specific mixtures and combinations. Flavors are a molecular flow continuously reshaping each other in reciprocal determination.

The task of gastronomy is to understand this complexity. But how? As I noted in a previous post, there appears to be no global similarity space mapping relations between flavors/aromas and no rules governing how they should be combined. Are there strategies for grasping this contingency and complexity?

In general, we humans have developed two strategies for dealing with complexity. The first, macro-reduction, is of ancient lineage. We develop a taxonomy of categories into which we can neatly slip any object we encounter, carving nature at its joints, as Plato wrote. Any phenomenon can be understood as a particular instance of a general category which can then serve as a norm to judge whether the phenomenon in question is a good example of its type.

In the food world, this means we think of flavors in terms of the ingredients and dishes in which they appear, which are then grouped according to the culture from which they emerge. We divide the world of cuisine into “Italian food,” “Chinese food,” “Mexican food, etc. and these categories guide our expectations about what food should taste like. Read more »

Rumi, Adab, and the Beauty of Boundaries

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

The author with Esin Çelebi Bayru, Rumi’s granddaughter (22nd generation) in Konya

I was so excited to meet Azra Bayru Kumcuoğlu, Rumi’s granddaughter (23rd generation) for breakfast on my latest visit to Istanbul— that I wore my pearls early in the morning and popped into a salon across from Boğaziçi University campus where I had been staying. Halfway through the blowout, it began to rain and by the time I stepped out, there was a proper downpour. I was irked, as was the hairstylist, but somewhere in my Pakistani heart, rain remains a thrill, a secret, contradictory gift that comes to awaken our dormant spark. Waiting outside the museum where we had planned to meet, I saw Azra Hanim rushing towards me; her spirit was instantly apparent. With the smile and embrace befitting a descendant of Maulana Rūm himself, she held her umbrella over me as we walked down slippery stairs; a stranger a millisecond ago suddenly felt like a sister. As we negotiated the traffic, the whipping wind and wet streets, Azra Hanim kept one arm firmly hooked into my mine to prevent me from slipping. This moment inspires a reflection on courtesy but its sweeping grace defies language; words slip like “a donkey in mud” when it comes to love— to offer that unforgettable metaphor of Rumi’s making. Azra Hanim’s was no ordinary social courtesy but a courtesy shaped by love, a value rigorously honed in the Sufi cultures as Adab.

Earlier on my visit, I had met Azra Hanim’s mother, the honorable Esin Çelebi Bayru in Konya and had interviewed her regarding her new book Love is Something Beautiful. The book is part family memoir, part history of the Mevlevi school of Sufism, and reveals, amidst the ebbs and flows of circumstance and socio-political demands, how the Mevlevi culture has survived in recent centuries. The theme that prevails throughout the book is the centrality of Adab. When I met her, I immediately felt her warmth. She carries herself with the ease of a satiated spirit, happy to pass on to others the peace she feels. We had multiple conversations in the days I spent in Konya, each was memorable. The two things that interested me most in the context of my own work of original poems and translations of Iqbal, was Mevlana Rumi’s early life and influences, and the practice of Adab in the Mevlevi culture and beyond. Read more »

Winemaking and Creative Theories of Art

by Dwight Furrow

Theories that specify which properties are essential for an object to be a work of art are perilous. The nature of art is a moving target and its social function changes over time. But if we’re trying to capture what art has become over the past 150 years within the art institutions of Europe and the United States, we must make room for the central role of creativity and originality. Objects worthy of the honorific “art” are distinct from objects unsuccessfully aspiring to be art by the degree of creativity or originality on display. (I am understanding “art” as a normative concept here.)

The creative theory of art emphasizes the distinctiveness of an artist’s vision or an artist’s ability to manipulate media in new ways as the defining feature of art. (Nick Zangwill offers one such theory in his book Aesthetic Creation.)

This picture of art as creativity is complicated in discussions about whether wine can be art. Although winemakers have vision and bring that vision of what a particular wine should taste like to the blending table, their art depends inevitably on nature and nature’s “creativity.” Some philosophers might hesitate to attribute creativity to nature. Nature has neither intentions nor vision. It lacks a subjectivity that can be expressed in a point of view. Yet, nature does produce continuous variation, especially with regard to wine grapes that are highly sensitive to differences in climate, weather, and soil. These variations are the raw material with which winemakers work. Whatever their aesthetic intentions, they are constrained and limited by the variations in their raw materials. Read more »

51 Pacific and the Green Villain: Welcome to the Fun House

by Bill Benzon

I was living in the Lafayette section of Jersey City at the time, just in from Communipaw Avenue on Van Horne, next to the Jackson Funeral Home, the largest black funeral home in the city and up the block from the Monumental Baptist Church. It was only a couple of weeks before Hurricane Sandy roared though at the end of October 2012, though no one knew she was coming at the time. I was at a meeting of the Morris Canal Community Development Corporation, chaired by June Jones, Executive Director.

One of agenda items involved adding a skate park to the Berry Lane Park that was closing in on a start date. I spoke in favor of it – indeed, I’d brought the idea to June a couple weeks before as it had been something I’d been pursuing for awhile – as did Musaddiq Ahmad and others. Musaddiq came up to me after the meeting and told me that if I wanted to see some interesting graffiti – which may have come up in the meeting as well, I don’t know, but somehow he knew of my interest – I should come down to a place on Pacific, just a couple of blocks away. Amazing graffiti all over the walls inside and in the alley out back as well.

As I recall what he said registered well enough, but it didn’t quite compute. Why not? Because I’d been photographing Jersey City graffiti for several years now and, while I certainly didn’t think I had it all, what Musaddiq was describing was a major cache of fresh graff right under my nose and I didn’t even some much as suspect it. But that’s how the world is sometimes. You just don’t know what’s right around the corner.

Read more »

Beyond Subjectivity and Objectivity in Wine Tasting

by Dwight Furrow

It seems as if everyone in the wine industry proclaims that wine tasting is subjective. Wine educators encourage consumers to trust their own palates. “There is no right or wrong when tasting wine,” I heard a salesperson say recently. “Don’t put much stock in what the critics say,” said a prominent winemaker to a large audience when discussing the aromas to be found in a wine. The point is endlessly promoted by wine writers. Wine tasting is wholly subjective. There is no right answer to what a wine tastes like and no standards of correctness for judging wine quality.

But no one in the wine industry actually believes this. Everyone from consumers and retail salespersons to wine critics and winemakers must distinguish good wine from bad wine and communicate that distinction to others. Ask any winemaker why she controls fermentation temperatures, and she will respond that doing so makes better wine. If wine quality were wholly subjective, there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality. Wine education would be an oxymoron; quality control an exercise in futility; wine criticism just empty talk; price differentials based on nothing but marketing.

So what’s going on here? Why the self-deceptive denials and sotto voce acceptance that wine quality is a meaningful concept. We could speculate about why we’re so enamored with subjectivity—freedom from constraint in matters of taste I suppose. But it’s been going on since the 16th century, if we can blame Descartes. Read more »

How to Pair Music with Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Wine and music pairing is becoming increasingly popular, and the effectiveness of using music to enhance a wine tasting experience has received substantial empirical confirmation. (I summarized this data and the aesthetic significance of wine and music pairing last month on this site.) But to my knowledge there is no guide to how one should go about wine and music pairing. Are there pairing rules similar to the rules for pairing food and wine? Is there expertise involved that requires practice and experience?

In fact, there are no rules for pairing food and wine. Every so-called rule is subject to so many exceptions, it is misleading to think of these guidelines as rules. Yes, white wine often goes well with seafood but not always, and there are some red wines that are enjoyable with seafood. The same is true when pairing music with wine. There are general guidelines with many exceptions. Thus, like food and wine pairing, experience is important, and some expertise can be helpful. Below I describe my own process for generating wine and music pairings and the generalizations that can be drawn from it. Read more »

Wine Appreciation, Irony, and a Game of Striving

by Dwight Furrow

For many wine lovers, understanding wine is hard work. We study maps of wine regions and their climates, learn about grape varietals and their characteristics, and delve into various techniques for making wine, trying to understand their influence on the final product. Then we learn a complex but arcane vocabulary for describing what we’re tasting and go to the trouble of decanting, choosing the right glass, and organizing a tasting procedure, all before getting down to the business of tasting. This business of tasting is also difficult. We sip, swish, and spit trying to extract every nuance of the wine and then puzzle over the whys and wherefores, all while comparing what we drink to other similar wines. Some of us even take copious notes to help us remember, for future reference, what this tasting experience was like.

In the meantime, we argue with each other on Twitter fighting over whether a wine is terroir-driven or a technological abomination, typical or atypical, over-oaked or under ripe. We scour Wine Spectator‘s Annual Top 100 looking for who’s up and who’s down and complain about inflated wine scores and overblown wine language.

In other words, we really seem to care about getting it right, identifying a wine’s essence and properly locating it in the wine firmament. We want our judgments to conform to the actual properties of a wine and its relations. Read more »

Review of “Epistenology: Wine as Experience” by Nicola Perullo

by Dwight Furrow

Epistenology: Wine as Experience is a peculiar name for a peculiar book, although its peculiarities make it worth reading. Coined by the author, Nicola Perullo, Professor of Aesthetics at University of Gastronomic Science near Bra, Italy, the term “Epistenology” is a portmanteau blending enology, the study of wine, with epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge. The book is hard to categorize, which is precisely its point. Although a philosophy book about wine, it is not so much about wine as it is an attempt to think with wine, using wine as a catalyst for making connections to persons, atmospheres, and imaginative play within pregnant moments of immediate, lived experience. Although a serious work of philosophy, it only occasionally names other philosophers and refers to no previous work in the philosophy of wine or aesthetics, while advancing an intriguing alternative to professional wine evaluation and conventional wine education. It is avowedly a narrative of the author’s personal journey with wine and the lessons to be drawn from it. Derrida’s idea that every philosophy is a way of “justifying our lives in the world” is the book’s guiding light. Read more »

What is the Philosophy of Wine?

by Dwight Furrow

Philosophy has been an ongoing enterprise for at least 2500 years in what we now call the West and has even more ancient roots in Asia. But until the mid-2000’s you would never have encountered something called “the philosophy of wine.” Over the past 15 years there have been several monographs and a few anthologies devoted to the topic, although it is hardly a central topic in philosophy. About such a discourse, one might legitimately ask why philosophers should be discussing wine at all, and why anyone interested in wine should pay heed to what philosophers have to say.

This philosophical discourse about wine did not emerge in a vacuum. Prior to the mid-20th century, one would never have encountered “philosophy of economics,” “philosophy of law,” “philosophy of science,” “philosophy of social science,” or the “philosophy of art” either, each of which has become a standard part of the philosophical canon. Philosophers have always had much to say about these practices but not as organized into discrete sub-disciplines with their own subject matters.

The assumption behind the emergence of these sub-disciplines is that the study of philosophy brings something to them—particular skills or insights—that immersion in the disciplines themselves would struggle to employ. Thus, in trying get clear on what the philosophy of wine can contribute to the community of wine lovers, we quickly run up against the question of what distinctive skills or insights characterize philosophy. Read more »

When Words Fail

by Dwight Furrow

What did the wines that stimulated conversation in Plato’s Symposium taste like? Or the clam chowder in Moby Dick, or the “brown and yellow meats” served to Mr. Banks in To the Lighthouse? Or consider this repast from Joyce’s Ulysses:

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.


But we shall never understand the peculiar attractions of this food, because sensibility is a matter of habit and habits are seldom articulated clearly. They are so familiar we don’t bother to reflect on them or explain them. But even if Bloom had engaged in “mindful eating,” I doubt that Joyce, despite his prodigious talents, had the vocabulary to capture in words the virtues of grilled mutton kidneys with the “tang of faintly scented urine.” We are just not very good at talking about taste. The history of sensibility cannot be written. Read more »

Taste Is Knowing the Tissue of Little Things

by Dwight Furrow

A life in which the pleasures of food and drink are not important is missing a crucial dimension of a good life. Food and drink are a constant presence in our lives. They can be a constant source of pleasure if we nurture our connection to them and don’t take them for granted.

Because food and drink are an easily accessible source of pleasure, barring poverty or disease, to care little for them is a moral failure with consequences not only for the self but for others around us. However, to nurture that connection to everyday pleasure requires thought and restraint. Pleasure can be dangerous when pursued without reason and self-control. Addictive pleasures damage us and everyone around us. Addicts, in fact, cannot feel pleasure as readily as the non-addicted and require increasing levels of stimulation to find satisfaction. Addictions and compulsions are pathological and are no model for the genuine pursuit of pleasure. Thus, we need to make a distinction between pleasure that we get from thoughtless, compulsive consumption, and pleasure that is freely chosen. Pleasure freely chosen is actually a good guide to what is good for us and what should matter to us.

This emphasis on freely chosen pleasure is important not only for keeping us healthy but because certain kinds of pleasures are deeply connected to our sense of control and independence. Some of the pleasures in life come from the satisfaction of needs. When we are cold, warm air feels good. When we are hungry even very ordinary food will taste good. But such enjoyment tends to be unfocused and passive. We don’t have to bring our attention or knowledge to the table to enjoy experiences that satisfy basic needs. We are hard-wired to care about them and our response is compelled.

However, many pleasures are not a response to need or deprivation.  We have to eat several times a day, but we don’t have to eat well several times a day. Pleasure freely chosen is essential to a good life because it expresses our independence from need. Read more »

Wine’s Very Own Imitation Game

by Dwight Furrow

I often hear it said that, despite all the stories about family and cultural traditions, winemaking ideologies, and paeans to terroir, what matters is what’s in the glass. If a wine has flavor it’s good. Nothing else matters. And, of course, the whole idea of wine scores reflects the idea that there is single scale of deliciousness that defines wine quality.

For many people who drink wine as a commodity beverage, I suppose the platitude “it’s only what’s in the glass matters” is true. But many of the people who talk this way are wine lovers and connoisseurs. For many of them, there is something self-deceptive about this full focus on what is in the glass. Although flavor surely matters, it is not all that matters, and these stories, traditions, and ideologies are central to genuine wine appreciation.

Burnham and Skilleås, in their book The Aesthetics of Wine, engage in a thought experiment that shows the questionable nature of “it’s only what’s in the glass that matters”. They ask us to imagine a scenario in 2030 in which wine science has advanced to such a point that any wine can be thoroughly analyzed, not only into its constituent chemical components (which we can already do up to a point), but with regard to a wine’s full development as well.

Read more »

What Does Beauty Demand of Us?

by Dwight Furrow

Beauty has long been associated with moments in life that cannot easily be spoken of—what is often called “the ineffable”. When astonished or transfixed by nature, a work or art, or a bottle of wine, words even when finely voiced seem inadequate. Are words destined to fail? Can we not share anything of the experience of beauty? On the one hand, the experience of beauty is private; it is after all my experience not someone else’s. But, on the other hand, we seem to have a great need to share our experiences. Words fail but that doesn’t get us to shut up.

Perhaps communication about beauty is not hopeless; we do after all share some responses to beauty. Most everyone agrees the Mona Lisa is beautiful (if you can actually get close enough to enjoy the diminutive painting amidst the hordes at the Louvre). Most everyone agrees that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti makes lovely wine if you can afford a taste. Who would argue with the spectacular coastline view of Cinque Terre from Monterosso?

However, in matters of beauty, disagreements are just as common. As Alexander Nehamas argues, beauty forms communities of like-minded lovers who share an affection for certain works of art and who do find it possible to communicate their obsession. Something escapes the dark tunnels of subjectivity to survive in a clearing where others mingle. But this process excludes people who don’t get it. We are often bored to tears by something that fascinates others. Across that barrier of incomprehension words may well fail. Beauty forms communities of rivals as the scandal surrounding the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring exemplifies. The contretemps between conventional and natural wine is the latest to divide the wine world. May it not be the last because these conflicts matter and are a symptom of the fundamentally normative response which beauty demands of us. Read more »

Visual Histories: Peter de Swart and Rachelle Reichert

by Timothy Don

The current economic crisis is crushing artists, museums, and galleries everywhere. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, an exorbitant rental market made maintaining a practice difficult before this crisis hit. It’s even harder now. With 3QD’s permission, I’m going to use this column to talk about the work of some of the artists and art professionals I have met here. I ask you to support artists wherever and however you can.

Peter de Swart, works on paper: Triptych

The triptych form is associated with religious painting. It first appeared as a feature of early Christian art and became popular for altar paintings and devotionals during the Middle Ages. While Peter de Swart’s Triptych is not overtly religious, it emanates an undeniably religious or spiritual aura. It is, in a word, numinous. To encounter this painting is to witness a sacred transaction. You’d have to be a stone to look at it and not experience a yearning for the divine. Why, apart from its rearticulation of the history and symbolism of the triptych form, is that?

It must have something to do, first of all, with the simple purity of the object pictured, which appears to be a bowl of some sort. Bowls are one of those inventions (like scissors or chopsticks or the hourglass) that we got right the first time. They were perfect the moment they appeared. In the bowl, function lives harmoniously with form. Its shape is so ideal as to be almost Platonic. Furthermore, bowls are used to prepare and serve food and drink, which means that they give sustenance, enable shared meals, and consequently help to strengthen communal bonds and deepen human relationships. Finally, bowls are vessels. Like hands and pockets and ships, they hold and contain and convey things—but they are not grasping like hands, nor like pockets do they secret away their contents, and they don’t trade goods and gold like ships. Quite the opposite, in fact: Bowls are generous, open, gratuitous. They give away the things they hold.

All of these attributes (form, use value, ethos) lend bowls a quasi-spiritual redolence, but they do not make bowls sacred. If this triptych depicted a bowl no different from any other bowl, then its effect would be decorative rather than numinous. This bowl is special. Again we must ask: Why is that? Read more »