Can Food Be Art? Exploring the aesthetic value of what we eat.
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.