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Sound, Vision, Taste and the Fine Arts November 1, 2011

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
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One traditional argument opposing the idea that the edible arts are genuine fine arts is that taste and smell are very limited sensory modalities. They are important only for pleasure and for their functional role in providing us with nutrition, but we get relatively little information or knowledge about the world via taste and smell, according to this argument.

Vision and hearing, by contrast, provide us with substantial world-directed information through which we establish a robust representation of reality. Vision and hearing give us an understanding of spatial location. Vision enables us to carve up the world into discreet objects that we can then view from multiple distances and many perspectives, thus enabling us to track movement and ascertain size and shape. It provides us with a simultaneous, comprehensive representation that need not unfold over time so we can size up a situation quickly. Via hearing, we process the spoken word and gain insight into emotional tone and resonance, key factors in our ability to navigate the social world.

This deluge of visual and auditory information is fodder for the artistic imagination which uses it to shape imaginative worlds that expand our perspectives and give us new ways of seeing and hearing reality.

There is no doubt that vision and hearing are the sense modalities that process the greatest volume of information. But that alone tells us little about what qualifies as a fine art.  The quintessential fine arts—painting and instrumental music—are in fact rather limited in their capacity to represent anything via sensory experience itself, despite the fact they rely on information-rich sense modalities.

Painting can represent the look of whatever fits within its static, narrow frame. But to the extent painting tells us much about a complex, dynamic world, it piggybacks on the even more information-rich activity of narrative. But paintings tell stories not only in virtue of their visual information but because the visual information is embedded in the temporal and conceptual flow of memory and anticipation, with events linked via causation. Without narrative, paintings represent only the surface appearance of things. Paintings that do not rely on narrative—some abstract works for instance—seem not to be aiming at representations of the world at all. They are about their own surfaces, their materials, or other works of art. In other words, without narrative they are much like the flavors and textures we experience in the edible arts, if tastes and smells were implausibly considered to be merely sources of pleasure without narrative structure.

Music, shorn of the narratives expressed by lyrics or implied by vocalization, is even less representational than paintings. Although music sometimes expresses emotion, it seldom represents precise, particular emotions. Furthermore, much music seems to have little to do with emotion. Music, the most abstract of the arts, is often quite distant from anything we experience in the natural world. Yet that lack of representational content does not disqualify it from being a fine art.

Thus, works of fine art either lack world-directed informational richness or they get much of their informational richness from narrative. In any case, their seems little reason to privilege vision and sound as the only sensory modalities worthy of anchoring the fine arts.

This creates some conceptual room for the edible arts if it can be shown that the edible arts have world-directed informational richness. But that is a task for another day.

Cross Posted at Edible Arts

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Comments»

1. Paul J. Moloney - November 12, 2011

Even seeing and hearing depend on touch. The ears and the eyes have to be touched in someway before one can hear and see. Without touch in some form there is no hearing and seeing, which seems to mean that touch is the premier sense. Since we have to touch our food in order to taste it, it would seem that taste too is a form of touch, or at least based on touch.

A difference between seeing, hearing, smelling and touch and taste is that with seeing, hearing and smelling we do not have to touch the object directly in order to smell, hear or see it. We do not have to touch, in the regular sense of the word, a Van Gogh in order to see it; we do not have to touch Paul McCartney’s bass guitar to hear it being played on “Taxman”.

At least one notion of substance seems to be based on touch. Because material objects are tangible, they, more than anything else, are thought to be substances.


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