jump to navigation

Ugly Food March 18, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy of Food.
Tags: , , , ,

ugly pig

Cross-posted at Edible Arts

One persistent, serious argument against the view that food preparation can be an art is that food preparation, unlike the visual arts, lacks deep meaning and the ability to represent the many dimensions of human life. While paintings can represent and comment on the horrors of war, mine the endless permutations of modern alienation, or subtly expose the character flaws of a fatuous nitwit, food is about only flavor and texture. We learn little about ourselves or the world through food regardless of how well-prepared so the argument goes.

Food writer John Mariani recently gave a version of this argument:

There is ugly art (Hieronymus Bosch) and troubling art (Goya’s Disasters of War) and art that is deliberately in your face (Kerouac’s On the Road), disorienting (Kubrick’s 2001), even repulsive (the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”). Cooking, on the other hand, should be none of these things except, perhaps, beautiful to look at on the plate and delicious on the tongue. Creative cooking might well enlighten a person to new possibilities or ways of thinking about a pea shoot, and that is a good thing in a world of fast, frozen, chemically-enhanced foods. Cooking can be provocative, but it is the rare chef who makes food that is deliberately distasteful or that seeks to outrage people, as great art often does.

Apparently, Mariani missed the “Wicked Meal” episode of Top Chef, where the challenge was to make “evil” food for the Evil Snow Queen fetchingly played by Charlize Theron. And he must have missed the anthropological accounts of women expressing anger and resentment through the inedible dishes they serve to guests and families.  (See “Thick Sauce” by Stoller and Olkes reprinted here). Clearly, chefs and cooks, when they are so inclined, can make food that represents the horrible and ugly. But, nevertheless, Mariani is right that food, in the ordinary contexts in which food is served, must taste good or it will not serve its main functions of nourishment and enjoyment. The food served on Top Chef during the above-referenced episode was tasty despite the grotesque connotations.

However, I think that episode of Top Chef is in fact instructive, not only regarding the nature of food, but the nature of art. The wasted, deformed bodies depicted in Goya’s Disasters of War are indeed grotesque. Yet even the ugly must seduce if it is to be art.

disasters of war

We don’t recoil from viewing these etchings and run screaming from the museum in a fit of rage or fright. We are fascinated by Goya’s extraordinary ability to use line and shadow as a vehicle to highlight atrocity. The spectacle of a artist relishing violence and mayhem is itself seductive and the contrast between the blindness of atrocity and the prurient insight we gain from viewing is part of the seduction. Formally, the rough lines and use of shading focus our attention but the muted colors have a distancing effect on the viewer.  The aim is to spark reflection on atrocity but the vaguely cartoonish characters contain a different message—the slaughter bench of history is so pervasive that one in the end can only laugh.

We might react emotionally and empathically to violent visual art but we do so because we view it from a safe distance—where real fear or real revulsion are inappropriate. Our response to the ugly and horrifying is sublime in Edmund Burke’s sense of that term—art puts us at a safe distance so we can reflect, not merely react. Something similar could be said of the Sex Pistols—they use revulsion in order to depict the sterility and nihilism of modern society. But if we felt revulsion toward the Sex Pistols, we simply would not listen. What they represent is repulsive but their means of representation is not, at least for their fans.

Art like food must “taste good” , give us pleasure, if its representation is to succeed. I do not know and do not wish to know anyone whose aesthetic appreciation is of the ugly as such—who gets pleasure not only in viewing what is ugly but reveling in the ugliness of the presentation. That is surely pathological.

Our reaction to food is quite similar to our response to Goya’s painting. There is nothing in ordinary life more violent than the act of eating. We rend and tear at our food after it has been slaughtered, butchered and burned to a crisp—and then we swallow and assimilate it to our own substance. Yet we are attracted to the act of eating via the pangs of hunger and the charms of flavor and aroma. All eating represents the horrible and the grotesque. That we fail to attend to it is testimony both to our capacity for self-deception and the talents of chefs who induce us to find pleasure in their presentation.

Food may be limited in what it can depict (although I think its limitations are exaggerated) but it is not mute when it comes to representing the ugly.

My comments on other aspects of Mariani’s argument are here.



1. Paul J. Moloney - March 24, 2012

I have to preface my comments by saying that I know little about art and the philosophy of art even though I took Dwight’s philosophy of art class. It’s not that Dwight wasn’t a good instructor, he was an excellent teacher. That’s how I learned how little I knew about art. Art as a topic for philosophy seems to be wide open. Dwight bringing up the subject of taste is an indication of that. The topic seems novel, but it also seems that it should be an integral part of aesthetics. Seemingly no one has treated art in the way Aristotle treated poetics. It may be that those in philosophy have treated art in general rather than art in particular. It is hard to think of anything more particular than taste.

Though I plead ignorance when it comes to art, art is, nevertheless, a matter of wonder to me and wonder can be the beginning of knowledge. Also, it belongs to a cultured person to be able to say something about art, no matter how limited. Mariani’s notion that food has to taste good is still thought provoking to me. It strikes at the essence of art to say that art can be ugly, especially if we think of art as being associated with beauty. Art has to be pleasing or no one would care about it. We only care about what pleases us. Still, not everything that pleases us is art. If the beauty in art is what pleases us then the ugly in art is what displeases us. We tend not to look at, listen to, or taste what displeases us, but as Dwight points out the depiction of ugliness in art can please us. This seems to be a contradiction unless the ugliness in art enhances the beauty through contrast or points to some other form of beauty. Ugliness is part of reality, though in sense it has no real existence. I would have to agree with Dwight that nothing is done for the sake of ugliness itself. Things that lack beauty are thought to be ugly.

What art is is a matter of controversy. If art has to do with the beautiful, and if beauty is synonymous with being, then everything that exists can be said to be a work of art. As Dwight pointed out in a lecture, everything is like everything else and everything is different from everything else. There has to be some defining limit to what art is or everything is art. To say that everything is art is to say nothing.

I would have to agree that taste does have limitations. When watching TV we can all see the same thing or hear the same thing, at least generally speaking. When it comes to the chef competition on TV we cannot taste what the judges are tasting, and that is crucial to judging what we see being made to eat. On the other hand, the experience of taste is more intimate. (I have to admit of a certain bias here. The judges on the chef show strike me as being very intelligent, which brings out my bias. I have the presumption that only people in philosophy, and some scientists, are intelligent. My bias must have developed from having ridden public transportation for so long. If anyone has the stereotype of people taking public transportation as being stupid, I can understand why. At least I don’t have any philosophical competition from people on the bus.)

Taste can be a source of knowledge if we apply ourselves to investigation. There is cultural, historical, religious and geographical influences behind the development of tastes.

If there is a master concerning the ugliness in taste it would have to be Andrew Zimmern.

2. forrest noble - April 3, 2012

I have always had such feelings and related empathy to animals being eaten. That’s why long ago I became a vegetarian.

The art of food presentation can be very appealing. Some of the best chefs are great at it. Just the presentation can sometimes by the difference of great culinary experience. But for some, the meat presentations can appear gruesome and totally unappealing.

I think of the old H.G. Wells classic the Time Machine and the Eloi, who look like us, being eaten by the Morlocks, some supposed distant future degradation of humanoids living underground and “raising” the Eloi for food.

Love the picture of that roasted pig above, not. 😦 But I am philosophical about it all since accordingly man as a species has only survived to the present day by being omnivorous, but primarily carnivorous at greater latitudes. .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: