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Ugly Food March 18, 2012

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


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

Posted by Dwight 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

Picasso’s Puffery October 25, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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Picasso is alleged to have said “Painting is not done to decorate apartments, it is an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.” I suspect that he was referring to his own painting, Guernica, which depicts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.


I often come across such claims about art—that it has something profound to say about the human condition. But I find them puzzling. What is the point of the commentary of which paintings are capable? How is Guernica an instrument of opposition?

I doubt that anyone learns about the horrors of war from a painting. If you did not already know of the horrors of war you would be unlikely to read the painting as commenting on them. Furthermore, if a gain in knowledge is the point, people who are already acquainted with brutal warfare would receive little benefit from viewing the painting, which seems implausible. And can’t we more effectively learn about historical events from history books or documentaries? Is there some dimension of warfare that is best depicted in paintings? I doubt it.

Perhaps the point is not that we gain knowledge from painting but that  paintings are particularly good at provoking an emotional response from the viewer. Perhaps, then, paintings deepen our sensitivity to the horrors of war via their depictions or inspire us to pursue peace. But I doubt that a cool, abstract depiction elicits a more powerful response than actual war footage, filmic representations, live interviews with victims, or reports on the ground by intrepid journalists, all of which seem to pack an emotional punch that paintings rarely if ever achieve. Paintings, because they are fixed entities, lend themselves to contemplation more readily than film. But museums, especially large one’s in major cities visited by hordes of tourists are not conducive to contemplation. (Guernica is housed in Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum)

Perhaps the viewing of paintings is a reminder that we should care about warfare’s destruction. We clearly need such reminders. But the occasions when such reminders are essential do not correlate well with visits to a museum.

Paintings are valuable, in part, because they give us new ways of organizing and conceptualizing visual space. But that can be accomplished regardless of the content of the painting—such an aim would seem to have little to do with warfare. Paintings—the great ones at any rate—are unique representations of what they depict. But if this is the value of Guernica, it is the uniqueness of its depiction not some fact about the horrors of war that matters most. It is a stretch go call such an aim an instrument in a war against brutality.

So wise and discerning readers. Tell me. What do paintings uniquely say about the human condition? Is Picasso just puffing up his accomplishments.

Imagining John Lennon December 8, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Art and Music, Culture, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Today we should commemorate another passing, but this one lies 30 years in the past. Dec.8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered. For my generation it is a date we remember, always, because of Lennon’s standing as a cultural personality, as well as the symbolism of his passing. Now Rolling Stone Magazine has published his final interview with audio clips. For those of you who were around on that winter’s day in 1980, it may remind you of how so many of us felt. For those of you for whom this is ancient history, maybe this will give you a bit of a feel for why Lennon was such a significant person—even a philosopher, as some would call him, and why his death was so devastating for an entire generation. Some of us see the world through different eyes now, but that doesn’t mean his words have stopped resonating, because they came from the heart of a great artist.

Here is what MTV has to say today:

It was 30 years ago today that former Beatle John Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan outside his home in New York. To mark that tragic event, fans around the world are planning commemorations of the singer’s life and legacy on Wednesday (December 8), remembering his message of peace and love and paying tribute to one of the premier songwriters of the modern era.

As part of that celebration of Lennon’s life, Rolling Stone magazine has devoted its final 2010 issue to a nine-hour interview the singer did just three days before his death on December 8, 1980. Select excerpts from the interview writer Jonathan Cott conducted with Lennon ran in a tribute issue put out by the magazine in January 1981, but the full talk sat on a shelf in Cott’s closet for nearly 30 years.

In audio excerpts from the interview on Rolling Stone‘s website, Lennon laments, “I cannot live up to other people’s expectations of me, because they’re illusory,” he said of his efforts to include positive messages of hope and togetherness in his music and the pressure to live up to his legacy. “Give peace a chance, not shoot people for peace … I only put out songs and answer questions … I cannot be 18 and a be a punk … I see the world through different eyes. I still believe in love, peace and understanding, as Elvis Costello says.”

Can Video Games Be Art? April 28, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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Roger Ebert argues that video games in principle cannot be art.

But I’m not at all sure what his argument is. He never quite says what something must be in order to be art.

The only shred of an argument I can find in his essay is this:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.

But if one of Calder’s mobiles was displayed with instructions to count the number of rotations per minute and win a prize, would it be any less a work of art?

I’m no gamer so my knowledge  of video games is rather limited. But I don’t see why someone could not devise a video game in which elements of the game were presented in such a way as to induce an aesthetic experience.

It may be that no game currently on the market would qualify as a work of art; I doubt that video game creators are aiming at artistic merit.  But why are video games in principle incapable of being art?

The relevant question with regard to the artistic merit of any object is this: Does the assemblage of elements form an ordered arrangement with aesthetic properties? A video game could be elegant, graceful, or beautiful. It could be a powerful evocation of thelife of a people or a disturbing glimpse of chaos and decline. It can possess unity, clarity, or symmetry. Since video games can possess aesthetic properties what precludes them from being art?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Asceticism Run Amok April 7, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

Steve Almond laments the rise of new music listening technologies:

But for all the joys of such wizardry, I’ve been experiencing a creeping sense of dread recently when it comes to iTunes, a dark hunch that technology has impoverished the actual experience of listening to music.

See, back when I was a kid in the ’70s, the way I listened to music was pretty simple. I put an LP on the turntable, dropped the needle, then sat on the living room rug and listened to every single note. If I liked the record a lot, I would listen to it two or three times in a row, usually with the album cover on my lap, so I could study the lyrics and artwork. […]

I really miss the fact that listening to music used to be a concerted sonic and emotional event, rather than the backing track to some flashing screen. It was more inconvenient, to be sure. But for me, this inconvenience was part of the whole point.

I liked that I could only listen to my albums on a turntable in the living room. I liked yearning for my favorite records. I can still remember spending the entire day at school counting the minutes until I could get home to listen to the transcendent power chords of Styx’s “Paradise Theater.”

I even liked that there was a whole process involved before you got to the songs. You had to thumb through your collection, put the record on the turntable and then set the needle down with the utmost care.

I don’t get this. I understand the experience of focused, repetitive listening. It conforms to my own experience. (Aside from his interest in Styx who were dreadful)

But I don’t see why technology is to blame for his missing rapture. If he wants a “concerted sonic and emotional event” he can now have it anywhere he wants with any music he likes. If he listens only when tied to a “flashing screen” while distractedly multi-tasking, the problem is not the technology but his listening habits.

And the chore of archiving cumbersome albums, dealing with turntables, and waiting for the damn radio to play something good is surely not to be missed.

I’m surprised he doesn’t tell us about the whips he employs for his daily self-flagellation.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Comics of Interest II January 27, 2010

Posted by Ian Duckles in Art and Music, Uncategorized.
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Continuing on my theme of philosophically interesting comics books, I intend to devote this entry to an examination of what people normally associate with the form: the cape and cowl style superhero. Rather than discuss the genre generally, I want to focus on a specific series, The Brave and the Bold volume 3, issues 27-30 written by J. Michael Straczynski with art by Jesus Saiz. The Brave and the Bold is published by DC comics and features team-ups between various characters in the DC Universe. I will examine the four most recent issues of this series (still available at your local comic book shop) because the creative team behind the book is really doing an amazing job. Each of these four books is an out of continuity one-shot (meaning that each book tells a self-contained story that can be understood on its own without having to have read other comic books or even be familiar with the characters in the book), which makes them a perfect starting point for people who are new to the comic book medium.

Each of the four books features a team-up between a well-established superhero and a more obscure character(s) from the DC Universe. What sets these books apart from more generic super-hero comics (not that there is anything wrong with that) is the way Straczynski uses these team-ups to explore themes and issues that transcend the normal fare found in comics. I want to briefly discuss each of these books in turn. As a quick note, I won’t be discussing the art in these books but suffice to say Saiz does an outstanding job.

Brave and the Bold 27 CoverIssue #27: Batman and Dial H for Hero. At this point, Batman needs no introduction, but Dial H for Hero is an old-style rotary phone dial that turns the user into a superhero when he or she dials the letters H-E-R-O. In this story, the owner of the dial is visiting Gotham City (Batman’s hometown) when it is stolen by a petty thief named Travis Milton. Milton uses the dial and is transformed into a Superman like character named The Star. When the Star rescues a window cleaner who has fallen off the scaffolding, Travers realizes that his new-found powers provide him an opportunity for redemption and an escape from his life of crime. Of particular interest is the way Strazcynski uses this set-up to explore the nature of heroism in comic books, and he suggests what might motivate someone in this fictional world to put on a costume and start fighting crime. The psychological profiling of superheros and villains has been done (often poorly) by many in the wake of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen, but Strazcynski is able to give a more optimistic spin on this well-worn trope.

Brave and the Bold 28 CoverIssue #28 begins when the Flash (the fastest man alive) breaks his leg while inadvertently traveling back in time to the Battle of the Bulge. Because he needs to run at super speed to return to his own time, the Flash is trapped in the past until his leg heals. While there he encounters the Blackhawks (a multi-national group of WWII flying aces) who themselves have been accidentally dragged into the battle when they were ambushed while on R&R in Belgium. In the DC universe, the general criterion that distinguishes heroes from villains is that heroes do not kill while villains do. This creates a dilemma for the Flash as he finds himself in the middle of a war, teamed up with an elite band of soldiers. The way in which the Flash resolves this dilemma provides the core of the story and the way in which Straczynski uses this framework to explore notions of heroism and the obligations of citizens during wartime is fascinating.

Brave and the Bold 29 CoverIssue #29 one again returns to Batman, this time teaming him with an obscure 60’s counter-culture superhero: Brother Power the Geek. Straczynski uses this match up to contrast the values of the 60’s (particularly the hippies and the counter-culture) with the values of contemporary America. This is a story that has already been dealt with in many contexts, but Straczynski is nevertheless able to find an interesting and compelling take, particularly as he contrasts the ideals of the Summer of Love with America in 2009.

Issues #30: My personal favorite of the four and the most obviously “philosophical,” this issue teams the Green Lantern with Dr. Fate. Very quickly, the Green Lantern’s powers come from a ring that is fueled by the user’s will power. Dr. Fate, as the name suggests is a servant of the forces of fate and destiny. Straczynski uses this team-up to explore the classic philosophical debate of free will vs. determinism. What I particularly appreciated about this book was that, in true philosophical fashion, Straczynski does not provide any answers, but instead raises issues and questions about this topic as he uses these characters to explore many of the different perspectives one can take. This book in particular would work as an excellent way to get students to think about these concepts and some of the issues and consequences of the various positions one can occupy in this debate.

Art and Authenticity December 21, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin is puzzled by worries about authenticity in art.

“In the course of an interesting piece by Richard Dorment in the NY Review of Books on the authenticity or otherwise of works by Andy Warhol, I came across a striking passage”

The single most important thing you can say about a work of art is that it is real, that the artist to whom it is attributed made it. Until you are certain that a work of art is authentic, it is impossible to say much else that is meaningful about it.

”Is this a reasonable claim about art in general? How important is authentic attribution in, say, literature or music?”

Quiggin is doubtful. 

“If it turned out, say, that Francis Bacon wrote all the plays we could just say ’Shakespeare’ was really Francis Bacon’ and go on pretty much as before.”

I can think of some contexts in which authorship would matter. If you are judging an artist’s body of work it is important to know what to include and what not. Furthermore, when and where a work was created matters a great deal. If it turns out that Macbeth was written by Bacon, since Bacon was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, it would be no less a great work. But if we were to discover that Macbeth was written by some 19th Century poet emulating Shakespeare it would matter a great deal since the play would no longer express features of Elizabethan England that provide part of the richness of a Shakespeare tragedy.

But, generally, authenticity is over-rated as an aesthetic standard.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Friday Music Blogging September 18, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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I have always wondered why my son’s dog doesn’t care about music.

Beethoven, Coltrane, Radiohead—it doesn’t matter, he is indifferent.

Here is a study of monkeys that explains why:

Monkeys don’t care much for human music, but apparently they will groove to their own beat.

Previous experiments have shown that tamarin monkeys prefer silence to Mozart, and they don’t respond emotionally to human music the way people do. But when a psychologist and a musician collaborated to compose music based on the pitch, tone and tempo of tamarin calls, they discovered that the species-specific music significantly affected monkey behavior and emotional response.

“Different species may have different things that they react to and enjoy differently in music,” said psychologist Charles Snowdon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who published the paper Tuesday in Biology Letters with composer David Teie of the University of Maryland. “If we play human music, we shouldn’t expect the monkeys to enjoy that, just like when we play the music that David composed, we don’t enjoy it too much.”

Indeed, the monkey music sounds shrill and unpleasant to human ears. Each of the 30-second pieces below were produced with a cello and Teie’s voice, based on specific features from recordings of tamarin monkey calls. The first “song” is based on fear calls from an upset monkey, while the second one contains soothing sounds based on the vocalizations of a relaxed animal.

If you are curious check out the “monkey music” at the linked site.

Friday Music Blogging September 4, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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Los Campesinos is one of the more promising indie-pop bands I have heard in the past year. Exuberant, lots of polished hooks, and clever turns-of-phrase, but with attitude. (and a glockenspiel that figures prominently in their sound)

The singers shout a bit much. (Aleksandra sometimes sounds like an 8- year old who stumbled upon her parent’s meth stash.) And there is not quite enough emotional range for a complete album. But this band should get better with maturity.