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Intoxication September 27, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
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Seilenos-Dionysus

Cross-Posted at Edible Arts

A bottle of Jack Daniels is intoxicating if you drink enough of it. The ambient music of Steve Roach is intoxicating as well. Clearly, they are not intoxicating in the same way.

The Jack Daniels will cause drunkenness; but the experience of drinking plays no role in the intoxication just as the experience of taking a sleeping pill has nothing to do with its effects. The effect is all that matters, and you will be just as intoxicated if you drink absentmindedly. Drunkenness is an experience, but it is an experience in which our attention is not directed at anything in particular.

By contrast, with music, the listening itself is crucial to the intoxication. The intoxication is not just an effect of the music; the experience itself, and the attention we give to it, is a necessary component. The hearing is itself intoxicating, and the experience is about something—namely the music.

Happily, wine is intoxicating in both respects. In sufficient quantities it causes the intoxication of drunkenness but the experience of tasting wine is itself intoxicating. The smells, flavors, and textures of wine can be moving and exhilarating just as the sounds of music can be when we direct our attention to them.

As Roger Scruton writes in his article “The Philosophy of Wine” (available in this anthology)

“The intoxication that I feel is not just caused by the wine: it is, to some extent at least, directed at the wine, and not just a cause of my relishing the wine, but in some sense a form of it. The intoxicating quality and the relishing are internally related, in that the one cannot be properly described without reference to the other….I have not swallowed the wine as I would a tasteless drug; I have taken it into myself, so that its flavour and my mood are inextricably bound together.”

Scruton’s analysis seems right up to a point but I doubt that aesthetic intoxication is wholly unrelated to the mild, alcoholic buzz induced by wine. The flush of exhilaration caused by the alcohol (in small quantities) seems to sharpen one’s anticipation, and lends itself to feelings of enchantment that may influence our perceptions and judgments. Even in contexts where I taste and evaluate many wines, and must spit and dump to remain sharp, enough alcohol is absorbed through mouth tissue and accidental swallowing to influence my mood. The attentional focus of relishing and savoring are important but I doubt that they are the whole story.

The intoxication of music may also depend on effects that go beyond savoring. Music influences our moods and expectations in ways that are likely to profoundly influence our judgments about the music.

Recent research has demonstrated the role of neruotransmitters in our enjoyment of music:

Our experience of the music we love stimulates the pleasure chemical dopamine in our brain, concludes a new study produced by a slew of scholars at McGill University. The researchers followed the brain patterns of test subjects with MRI imaging, and identified dopamine streaming into the striatum region of their forebrains “at peak emotional arousal during music listening.”

Not only that, but the scientists noticed that various parts of the striatum responded to the dopamine rush differently. The caudate was more involved during the expectation of some really nice musical excerpt, and the nucleus accumbens took the lead during “the experience of peak emotional responses to music.”

In other words, just the anticipation our favorite passage stimulates the production of dopamine.

I doubt that this kind of influence necessarily involves critical reflection, although the study does not explicitly address this point. It is also not  surprising that increased levels of dopamine are implicated in drunkenness.

Scruton wants to distinguish between intoxication I (drunkenness) and intoxication II (aesthetic appreciation) by insisting that relishing or savoring—a kind of critical inspection—is involved in the latter but not in the former. It is that moment of thoughtful reflection, and our ability to form a representation of the music or wine, that enables us to appreciate the finer points of wine or music.

But I doubt that the content of that critical inspection can be sharply distinguished from causal effects of the wine or music that may not be part of our representation of the wine or music.

It may be that the two forms of intoxication are more closely related than Scruton allows.

Dionysus would not be surprised.

Authenticity and Food Rules August 30, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
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Authentic stampCross-posted at Edible Arts 

Cooking is an art mired in tradition. Each nation has its food rules encrusted with the patina of age and each region within each nation has its way of doing things that seem natural and “right”, and violations are met with moral indignation and contempt.

In Italy, grated cheese is never added to seafood, oil and vinegar is the only proper salad dressing,  and coffee is never consumed during a meal. In France, salad is always eaten after the main dish, never before, ketchup is not a condiment for pommes frites.  Even in the “anything goes” United States, beans are part of a chili recipe only in certain regions of the country; and do not eat Carolina Barbeque in Texas.

But of what value is authenticity? Does it matter if these rules are followed or broken?

Italian chef Sara Jenkins points out that such “food rules” conceal more than they reveal.

Italian food and flavors changed dramatically after 1492 with the influx of the New World fruits and vegetables — tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes — that were gradually integrated over four centuries of gardening and cooking and are at the core of today’s version of Italian food. If we wanted to be really authentic with Italian food, shouldn’t we do away with all the invasive species? Doesn’t that make tomato sauce and polenta inauthentic?

“Food rules” ignore the fact that all food traditions have been influenced by outsiders, all are a hybrid hash of influences thrown together by the movement of populations. Whatever “authenticity” means it cannot mean pure or unadulterated.

Authenticity is not about origins but about the commitments people make and what those commitments reveal about their sensibility. There is a reason why tomato sauces marry nicely with pasta and why a tomato served with olive oil and basil is heavenly. Tomatoes may not be originally Italian, but Italians have done wonderful things with tomatoes. They committed themselves to tomatoes, discovered how they resonate with their local ingredient, and now there is a certain way with tomatoes that is uniquely Italian.

So should we just throw out the food rules?  I think not. Food rules must be respected because they set the table for innovation—they define the standards that innovation must meet. Food rules say: “If you want to violate this tradition it better be good.” Without tradition, innovation is just novelty.

However, anyone who is just a slave to tradition and rigidly conforms without entertaining new ideas is violating the very identity of the tradition—its’ ability to be affected. That is, after all, what sensibility is. What makes traditions great—and this is certainly true of Italian food traditions—is their capacity to seamlessly absorb new influences.

Tradition and authenticity are not opposed to innovation–they depend on it. No tradition can remain alive if it does not innovate by accepting and transforming influences from abroad. Jenkins wonders about whether innovations can be authentic:

I have found the combination of soy sauce and extra virgin olive oil to be delicious. Is that a bad thing? It’s certainly inauthentic right now, but will it be considered a standard element in Italian cuisine 50 years from now?

If there is something about Italian cuisine that is enhanced by soy sauce, then soy sauce will become authentically Italian. If I should hazard a guess it will gain entry as an addition to fig puree or the secret ingredient in a meat ragu. Or perhaps if Chef Jenkins is bold she will offer it as a variation on Florentine Steak.

Poetry in Food August 23, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
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atelier crenn

Cross-posted at Edible Arts

One of the great obstacles to thinking of food as a form of art is that we are accustomed to thinking of food as a collection of flavors and textures that, although pleasurable, lack meaning. Flavors and textures, so it is argued, are not about anything and thus are not representations of an object, place, or person. In this they differ from painting, linguistic arts, and more controversially music, all of which have meaning and which thus qualifies them as art forms.

Chef Crenn, owner of Atelier Crenn, a restaurant in San Francisco, is pushing against this view and understands the depth of meaning that food can have.

Ms. Crenn’s dishes, which she dubs “poetic culinaria,” are all meant to express artistic ideas, in the same way that a line of poetry is meant to communicate more than the sum of its words. A recent 12-course, $160 grand tasting menu was also written as a poem. On the menu, the line “a shallow pool stirs,” for example, accompanied a dish of radish tea with sea urchin and caviar; “as first buds appear” went with a dish of oysters and egg-white foam decorated with tiny flowers.

The rest of the article describes how Crenn used a bird’s nest spotted on a walk as inspiration for a dish called “Birth” which resembled a bird’s nest and which signified the new beginning she must undertake after the foie gras ban in California goes into effect.

One could argue that Crenn’s cooking gets its meaning and thus its artistry from the stunning visual appearance of the food and the title of the dish. Thus, it is poaching on the visual and linguistic dimension for its claim to be art. In other words, the flavors and textures, the elements related to taste, are not doing much artistic work. Having not tasted Crenn’s intriguing culinaria I cannot say what work flavor is doing to enhance the perception of genuine artistry. But there is nothing in the nature of art that entails that art can employ only a single sensory modality. Film for instance employs many sensory modalities. And the dish did include remnants of her foie gras supply, thus clearly flavor and texture contribute to the meaning of the dish.

Many works of art get some of their meaning from language. We would be hard pressed to grasp the meaning of a work such as  Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea) if he hadn’t given it that title. Yet surely instrumental music is an art form despite the difficulty in locating its meaning.

The exclusion of food (and wine) from the realm of fine art increasingly seems like a mere prejudice (or a matter of historical practice) thanks to chefs such as Ms. Crenn, whose cooking I look forward to sampling the next time I’m in San Francisco.

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.

Real Men Don’t Eat Fiddly Foods! February 15, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
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124598_4563

Cross-posted at Edible Arts

 

Esquire’s “Eat Like a Man” blog features John Mariani confidently contending that cooking is a craft, never an art.

Thus, imagination and creativity go into cooking, often at a very high level, at which point it is called haute cuisine. But there is nothing that rises to the level of true art in a craft whose very existence depends on the constant replication of a dish, night after night, week after week.

The occasion for Mariani’s diatribe against culinary art is a new book which consists mainly of pictures of:

…cooks’ hands putting the final touches on dishes — a periwinkle on tapioca, a dot of sauce on octopus, a blow torch used on cactus pads.

Given the venue, I suppose the subtext here is that real men don’t eat fiddly foods topped with periwinkles, when the carcasses of large-boned animals can be slathered with Q-sauce and washed down with a pitcher of Bud Light for a fraction of the price.

Subtext aside, Mariani’s arguments are interesting in much the same way a speech by Newt Gingrich is interesting—one shivers in anticipation of impending collapse when bluster is so perilously perched on non-sequitur. So it is worth unpacking the arguments if only for the spectacle.

With a healthy dose of charity, I can discern 5 arguments in Mariani’s piece:

(1) Cooking requires the constant replication of a dish and is thus inherently a reproduction; works of art are unique.

(2) Cooking is science-based and thus cannot be an art

(3) Art can be ugly, troubling, or repulsive; food by contrast cannot be deliberately distasteful.

(4) In cooking, form must follow function. Thus, cooks must make guests happy and this often requires simplicity and making things “taste like what they are”. In art, (by implication) form is not bound to function, simplicity is not a virtue, and art is essentially about creatively modifying the object being represented, not showing it as it is.

(5) What is typically called culinary art involves extravagant display or adding decorative flourishes to traditional ingredients. This is not art because (by implication) art is not about decoration or extravagance.

There is too much misunderstanding of both cooking and the arts to reply in one blog post. So I will take up these arguments in separate posts over the next week or so.

But his first argument that individual dishes are reproductions and thus cannot be original works is simple nonsense. Copies of paintings are indeed mere reproductions, not original works. A print of the Mona Lisa is not a work of art because painting is an autographic art—only the painter can directly cause the work to exist, and there can be only one legitimate instance of it. But many arts are allographic—copies of an original are genuine instances of the original. My copy of Hamlet is a work of art even though it is a duplication of the original. CD’s by Springsteen or performances of Beethoven are instances of works of art despite the fact they are reproductions.

Cooking is similarly allographic. Individual dishes are instances of a recipe just as a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is an instance of its score. So the fact that line cooks churn out 25 copies of a dish in no way shows that cooking is not an art–unless Mariani is prepared to claim Beethoven and Shakespeare are mere craftsmen.

Tasteless Philosophy November 21, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Despite being preoccupied with analyzing sensory experience, philosophers have ignored taste, smell, and touch, focusing instead on vision (and to a degree sound) as the most important sense.

Hans Jonas’s “The Nobility of Sight” is a representative example. Only vision, he argued, points us in the direction of the eternal, universal truths, which have been philosophy’s concern throughout most of its history. Vision puts us in mind of the eternal because time is not essential to its functioning. When we view a landscape we see the visual field displayed all at once, in no time; and an object can be visually identified immediately without a sequence of appearances over time, in contrast to sound, touch, or taste that need time to reveal the character of their objects. And visual objects have stability. We can view an object, look away, and then return to the very same object as if nothing has changed unlike the fleeting, ever-changing objects of taste, smell, and sound.

Furthermore, Jonas argues, with vision we can see things better if we maintain a distance from them. Touch, smell, and taste require that we be intimate with the object thus increasing the chances of personal bias might influence our understanding of it.

Despite their illustrious pedigree, these are very bad arguments. We learn nothing of the eternal through vision, or any other sensory mechanism, and vision without the opportunity for subsequent confirmation, in time, would be the source of constant error. Furthermore, our sense of the stability of objects is as dependent on the sense of touch as on vision. The stability of our visual field is dependant on the body’s orientation is space, which is maintained, in part, by our tactile contact with solid objects.

As to the alleged objectifying distance of vision, science shows that vision involves intimate contact with physical objects–swarms of photons. And we seem just as capable of misinterpreting those photons as we are the signals from taste buds. Recent psychological research is demonstrating the unreliability of eye-witness testimony. If anything introduces subjective bias into perceptual judgments it is the fact that objects are often seen at a distance or under conditions otherwise unsuitable for reliable identification. Apparently seeing is misbelieving.

At best, vision’s distance and the illusion of simultaneity allow us to spin metaphors about the eternal and universal. But misleading metaphors are bad metaphors.

There is an important contrast between vision and the other senses however. Through vision we do gain a sense of an horizon, an area beyond our present space. This is surely important for the development of our imagination.

By contrast, sound, touch, taste, and smell root us in the here and now. Objects must be spatially and temporally present for them to effect these sensory modalities. But why should experience rooted in the here and now be uninteresting to philosophy?

If taste is philosophically uninteresting, perhaps it is because philosophers lack taste.

The Synergy of Music and Wine (or how to waste time on the Internet) November 15, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
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Synergy occurs when two or more things function together to produce a result that they cannot achieve independently.

Synergy is essential in the world of food and wine. Good food and wine pairings are an example of synergy. Adding salt or acidity to a dish often enhances other flavors—another example of synergy.

But what about synergy between music and drink? Are their natural affinities between music and particular consumables? A new website, called Drinkify, assumes so. Enter the name of an artist you want to listen to and a song by that artist starts playing and a drink recommendation pops up.

The idea was conjured at a recent meeting of Music Hack Day Boston, where tech geeks gather to meld software and music.

I usually ignore web-based gimmicks. But I couldn’t resist this. So I plugged in one of my favorite bands, Steely Dan, and received the recommendation to drink a bottle of red wine—topped with nutmeg? Now if you happen to like red wine and Steely Dan, I’m sure they will enhance each other, especially towards the bottom of the bottle. But is their some further connection here? The music of Steely Dan is sophisticated and complex, and some red wine is sophisticated and complex as well, but the last thing I’m going to do with a sophisticated, complex wine is sprinkle nutmeg on top! Nutmeg is a flavor note one often detects in pinot noir. I guess if all I had was a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, I could sprinkle a little nutmeg and pretend to be tasting Burgundy. But why bother?

I’m beginning to suspect this is nonsense.

But wait. Here’s another hypothesis. Steely Dan got their name from a William Burroughs reference to a dildo in Naked Lunch. And Burroughs killed his wife trying to shoot a wine glass off her head in a drunken game of William Tell. Ah. I guess that’s the connection.

I decided to go classical and plugged in Stravinsky. Their drink recommendation—Ogogoro, a Nigerian beverage distilled from the sap of palm trees. Well, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring featured primitive themes and syncopated rhythms inspired by African music. Not bad. A bit more precise than the Steely Dan reference.

How about some Coltrane? 4 oz of red wine with the instructions to serve neat and stir vigorously. Huh?

I’m beginning to suspect random associations.

Oh just one more. Elvis Costello. The recommendation–8 oz of fassionola, which is a red syrup used in bar drinks, 10 oz. water and 8 oz. of half-and-half.

That is just disgusting.

I can’t believe I just wasted 20 minutes on this.

x-posted at Edible Arts

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.

PicassoGuernica

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.

Coming Down Off the Perfect Meal October 18, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
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Food and Wine have not been taken seriously as forms of art in part because of the belief that vision and hearing are the only senses that lend themselves to the intellectual explorations we associate with art. This ideology, called the “sense hierarchy”, and masterfully traced by Carolyn Korsmeyer in Making Sense of Taste, treats taste and smell as thoroughly functional sources of brute pleasure, too primitive and instinctual to be worthy of genuine aesthetic discrimination.

This ideology is ancient. 2500 years ago, Plato argued that vision and sound give us information about the world that engages the intellect, while tastes and smells only encourage the appetite which he likened to a ravenous beast that overcomes our rational faculties. (I suppose Plato can be forgiven for not knowing about the porn industry or trivial pop melodies that suck you in each time you hear them.)

…the gods made what is called the lower belly, to be a receptacle for the superfluous meat and drink and formed the convolution of the bowels, so that the food might be prevented from passing quickly through and compelling the body to require more food, thus producing insatiable gluttony and making the whole race an enemy to philosophy and culture, and rebellious against the divinest element within us.

One wonders what was in Plato’s kitchen that threatened to sap his self-control. But Plato’s assertion rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of how appetite works. Appetite has its own internal control mechanisms.

This point was brought home to me as I read Jay Rayner’s book The Man Who Ate the World. Rayner, a British food critic, often on the judges’ panel for Top Chef, set out on a worldwide quest to discover the perfect meal. With perfection being an impossible standard, his quest involves more disappointments than successes. But the penultimate failures could be attributed to the fact that his ambling about the world was avoiding the one place where such perfection is alleged to be routine—Paris, where he endeavors to eat 7 meals in 7 days at the finest restaurants.

The regrets begin on Day Two, and by Day Six:

Oh, god, I don’t know. Another Parisian three-star. Doormen in peaked caps.Claw-foot chairs. Side tables for the ladies to put their handbags on. The food was standard three-star stuff: langoustines on sticks wrapped in sea-water foam, beetroot meringues, yeast ice cream decorated with silver leaf. You know the score by now.

Rayner’s weary lamentation shows that appetite is not quite a ravenous, insatiable beast. It’s not that the food wasn’t good. Most of it met his expectations. But the adage “too much of a good thing” applies even to the finest cuisine. In the absence of compulsive disorders, pleasures aim at their own extinction. (There is probably an evolutionary explanation for this. Organisms that are never satisfied will ignore everything else to their obvious detriment)

Many philosophers have noticed this tendency of pleasures to be satiated but argue that the desire for pleasure always returns in a never ending cycle of debilitating craving. But, again, Rayner’s experience shows that this is not necessarily the case.

But the wonderful thing about perfection is that it is, of course,unobtainable. That didn’t stop me searching for it. That hasn’t stopped me wondering about it. All I need is the appetite. There is only one problem. I’m no longer sure I have one.

Having experienced the best cuisine in the world, the post-quest prospect of the many failed meals that await the restaurant critic no longer appeals to him. Once one develops aesthetic standards and acquires an ability to discriminate, fewer pleasures seem attractive.  Critical awareness enhances self-control. The motivation to seek pleasure can be tamed by the very intellect that Plato thought would be overwhelmed.

There is no reason to think there is something peculiarly “brute” or instinctual about taste—it can be refined and disciplined just like any other sensation.

Cross-posted at Edible Arts