In spring 2007, Ferran Adria of El Bulli was invited to participate in the art show Documenta. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this invitation stirred up a great deal of controversy. Though Adria’s restaurant was frequently voted one of the best in the world, many in the art establishment thought that food and cooking had no place in an art show. Indeed, they feared that ranking a chef among true artists would result in the “banalisation of art” (Keeley). Writing for The Independent, Graham Keeley reported: “One critic, Jose de la Sota, writing in the daily El Pais, said: ‘Adria is not Picasso. Picasso did not know how to cook but he was better than Adria [at art]. What is art now? Is it something or nothing?’” (Keeley). In his response to the criticism, Adria echoed de la Sota: “But what is art? If they want to call what I do art, fine. If not, that’s fine too” (Keeley). Certainly, these questions appear to be at the heart of the matter. What is art? Can food be art?
Susan Smillie, writing for The Guardian, responded to the controversy in this manner:
Art, to put it simply (and why not?) is work that moves individuals–it is not up to the experts to decide what constitutes a work of art; the viewer decides. If Buergel–and many others–feel moved to view Ferran’s–and his contemporaries’–exhibitionistic culinary creations, and indeed their preparation and presention, as art, then art is most certainly what they are. (Smillie)
Though perhaps correct, such an institutional theory of art is far from satisfying, especially to critics who have specific metaphysical reasons for excluding food from the world of art. To be sure, Jonathan Jones, art critic for The Guardian, initially concluded: “Caravaggio could paint fruit that looked good enough to eat but he also painted tortures to turn your stomach; that’s art. Until people go to a restaurant to think about death, cooking won’t be art” (Jones “Food Can Be Artistic–but It Can Never Be Art“). Four years later, in 2011, he continued to decry the artistic merit of food (and clothing, too): “I like food and fashion, but I do not believe they ever come close to doing what great art does. Food is to be swallowed, clothes are to be worn” (Jones “Food for Thought…Why Cuisine or Couture Can Never Equal Great Art“). He summarizes his point this way: “Art is of the mind; it is ethereal. Everything it gives us it gives to our brains. Fashion and food fail to be serious art because they are trapped in the physical world” (Jones “Food for Thought…Why Cuisine or Couture Can Never Equal Great Art“). In his statements, Jones has highlighted three arguments for excluding food from the world of art:
- Food (being physical) is only accessible through the lower, bodily senses of taste, smell, and touch–true art and beauty (being “ethereal”) are accessible only through sight and hearing.
- Food is to be eaten (i.e., it has only an instrumental, nutritive value).
- Food cannot suggest profound ideas, such as death.
Below, I will attempt to address these three arguments by highlighting their weaknesses; I want to show that food and art are more similar than people might readily realize and that, in practice, food certainly has the potential to be art. I will begin with a discussion of taste and its position within the hierarchy of the senses. Using the ideas of Immanuel Kant, I will show how this hierarchy is applied to aesthetics in order to support a concept of universal beauty that is only accessible to the disinterested, rational senses of sight and hearing. I will then compare Kant’s negative assessment of the sense of taste to that of the gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who is not so quick to dismiss taste’s epistemic capacity on Kant’s shaky metaphysical ground. Next, using the empirical philosophy of David Hume, I will dismiss the concept of universal beauty by demonstrating how a person’s aesthetic taste is learned and cultivated based on sensory experience (not reason alone) and varies greatly across cultures. Hume’s analogy between sensory taste and aesthetic taste will then also become clear when we look at two contemporary examples to see how aesthetic taste is learned and applied to food in the same manner that it is to art. Lastly, I will illustrate that food can achieve aesthetic meanings beyond its instrumental and nutritive value. If I am successful, I will have demonstrated food’s potential to be art in spite of the metaphysical barriers that have been constructed to impede its entry into aesthetical discussions.