Art and Criticism (Again)

When I started this blog last year, I had a more esoteric view of art than I do now.  Also, if one thing should be clear from my most recent posts, I no longer think that the usual definitions of art (e.g., Joyce’s) are sufficient to cover the full spectrum of human aesthetic experience.  Indeed, I already amended Joyce’s definition (via institutional theories of art) to suit my purposes:

Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end, whereby the aesthetic end is determined by context, tradition (i.e., established evaluative criteria), and audience (i.e., critical appraisal)–not by the artist.

This is adequate, but it still sounds unnecessarily academic.  Are there better definitions out there?

In a recent essay about an appearance of the Blue Man Group on The Celebrity Apprentice, Penn Jillette offered his partner Teller’s definition of art: “Whatever we do after the chores are done.”  I kind of like that.  I’m also fond of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “Art is whatever you can get away with.”  These definitions, though unsatisfying in any metaphysical sense, have the benefit of being more in line with how humans in practice actually create and interact with art.

To be clear, this approach (which some will deride as “anything goes”) does not make criticism irrelevant.  I have written extensively about this already, most recently in “Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism.”  However, I would like to point you to a recent video conversation between A. O. Scott and David Carr concerning the purpose of criticism.  (I also recommend Jim Emerson’s sharp analysis of this conversation.)  In particular, I want to highlight the following exchange:

CARR:  But there is no objective excellence, no objective truth. There is only your subjective version of it.

SCOTT:  Do you really think that there’s no common project of deciding what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true?

Like Carr, I accept that there are no objective values.  However, like Scott, I believe in the “common project” of criticism: a community of people coming together to decide “what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true.”

Scott continues:

I don’t think it’s ever arrived at for all time, but I don’t think that you or anyone else actually believes that we just carry around our own little private, you know, canons of taste that we just sort of protect. Otherwise we’d never talk about any of this stuff. Otherwise, why would we have an arts section in the newspaper? Why would we talk about movies with our friends? Why would we have book clubs?

Well, I think that we do carry around and protect our own “canons of taste.”  However, the point that Scott is making is that taste is malleable (another idea that I have stressed on this blog).  Taste can be transformed through reading and participating in criticism.  Thus, what you think is beautiful, good, and true today will not be beautiful, good, and true “for all time.”

In sum, the role of criticism is not to dictate taste; however, we should remember that it plays an important role (intended or not) in establishing it.

Further reading:

The Meaning of Lists

In an interview with Spiegel in 2009, Umberto Eco discusses an exhibition he curated at the Louvre and its accompanying text, which he edited, called The Infinity of Lists.  Of lists, he says:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order–not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists–the shopping list, the will, the menu–that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

Yes.  And another cultural achievement is the top ten list, dreaded as it is by Roger Ebert.  Film critic Andrew O’Hehir, in introducing his top ten list for 2011, writes:

Crafting an annual top-10 list is no doubt a ludicrous exercise, and I’m not promising I’d have given you the same answers a month ago, or will give you the same ones a month from now. But over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the fact that it forces critics to stop hiding behind relativistic weasel words and high-flown rhetoric, and forces me to defend the murky and individual question of taste. The fact that I–ever so slightly–prefer “Coriolanus” to “Drive,” and “Mysteries of Lisbon” to “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” definitely tells you something about me as a person and a movie critic.

Indeed, as I argue in a previous post, we cannot help but respond to films subjectively.  Thus, on its own, any list of one’s preferred art objects is going to tell you more about the person making the list than about any universal criteria by which the art objects should be judged.  It can be valued for that reason alone.  Even if accompanied by strong rational arguments in support of the list’s ranking, this says nothing of its objective worth.  Perhaps this is Ebert’s gripe, as he claims (correctly) that lists “have next to nothing to do with the quality of movies.”

That being said, I believe these types of lists are valuable for another reason. Taken together, from a wide variety of critics, they can help us reach a usable standard by which to judge artworks.  The BFI Sight & Sound list of the top ten films of all time (the one list that even Ebert appreciates) is a good example of how this can be done effectively.

Every ten years, the BFI surveys a large number of film critics from all over the world and asks them for their individual top ten lists.  From these individual lists, the BFI compiles the definitive list of the top ten films of all time.  The ten films on this list become exemplars of the standard of taste exhibited by this group of critics.  I doubt that any two individual lists are identical (and you can view all of the individual lists if you do not believe me), but Citizen Kane is continually deemed the standard of excellence in cinematic art.  Kristin Thompson recently wrote a compelling argument against this fact, but even she concedes that Kane’s status appears to be cemented for the time being.  That’s not to say that tastes won’t change; they will, just as they did back in 1962 when Kane dethroned Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves for the number one spot.

The BFI list and others like it are especially valuable for those who do not usually swim the murky waters of film criticism or know which critics might offer the most trustworthy opinions. For them, an aggregated “best of” list is an easy way to discover films that might be worth watching.  The two biggest review aggregators that will offer such lists are Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic; in addition, Movie City News always creates a beautiful year-end chart from aggregated top ten lists. What the review aggregators do is take a film’s multiple reviews and give the film a score based on the critical consensus.  Thus, individual tastes can be merged into a single standard of taste, just as with the BFI lists.  People who want to get in on the conversation surrounding film would do well to follow these aggregators, check out their lists of the best reviewed films, watch the films, and then read the reviews.  In this way, one will learn the current standards of taste among critics, learn the arguments in favor of these standards, discover the critics with whom one’s own standard of taste might align (or misalign), and finally, if one wishes, take an active part in the community of criticism.  That is when the true fun begins, for with each new critic (if his or her opinions are heard and deemed valid by the rest of the community) comes a new chance to push the standard of taste in new and exciting directions.

Roger Ebert claims that “all lists are meaningless.”  Clearly, this statement is untrue.  Lists can be full of meaning, as long as there are people who read them and utilize them.  In the least, they are expressions of the tastes of those who have made them, whether an individual or a critical community.  Thus, they can tell us something about a person in the former case, and they can tell us something about critical standards in the latter.  In either case, the word “meaningless” does not apply.

Further reading:

The Turin Horse

Please note that the following post may contain spoilers.

Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is a bleak and beautiful film, one that portrays quite masterfully the frailty of human endeavor, of human civilization.  It does this through breathtaking black and white cinematography captured in long, thoughtful takes.  There is little dialogue, and the music (when present) simply nudges the films along, like the eponymous horse, with its melancholic, plodding rhythm: a funeral dirge for humanity.

The opening narration recounts the following fable:

In Turin on January 3, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the door of number six Via Carlo Alberto, perhaps to take a stroll, perhaps to go by the post office to collect his mail. Not far from him, or indeed very removed from him, a cabman is having trouble with his stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the cabman…Giuseppe? Carlo? Ettore?…loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene of the cabman, who by his time is foaming with rage. The solidly built and full-mustached Nietzsche suddenly jumps up to the cab and throws his arms around the horse’s neck sobbing. His neighbor takes him home, where he lies still and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words: “Mutter, ich bin dumm,” and lives for another ten years, gentle and demented, in the care of his mother and sisters. Of the horse, we know nothing.

This has little bearing on what follows, unless you are familiar with the philosophy of Nietzsche; in which case, the film will unfold as both a confirmation of Nietzsche’s anti-metaphysical view of the world as well as a fascinating refutation of his optimism in regard to our relationship to it.

We begin, appropriately enough, on the horse, a pathetically tired animal, as it carts an old man through a wind-swept wasteland.  After this long take, in which the camera follows the weary journey with an upward gaze, the man and his horse arrive at their humble home.  The man’s daughter rushes out to assist her father in stabling the horse and cart.  Meanwhile, the wind, loud and unceasing, continues pillaging the already gloomy landscape.

We stay with the man and his daughter for six days.  We follow them through their daily routine and observe this routine degrade more and more each day until the characters no longer seem to get any pleasure or meaning from it.  The main obstacle is the unexplainable and incessant wind storm, which the man and his daughter simply gaze upon through a window.  The other problem is the horse, which will no longer obey commands or even eat.  It is as if it has simply resigned from life.

The daily routine of the characters consists of waking, dressing, fetching water from the well, cleaning the horse’s stall, boiling potatoes, eating the potatoes, washing the dishes, and sleeping.  I imagine the man would ride the horse into town, but that part of the routine, of course, is disrupted, as others soon will be.

Two notable disruptions arrive in the form of visitors.  The first is a man seeking pálinka (Hungarian brandy).  He cannot find any in town because of the wind storm, our hint that civilization itself is collapsing from the relentless onslaught of nature. The man recounts a fable (a philosophy?) about why the world is the way it is: man’s judgment of himself, god’s hand in all that is terrible, the debasement of the world through touch and acquisition; it is an indictment of sorts.  The character reminds me of the jovial squire from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.  He seems to take what pleasure he can from existence without guilt and despite horrid circumstances; he is in on the joke that nothing matters.  And if what he says is true, the storm is the means by which the world, though indifferent, will reclaim itself from those who would debase it.  “Come off it,” the old man responds.  “That’s rubbish.”

The second visitation is an unwelcome band of gypsies.  They attempt to take water from the well.  The old man sends his daughter out to disperse them, but he eventually comes out to aid her with an axe.  The gypsies disband, laughing merrily, and they taunt the man and his daughter: “You are weak.  Drop dead.”

The gypsies are a fitting counterpoint to our sad protagonists.  They have healthy horses of which they are in command, they vocally claim the land and the water as their own, and they are not suffering.  Indeed, they appear to be striving–living rather than dying.

The Turin Horse, unlike last year’s visually rich auteurist statement, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, does not depict the world or humanity with any imagined telos (an end goal or purpose).  There is only a tumultuous sense of becoming–chaotic and without reason.  The forms which we inflict upon the formlessness are what give our lives pleasure and meaning.  And those forms (including our routines), as Tarr shows us, are weak, flawed, and ultimately inadequate.  This is where the film refutes Nietzsche’s optimism.  If, as Nietzsche believes, “we possess art lest we perish of the truth,” what happens when art (our form-giving capability) fails us?  What happens when the ugly truth (the valueless nature of existence) is all that remains?  This is why, perhaps, the film opens with the tale of Nietzsche’s resignation to insanity.  Even for him, the tale suggests, the blackness of life became too much to bear.

Consider the plight of our characters:

First, their horse, their taming of wild nature, no longer responds to their bidding.  Then, their well, their taming of the earth, dries up.  Then, their lamps, their taming of the darkness, do not light.  At this point, we become conscious that even cinema–the film we are watching, which has indeed been beautifying the ugliness of existence for us–even that ultimately fails.  As the light goes out, we, along with the characters, are consumed by blackness.  As the characters resign to nothingness, so too must we. “Tomorrow we’ll try again,” the man says.

The film’s narrator finishes the tale that the camera can no longer tell.  The man and his daughter go to sleep, and the storm, comically enough, subsides.  We see the man and his daughter one final time: eating potatoes, joylessly, as they do.  This time, though, a heavy darkness weighs down on them from above like the pulsating black space of a Mark Rothko painting.  Is this ending hopeful?  Maybe–the storm has ended, and our protagonists can now get back to their daily routines.  But is there a difference between simply sustaining life and actually living it?  The gypsies seem to think so.  But not all of us are as capable of adapting to nature’s frightful whims.  We prefer that nature adapt to us, be tamed by our art, and abide by our laws and routines.  When nature refuses? That is the despairing tale of The Turin Horse.

Further reading:

Doomsday Cinema, Part 2: The Turin Horse

Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism

In a previous post, I discuss why I prefer the word “impersonal” to the word “objective” in questions of aesthetic judgment.  I state: “ […] we can make aesthetic judgments independent of personal taste, based solely on our knowledge, experience, and critical understanding of the art in question.  Rather than taking art personally, we can take it impersonally.”

Simply put, I no longer believe this.  I no longer think that an “impersonal” approach to art is possible.  My reason is that I no longer understand “taste” as something separate from “knowledge, experience, and critical understanding.”  Instead, I understand taste as that which encompasses all of those elements (as well as others).  For example, a person’s adopted evaluative criteria will become a part of that person’s taste, along with his or her experience, learning, and values.  For truly, these all play a part in a person’s subjective appraisal of a work.  No matter how much we may want to experience something objectively, impersonally, or purely rationally, we remain stubbornly tied to our individual tastes.

As a case in point, I want to examine the notorious film critic Pauline Kael.  Last year saw the release of both a biography of Kael and a collection of her work.  This prompted many active critics and journalists to write their own appraisals of Kael.  Roger Ebert had this to say:

Pauline had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn’t apply her “approach” to a film. With her it was all personal. Faithful readers will know I am tiresome in how often I quote Robert Warshow, who in his book The Immediate Experience wrote: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” Pauline Kael was that honest. She wrote about her immediate experience, about what she felt.

She’s accused of being inconsistent and contradicting herself. Directors would fall in and out of favor. With her there was no possibility of inconsistency, because she always wrote about what she felt right now. What was the purpose tilting that emotion to reflect something she wrote earlier? I sat next to her once in a New York screening room. She responded audibly. “Oh, oh, oh!” she’d say, in praise or disapproval. Talking like that would get her in trouble in Chicago. Pauline had–or took–license. You sensed something physical was happening as she watched.

Of his own criticism, Ebert concedes: “In my reviews and those of a great many others you are going to find, for better or worse, my feelings. I feel a responsibility to provide some notion of what you’re getting yourself in for, but after that it’s all subjective.”

Manohla Dargis, in a discussion regarding the merits of Kael in The New York Times, comes to a similar conclusion:

As critics, all we have are our beliefs, ideals, prejudices, blind spots, our reservoirs of historical and personal knowledge, and the strength of our arguments. There are empirical truths that we can say about a movie: it was shot in black and white or color, on film or digital, in widescreen or not, directed by this or that filmmaker. But beyond these absolutes there is only our thinking, opinions, ideologies, methodological approaches and moments in time. That isn’t to say that criticism is a postmodern anything goes; it is to admit that critics are historical actors and that our relationships with movies, as with everything in life, are contingent on those moments.

What Ebert and Dargis seem to be saying, what I have already claimed, and what the example of Kael proves is that there are indeed individual subjective elements that come into play in a critical judgment.

To see how this works, I think that we can apply (interestingly enough) Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s model of tasting from The Physiology of Taste, in which there are three stages.  However, I think we can simplify it to two concurrent stages.  When appraising an object, we first sense it; as our brain registers the sensation, we immediately start “considering” it (not necessarily consciously or rationally, although that can indeed occur and provide the illusion that we’re operating independently of our body’s conditioning).  What happens when we consider an object?  Our past experiences, our memories, our feelings, our learning, our adopted criteria, and (most importantly) our values all come together (or work against one another) to pass judgment.  Reason might help us sort some of this into a clear, articulate response, but such conscious rationalization is usually unnecessary and will probably only occur, anyway, after a judgment has already been made.  That being said, these rationalizations serve a different purpose–they are what constitute criticism.

Of course, this idea of “no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards” teeters on the brink of nihilism.  If, ultimately, we each experience an artwork subjectively, what is the point in debating the merit of one opinion over another? How is criticism not simply “postmodern anything goes”?

Fortunately, David Hume addresses this very issue in “Of the Standard of Taste.”  Carolyn Korsmeyer, in her analysis of that work (“Hume and the Foundations of Taste”), expresses the problem in this manner:

If beauty is identified with a particular kind of pleasure, if aesthetic and artistic value is measured by the feelings of the individual perceiver, then one would expect that there would be no grounds for asserting that one aesthetic judgment or expression of pleasure is preferable to any other. People differ, and so do their tastes. However, it becomes clear when reading Hume’s writings on criticism, that tastes, on his account, are not so subjective that no standards can be discerned. In fact, it is quite evident that Hume considered some artistic and literary tastes preferable by far to others.

To be sure, Hume states: “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least a decision afforded confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.”

Like Dargis, Hume does not believe that criticism is “postmodern anything goes,” even as he allows for the subjectivity inherent in the wide variety of individual tastes.  No–as he points out, the “joint verdict” of the best critics (consisting of “similarities of sentiment”–the common, shared elements of their opinions–and not necessarily the individual subjective elements) becomes “the true standard of taste and beauty.” This standard of taste, then, if adopted, becomes the very context in which criticism (and, thus, art) becomes communicable and meaningful (i.e., not nihilistic).

Korsmeyer offers the following as an example of how a standard of taste can develop out of individual subjective tastes:

Time is a reliable filter for passing fads and poor judgments, and the verdict of history cancels out individual foibles and produces a universally valid consensus concerning great art. Therefore, according to Hume, although rules of art cannot be codified, standards of taste do emerge as one takes a long look at human society and history and sees how that art which is best suited to please the human frame attains an unquestioned superiority over other, ephemeral creations.

Despite the apparent universal applicability of such standards of taste, however, the individual subjective elements remain the lifeblood of criticism; ultimately, that is why criticism remains an imperfect, mutable process. That is also why it remains fun, engaging, stimulating, and relevant, as the example of Pauline Kael clearly demonstrates.  To be sure, Keith Phillips says of Kael: “Even when she’s wrong, she’s worth reading. I can’t think of any higher praise for a film critic.”

Kael resisted being standardized.  Not many, for example, will share her distaste for Stanley Kubrick.  But she still championed films such as Bonnie and Clyde and directors such as Godard whose qualities have indeed informed the standard of taste adopted by today’s film critics.  So admitting the subjective nature of criticism does no harm to the practice.  In spite of that fact, a standard of taste still develops, and it is that standard which both shapes and challenges our own critical judgments, and vice versa.

So why practice criticism?  Why read it?  Art critic Jonathan Jones offers the following summation:

No [critical] judgment is final. No critic is right, necessarily. It’s just that criticism offers a more honest and realistic understanding of the deep strangeness of our encounters with these mysterious human creations called works of art.

Yes–and in the spirit of subjectivity, that answer is certainly good enough for me.

Further reading:

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 6 of 8)

Contemporary Examples: Cultivating Tastes for Cilantro and Slow Cinema

(Note: this section is a modified version of an earlier blog post titled “Taste: A Lesson from Food Science.” However, the “Challenges” section at the end is new.)

In a recent article in The New York Times, Harold McGee writes about the divisive nature of cilantro. The article begins: “Food partisanship doesn’t usually reach the same heights of animosity as the political variety, except in the case of the anti-cilantro party. The green parts of the plant that gives us coriander seeds seem to inspire a primal revulsion among an outspoken minority of eaters” (McGee). Only a year after this article was published, another debate began online, this one among film critics. Dan Kois had published an article, also in The New York Times, titled (interestingly enough) “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables.” In this piece, Kois discussed his dislike of slow films–the ones that people are supposed to like, according to the prevailing critical standards (Kois). Many of his fellow critics responded. What is interesting in comparing the article about cilantro to the debate regarding slow cinema is that the science that explains why some people are so averse to cilantro also might explain why some people are so averse to certain types of films (or certain types of art in general), and this ties in directly to our discussion of Hume.

First, we need to know why “cilantrophobes” usually associate cilantro negatively with soap or bedbugs. To uncover the answer, McGee examines the chemical properties of the plant: “Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects” (McGee). He then asks: “Why is it only the evil, soapy side that shows up for cilantrophobes, and not the charming one?” (McGee).

To answer this question, McGee turns to Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University. According to Gottfried: “[…] the great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain’s constant updating of its database of experiences” (McGee). McGee explains: “When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability” (McGee). The similarity to Hume’s view that experience is the basis for knowledge and aesthetic taste is obvious. McGee continues: “If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs” (McGee).

In other words, if a person has a history of getting his mouth washed out with soap but has not experienced cilantro as an ingredient in his daily cuisine, his brain will surely connect the plant negatively to the soapy taste from his sad database of experiences. The same goes for someone who has had an unfortunate bedbug experience but has never tasted a good cilantro-infused salsa.

This sounds eerily similar to film critic Manohla Dargis’s thesis in her New York Times piece on slow cinema (a response to the Kois piece): “Maybe some moviegoers who reject difficult films don’t […] have the necessary expertise and database patterns to understand (or stick with) these movies” (Dargis). Thus, when a person perceives a new object (e.g., a slow film or cilantro), his brain refers to stored patterns in his database of experiences, and this information will determine how he reacts. In my above example, the stored pattern involves the person getting his mouth washed out with soap. Obviously, his reaction to cilantro will be a negative one. In Dargis’s example, the lack of any stored pattern whatsoever when faced with a new film will produce an equally negative reaction–the person will feel incompetent.

Similarly, when a person familiar with narrative-driven Hollywood films experiences a “slow” art house film for the first time, he cannot so easily apply his stored “narrative” database pattern. As a result, his brain will not make the necessary positive associations that would lead to a pleasurable reaction. According to film critic David Bordwell: “If you don’t have other schemas in your mental kit, your perception is just lost” (Bordwell).

The good news, according to Gottfried, is that “[…] every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food” (McGee). In explaining how he himself came to appreciate cilantro, he reports:

[…] I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. That’s how people in cilantro-eating countries experience it every day. (McGee)

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes: “Custom, then, is the great guide to human life” (Hume An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 178). In other words, as was demonstrated in “Of the Standard of Taste,” we learn only through our recurrent experiences. Thus, only by repeatedly experiencing films that utilize a slow, austere cinematic language will we be able to learn how to appreciate them and, as Dargis writes, “[…] find pleasure in unlocking their meanings” (Dargis).

If a person were to experience a slow, austere film just once in his life, he would not have enough information to create the necessary database pattern in his brain to appreciate such a film on a future encounter. Similarly, according to Gottfried: “[…] if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception” (McGee). From this contemporary example, it is clear that the opinions of Hume and Brillat-Savarin are more applicable to the ways in which food and art are actually experienced than the opinions of Kant and others who try to separate the two experiences using faulty metaphysical presumptions. As Korsmeyer summarizes: “Just as studying different traditions of music sorts unfamiliar janglings into patterns of harmony and rhythm, so acquaintance with other cuisines accustoms one to try, to tolerate, and even to like foods that were once dubious and unfamiliar” (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 90).


Some challenges to the theory outlined above, that taste in food and taste in art are learned and applied in a similar fashion (which allows for the possibility that food can be art), are:

  1. That certain people might be genetically predisposed to be unable to taste certain things (e.g., phenol)
  2. That food allergens, foodborne illnesses, and properties such as toxicity can provide real physical danger to a taster
  3. That food cannot mean anything beyond its nutritive value

Brillat-Savarin addresses the first challenge when he writes:

This circumstance explains how it is that of two guests seated at the same banqueting table, one displays the liveliest pleasure, while the other seems to be eating only under constraint; the reason is that the second guest has a poorly equipped tongue, and that the empire of taste also has its blind and deaf subjects. (Brillat-Savarin 39)

Indeed, the limitations found in certain individuals regarding the sense of taste are no different in regard to the development of a standard of taste within a community (though admittedly of a markedly different quality) than the limitations that can be found in individual senses of sight and hearing.  In other words, that certain people might be deaf or tone deaf does not necessitate the disqualification of music as art; therefore, the fact that certain tastes are not available to every taster should not disqualify food.  Phenol tasters, for example, can develop their own standard of taste in food independent of the standard developed by those who cannot taste phenol.

Of the second challenge, there are definitely potential health hazards and physical dangers in food and the act of ingestion that are probably not present in visual and auditory arts.  Korsmeyer touches on this when she writes:

But tastes of food and drink may be savored for their own presentational qualities regardless of nutritional value (though not regardless of their toxicity, which is a reminder of the greater “bodily” nature of this sense.  One can see appalling things without dying from them.)  The discriminative capacities of tasters may be developed in ways similar to the capacities of eye or ear for the connoisseur of painting or music. (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 107)

Korsmeyer makes it clear that, even though tasters must be conscious of harmful elements such as food allergens, foodborne illnesses, and toxicity, this perceived limitation actually has no bearing on the development of a taster’s “discriminative capacities,” nor on the development of a standard of taste.  Toxic or harmful elements will simply be avoided, just as sounds that humans cannot perceive or that ring too harsh against the eardrum will be avoided in music (though there are exceptions, as we shall see).

Finally, as for the third challenge, Korsmeyer takes up the issue in an essay titled “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting.” In this piece, using the ideas found in Hume, she demonstrates how food can carry meaning beyond its nutritive value. Not only that, she demonstrates how food can even suggest profound ideas, such as death, thus answering the criticism of Jonathan Jones.



The Aesthetic Meanings of Food and How Food Can Suggest Death

Further reading:

The Tree of Life

Please note that the following post may contain spoilers.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a very ambitious film that details the life of a family living in a 1950s Texas suburb and then places the family within the much broader context of the birth of the cosmos.  Our focus is on the development of Jack, the eldest of three siblings, as he tries to understand the world and find meaning within it.  Scenes of the young Jack are juxtaposed with scenes of an older Jack, a middle-aged architect (a fascinating detail) reflecting back on his life.

The film opens with the following narration:

There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

The best approach to the film, I think, is to ignore this.  Some people, such as blogger J.D. at Edward Copeland on Film, might consider this narration a key to understanding the film.  J.D. writes:

I believe that this passage is integral to understanding Malick’s film and it becomes apparent that the mother represents Grace, accepting insults and injuries, while the father represents nature, lording over his family.

I cannot disagree more.  The film itself, as constructed through its images and music, is far more interesting, far more compelling, and far more profound than this curiously limiting and philosophically naïve piece of narration might lead you to believe.  If you take this narration too seriously, you will try to box the characters into one of the two categories:  nature or grace.  This is what J.D. does, but in his attempt to define the mother and father by these vague terms, he actually highlights the futility of the undertaking:

Malick presents two approaches to parenting:  the mother is a nurturing figure while the father is a stern disciplinarian. She is in tune with nature while he represents structure.

So now, despite his previous conclusion that the father represents nature, J.D. claims that it is the mother who is in tune with nature. The father, in turn, represents structure.  If we are to understand structure (especially “discipline”) as the human imposition of order onto seemingly chaotic nature (i.e., as something completely at odds with nature), it is clear that the previous categorizations of nature and grace are simply inadequate.  The characters are just too rich and complex for such categorizations.  To be sure, if the father does not represent grace, why do we have the sublime scene where he plays piano while his young son R.L. accompanies him on acoustic guitar?  What in that scene is nature and not grace?  And if the mother does not represent nature, why is she so attuned to the natural world, so earthy, so maternal?   And why should we even accept the narrator’s negative valuation of nature in the first place?

As you can see, the film’s opening narration is not simply trite; it’s misleading.  Bizarrely, the film even attempts, during one of its oddest moments, to apply the concept of grace to a dinosaur.  As if dinosaurs were capable of altruism or mercy.  The scene, of course, rings false, and all comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey should stop right there.

Despite these faults, The Tree of Life is breathtaking cinema.  The stock NASA images, Douglas Trumbull’s  visual effects, Emmanuel Lubezki’s impossibly skillful cinematography, the emotional classical music selections (especially Preisner, Berlioz, and Brahms), and Alexandre Desplat’s original score–all of these filmic elements are edited together (woven, if you will) by Malick and his team of five editors into a tight celluloid patchwork quilt.  There is a loose narrative structure, but the film is mostly poetic in form, choosing to focus on specific perceptions and sensations and to explore them visually.  Malick is interested in using cinema to do things other than simply advance a linear plot.

The film’s visual language is created mostly through Lubezki’s cinematography.  His greatest achievement is probably the way he manipulates the camera to suggest the point of view of the young children.  In this, we experience the world of the children as they’re experiencing it–with a sense of wonder and mystery.  Dark rooms, tall trees, the social world outside the home–these sorts of things are met with awe and curiosity–sometimes with terror.

There is just one more problem that I want to discuss.  It has to do with Malick’s attempt to visualize an afterlife* at the end of the film.  These scenes, set among an unimaginative rocky beach, so homogenized as to bring to mind Thor’s Asgard, use what Jim Emerson calls the film’s “weakest, most banal imagery.”  I had the same reaction: disappointment.  With all that has come before, why end with images of such unashamed sentimentality and clichéd composition?

The strength of what comes before, however, is so impressive, so beautifully crafted, that we can appreciate the film on an aesthetic level even if we find it wanting on some of its philosophical ground.  If you are interested in cinematic art, you will be interested in The Tree of Life, even if thematically (as I discuss previously), it’s not to your personal taste.


*Do we know if these scenes really depict an afterlife?  Despite what a lot of critics are saying, I would say no.  I really think that the scenes reflect a wish fulfillment fantasy–Jack’s hope for an afterlife, not an actual afterlife (or at least his hope for peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation as far as his family is concerned).  Perhaps that’s why the film succeeds where other religiously minded films fail.  It’s not about religious dogma or theology or Christian morality; it’s simply about the strong human desire for meaning, for purpose, for victory over death.  The film is a yearning for something, maybe God, and like all metaphysical delusions, it just doesn’t exist.