In Defense of Heresy in Criticism

Full English Breakfast

Once a week, Criticwire asks a group of film critics a question and compiles their responses.  This week’s Criticwire Survey seems to have caused a bit of a stir.  Here is the question posed by Matt Singer:

What movie widely regarded as a cinematic masterpiece do you dislike (or maybe even hate)?

This question and its responses were promoted under the incendiary headline: “Overrated Masterpieces.”  Needless to say, this provoked some outrage, both in the comments and across the web.  Only one critic, Glenn Kenny, appears to have left the proceedings unscathed.  The reason for this is that he refused to name a film:

I find this question especially dispiriting, as it’s really just a form of bait, and a cue for individuals to come up with objects to snicker at, feel superior to, and all that. I’m sure many critics will have a blast with it.

Kenny follows this with a passage from Richard Hell’s autobiography where Hell writes of an encounter with Susan Sontag in which she laments the fact that she has opinions because, as Hell puts it, “opinions will solidify into prejudices that substitute for perception.”

On Twitter, New York Times critic A. O. Scott singled out Kenny for praise:

watch @Glenn__Kenny enlist Susan Sontag and Richard Hell to smack down glib link-trolling pseudo-contrarianism

First of all, I would argue that Kenny himself is using this opportunity to “snicker at” and “feel superior to” his fellow critics.  Second, I would argue that the point of this particular survey is to counter popular opinions that may have solidified into prejudices, not the other way around.  Finally, I think that it is Scott who is being “glib” in his dismissal of the exercise as “pseudo-contrarianism.”

Each individual critic (Kenny included) will have points of divergence from the critical community with which he or she belongs.  This is only natural; individuals have individual tastes (e.g., likes and dislikes) based on individual life experiences.  But here is an unsettling fact: many people will accept that certain films are sacred—sometimes irrationally and without having actually seen them—for the single reason that the films have been blessed with critical approval and labeled masterpieces.  The critics who answered the Criticwire Survey are simply challenging this automatic acceptance, some even going so far as to offer rational and articulate defenses of their opinions (the opposite of pseudo-contrarianism, I would say).

Interestingly, James Ramsden, a food blogger at The Guardian, wrote a piece last week called “The Great British fry-up: it’s a national disgrace.”  The article comes with the following blurb:

The full English breakfast is the most overrated of British dishes – even the name is shuddersome. How did we become shackled to this fried fiasco?

Just as with the Criticwire Survey (and perhaps again due to the word “overrated”), Ramsden experienced a lot of backlash.  He felt compelled to write a response (published only a day after the Criticwire Survey): “Which well-loved foods do you hate?”  In this piece, we learn that Ramsden received accusations similar to those received by the film critics.  For example, he, too, was accused of trolling (maybe by the A. O. Scott of the British food blogging world).  However, Ramsden understands where the attacks are coming from:

I understand it because I’ve felt it too. It is perhaps not a rational reaction to a subjective aversion […], but we feel strongly about food and are thus oddly offended by someone vehemently opposing that which we cherish.

Yes, and people apparently feel strongly about film as well and will oppose subjective aversions to well-loved films with equal vehemence and irrationality.  Ramsden, after providing a long list of similar aversions from some notable chefs and food critics, ends his piece by stating:

The common denominator with all of these dislikes is the mutual conviction that the other person is a loon, even a heretic. There are certain aversions – anchovies, haggis, balut, kidneys – that are entirely understandable (you don’t often hear cries of “you don’t like kimchi?!” except perhaps in certain foodish circles), but when it comes to dissing curry, fish and chips, pasta, or indeed a fry-up, it turns out people are, at best, going to think you very odd indeed. Still, can’t blame a man for trying.

Glenn Kenny chose not to name a film on which his opinion differs from that of the masses.  Does that mean he holds no such opinion?  That no such film exists?  Hardly.  As I said, he used this opportunity to elevate himself above his fellow critics under the pretense that criticism has loftier goals than this sort of muckraking.  I think that he just didn’t want to get his hands dirty.  I prefer the “loons” and the “heretics” who are unafraid of their own subjectivity.  On a related note, I believe that Pauline Kael would have loved this week’s Criticwire Survey.  Especially the word “overrated.”

Further reading:

Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Coda)

Thank you, Kent, for the link to the above video.

I would also like to acknowledge Carolyn Korsmeyer once again, without whom my work on the topic of food and art would have been impossible.  I highly recommend her book Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy, and I would also like to point out that she published a new book last year that might be of equal interest: Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics.

Finally, as this post will appear above the previous eight, below are the individual links to each part of “How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste.”

Further reading:

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


In conclusion, we have seen how the sense of taste (along with smell and touch) was debased throughout the history of philosophy as a lower sense, a position that left knowledge and beauty unattainable to it. We then looked at how this erroneous position, exemplified by Kant, could be countered using the gastronomical insight of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and the empirical philosophy of David Hume. Taking up the philosophy of Hume in particular, we were able to examine the similarity between food and art and between sensory taste and aesthetic taste. These similarities were illustrated in the contemporary example that compared the cultivability of a taste in cilantro to the cultivability of a taste in slow cinema. Finally, we looked at potential challenges to the analogy between taste in food and taste in art. These challenges included the sensory limitations found in individual palettes, potential physical dangers present in food and in the act of ingestion, and the idea that food cannot have meaning beyond its instrumental value. In regard to the last challenge, we not only demonstrated the wide assortment of aesthetic meaning that food can carry, but we also showed that certain foods can even suggest death.

Thus, to return to the question of our introduction: should Ferran Adria have been invited to participate in the Documenta art show? Because the arguments against the idea that food can be art ring hollow under careful scrutiny, the answer must be yes.

Coincidentally, in 2007, the same year that the inclusion of Adria in the Documenta art show caused such a stir, Pixar released the film Ratatouille, written and directed by Brad Bird. The film tells the story of a rat who wants to be a chef. In the end, he succeeds, winning over his toughest critic, Anton Ego. Curiously, Ego does not say that he was surprised that a rat could become a great chef; instead, he uses language that can also be used to argue for Adria: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere” (Ratatouille). Indeed–even from the kitchen.


How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 7 of 8)

The Aesthetic Meanings of Food and How Food Can Suggest Death

In “Disputing Taste,” Carolyn Korsmeyer writes:

[…] taste is usually considered a rather simple sense that performs only a basic function: to inform the organism whether or not a substance is safe for ingestion. Other than this, taste is often regarded by both philosophers and scientists as a relatively rudimentary sense with limited cognitive significance. Its necessary but restricted instrumental value and its dim epistemic capacity sustain the low rank allotted this sense. (Korsmeyer “Disputing Taste“)

We have already demonstrated how taste can have an epistemic capacity. Now we must show that it can have meaning beyond its instrumental value–that its epistemic qualities can extend beyond flavor properties to ideas like death.

In “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting,” Korsmeyer illustrates how food can carry meaning that can inform an aesthetic experience: “Foods and their tastes may represent and express significance in a distinctly ‘aesthetic’ fashion, and one can elaborate the meanings that foods embody with all manner of examples from the whimsical to the profound by considering Easter eggs, candy canes, birthday cakes, ceremonial meals, and religious rituals” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 148). The meanings that are carried by the items mentioned above (which, of course, are learned through experience of them in their proper contexts) indeed show that food, like architecture, for instance, can carry meaning beyond its instrumental value.

True, one can object that the meanings of the foods listed above are conveyed through multiple senses, primarily sight. Of this fact, Korsmeyer states:

To me this is not an indication of a poverty of symbolic possibility for food but an illustration of the unremarkable fact that the experience of eating involves more than one sense.  We have already invited smell into the company of taste, fully considered, and texture as well, which makes use of the sense of touch.  The crunch and slurp of food involves hearing (there are Japanese dishes for which audible slurping is prescribed), and the preparation of a table is carefully attuned to visual pleasure. (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 127-8)

That being said, there are in fact foods whose meanings are conveyed primarily through taste.  Korsmeyer uses the example of the seder plate, which is part of the Jewish Passover ceremony.  She writes of the meanings of the foods on the plate and how those meanings are conveyed through the senses:

The bitter herbs signify bondage and sorrow in Egypt.  This symbolic value does not depend on visual properties; the herbs metaphorically exemplify sorrow by means of their sharp taste.  The small bowl of salt water denotes (and indeed chemically replicates) the tears shed in captivity, and the parsley, indicating the renewal of spring, is dipped in the salt water and eaten.  The charoses symbolizes with its texture the mortar the Jews used in building temples for the Egyptians, and it is eaten in combination with the bitter herbs (which may be horseradish or a sharp-tasting green herb).  (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 138)

Thus, foods can convey meaning beyond their instrumental value through all of the senses, even the bodily senses of taste, smell, and touch.

However, to return to the subject at hand, if the instrumental value of a food’s taste is “to inform the organism whether or not a substance is safe for ingestion,” is it possible to cultivate a taste for unsafe foods–foods that can potentially suggest death? Korsmeyer argues that it is.

To demonstrate the cultivability of “unsafe” taste, Korsmeyer writes:

Consider objects with tastes that offend the senses at first, very hot spices and peppers, which burn, and alcohol, which sickens. All of these substances one can learn to like through practice and maturity (for the tongue and its receptors develop into adulthood), and once these tastes are cultivated, substances without them appear bland. (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 155)

Clearly, to return to Kant for a moment, a person’s immediate reaction to a taste sensation is not the final word. Brillat-Savarin was correct. There is stage to tasting that allows one to consider the taste beyond the physical act of sensing it. And if one has made an effort to cultivate an aesthetic taste for foods that by nature repel and offend the taster, then this person can potentially consider the taste as delicious. This clearly conforms to Hume’s view as well and explains how different cultures can have such oppositional tastes in both food and art. The beautiful and the delicious truly are in the eye (or the tongue) of the beholder. This also relates to how the aversive art form of the tragedy might have been cultivated in ancient times.

With tragedies in mind, are there foods beyond the merely unpleasant and offensive that can suggest death in perhaps more profound ways? Indeed, Korsmeyer writes of meals that consist of “[…] another animal whose form is still recognizable, not having been chopped and shaped into hamburger or pâté” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 154). This type of meal reminds one immediately “[…] that to sustain one’s life takes another” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 154).

Taking this a step further, Korsmeyer writes of dish which consists of “[…] a live fish, still gasping on the plate, surrounded with tasteful symbolic decorations that mimicked the look of the bottom of a sandy ocean” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 157).

However, there is one dish in particular that suggests death in a way that should even satisfy Jonathan Jones:

Perhaps the most notorious example in this category is fugu, the puffer fish, so poisonous that in Japan, where it is commonly eaten, only a licensed chef who know what organs to remove and how to get rid of the toxins is permitted to prepare it. Yet reportedly, the most sophisticated diner is also the one prepared to risk the most to savor the taste of fugu, for by request enough of the neurotoxin can be left in the fish that the diners’ lips and tongue are slightly numbed, reminding them of the presence of danger and death. (And sometimes overwhelming them, for this is a dangerous meal and every year people die from eating fugu.) (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 156)

Undoubtedly, this dish suggests death in ways at least equal to (if not greater than) the most terrible and horrifying artworks exhibiting mortality.




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:

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 5 of 8)

Hume: An Empirical Approach to Taste and Beauty

David Hume, in strengthening the use of sensory taste as a metaphor for aesthetic taste, shines light on further problems with Kant’s philosophy. He begins his essay “Of the Standard of Taste” by noting the variety of opinions of aesthetic taste: “The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation” (Hume “Of the Standard of Taste” 103). Indeed, this observation alone should be enough to counter Kant’s belief in a universal beauty.

As an example, imagine that two people are viewing the cubist painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso. One person is a Spaniard who lived through the Spanish Civil War; the other is an American expert in modernist painting. Will the two people view the painting in the same objective way? Certainly not: the Spaniard might have an emotional reaction based on the content of the work, which depicts through its abstract forms a battle that he has personally experienced; the art expert, on the other hand, will experience the work more intellectually, comparing it to other works by Picasso and other modern artistic depictions of war. Sure, the two people (if their senses are behaving normally) will both sense certain objective qualities of the painting (e.g., its size and color). However, they will both read the same painting differently–even if they both find it beautiful; it will present each with a different meaning. They will not share a standard of beauty because they are approaching the painting from different cultural backgrounds and different levels of experience and learning.

To be sure, if a third person was to view Guernica, and this person has only ever experienced representational painting, the unfamiliar cubist forms would surely strike him as ugly. Like the Spaniard and the art expert, he has applied his rational faculties and compared the painting to others he has experienced, but because he lacks experience with abstract painting, he cannot locate the beauty that Kant would argue is inherent in the artwork. Why is this? Hume answers: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others” (Hume “Of the Standard of Taste” 104). So, to use the cliché, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The cliché is so commonplace now that it is difficult to grasp just how dangerous this idea was to the foundations of Western philosophy in the eighteenth century. If beauty as a value originates in the subject, then the subject becomes the source for value. Our values, both moral and aesthetic, are no longer out there in the realm of being, waiting for us to grasp them with our reason and intellect. Instead, they are readily available through experience, custom, and exposure.

For Hume and many other empiricists, knowledge only comes from sense experience. From this, it follows that aesthetic taste can be learned and cultivated as one expands her experiences and level of learning. And this goes for taste in food just as it does for taste in art. (Hume certainly makes it a point to highlight the analogy between sensory taste and aesthetic taste.) And not only can taste be cultivated, but a standard of taste can develop within a community that shares a cultural background and similar levels of experience and learning. This standard can develop for art and food alike, and a person with the proper attributes and experiences should be able to judge both art and food by the same type of standard. Hume writes: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty” (Hume “Of the Standard of Taste” 109). Here, Hume can be talking about wine tasting as much as art criticism. As Korsmeyer writes: “Properly cultivated, the sense of taste can detect fine distinctions among different kinds of food and drink, just as the good critic is able to discern subtle qualities in works of art” (Korsmeyer “Disputing Taste“). Below is a contemporary example of how similar art and food actually are.



Contemporary Examples: Cultivating Tastes for Cilantro and Slow Cinema

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 4 of 8)

Brillat-Savarin: Complicating the Hierarchy

In The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin responds to Kant’s proposition that taste can only provide an immediate, irrational reaction to an object. Sweeney explains: “For Brillat-Savarin, tasting food is often a complex experience. We frequently engage with a great variety of gustatory elements, often coming upon new and different elements, in the successive stages of our ingesting experience” (Sweeney 124). To be sure, Brillat-Savarin divides the tasting experience into three stages:

The direct sensation is the first impression arising out of the immediate action of the organs of the mouth, while the substance to be tasted is still resting on the front part of the tongue.

The complete sensation is composed of the first impression, and the impression which follows when the food leaves its initial position and passes to the back of the mouth, assailing the whole organ with its taste and perfume.

Lastly, the considered sensation is the judgement passed by the brain on the impressions transmitted to it by the organ. (Brillat-Savarin 42)

Unlike Kant, who would have it that tasting stops after the “direct” or “complete” sensations, Brillat-Savarin posits that there is indeed a reflective stage, what he calls the “considered sensation” and which involves judgment from the intellect.

Sweeney offers the following as an example:

Suppose a New Orleans chef prepares shrimp Creole for us. Its complex aromas assault us. We taste the shrimp in the dark roux that combines onion, garlic, tomato, and peppers. We note the way the spicy heat lingers, how that heat integrates with spices such as thyme, clove, allspice, and perhaps a touch of sassafras. There is a lot to taste and think about in such a dish. (Sweeney 126)

From this, it is clear that a person can distinguish different qualities of a dish, think about them, compare the features to previous dishes he or she has tasted, and evaluate the experience rationally. It is also evident in this example that taste can indeed be a source of knowledge. As Korsmeyer points out: “No matter how wide the scope of vision or acute the discrimination of hearing, you can’t see or hear flavours. So minimally, taste is the conduit for discovery of flavour properties of objects” (Korsmeyer “Disputing Taste“). Nietzsche, also, would agree: “And what magnificent instruments of observation we possess in our senses! […] Today we possess science precisely to the extent to which we have decided to accept the testimony of the senses–to the extent to which we sharpen them further, arm them, and have learned to think them through” (Nietzsche 481). This does much to elevate taste from its lowly position in the sense hierarchy. However, sight and hearing can perhaps be lowered from their lofty height, too.

In his essay, Sweeney writes: “[…] the quirkiness of preference is not a characteristic unique to taste. We like or dislike particular colors, and, for some, bagpipe music is excruciating” (Sweeney 127). The examples are endless. There are people, for instance, who will have an immediate reaction of disgust to a movie if there is an actor or actress in it whom they despise. There is no reflection and no application of rational faculties. In addition, there are people who might respond to a painting of nudes with lust–thus, not “disinterestedly.” So, the distinction that Kant makes between food and art is problematic. We can sometimes respond to food in a rational and reflective way that Kant only thinks possible for objects of sight and hearing; conversely, we sometimes respond to art in immediate, irrational ways that Kant only thinks possible for objects of taste, smell, and touch.



Hume: An Empirical Approach to Taste and Beauty

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 3 of 8)

The Hierarchy of the Senses 

In her book Making Sense of Taste, Carolyn Korsmeyer offers a detailed explanation as to how the hierarchy of the senses came to exist in Western philosophy and why it persists. In discussing the reasons why sight and hearing are afforded such higher value than taste, smell, and touch, she writes: “In virtually all analyses of the senses in Western philosophy the distance between object and perceiver has been seen as a cognitive, moral, and aesthetic advantage. The bodily senses are ‘lower’ in part because of the necessary closeness of the object of perception to the physical body of the percipient” (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 12). In other words, sight and hearing, because of the perceived distance between these senses and their objects, give the impression of objectivity. Taste, smell, and touch, on the other hand, being intimately connected with their objects, are presumed merely subjective. Indeed, sight in particular is usually singled out as the noblest of the senses.

So why has sight been raised to such lofty heights and been accepted, along with hearing, as one of the only sources for objective knowledge? One possible explanation rests in our initial misinterpretation of visual data. In an essay titled “Nobility of Sight,” Hans Jonas writes:

Indeed only the simultaneity of sight, with its extended ‘present’ of enduring objects, allows the distinction between change and the nonchanging and therefore between becoming and being. […] Only sight provides the sensual basis on which the mind may conceive the idea of the eternal, that which never changes and is always present. (Jonas 513)

To be sure, through the senses of taste, smell, touch, and even hearing we perceive objects temporally, suggesting the transience of the world–becoming. Sight, limited as it is (inferior, even, to the sight of certain animals), incorrectly perceives stasis in the world–supposedly unchanging elements. Our eyes simply cannot detect every movement, every change (and many changes, such as those that result in vast rock formations, take enormous lengths of time to register sensory evidence that they have even been occurring), so we extrapolate the idea of the eternal, of being, from our ill scrutinized visual data. With this dualistic worldview in place, one side (being) is given precedence over the other (becoming). In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche explains why this privileging of being over becoming came to be in Western philosophy. Discussing it as an idiosyncrasy of philosophers, he writes:

[…] it consists in confusing the last and the first. They place that which comes at the end–unfortunately! for it ought not to come at all!–namely, the “highest concepts,” which means the most general, the emptiest concepts, the last smoke of evaporating reality, in the beginning, as the beginning. This again is nothing but their way of showing reverence: the higher may not grow out of the lower, may not have grown at all. Moral: whatever is of the first rank must be causa sui. Origin out of something else is considered an objection, a questioning of value. All the highest values are of the first rank; all the highest concepts, that which has being, the unconditional, the good, the true, the perfect–all these cannot have become and must therefore be causa sui. (Nietzsche 481-2)

In other words, though the idea of the eternal (being) was extrapolated from misunderstood visual data, and because the idea seemed purer and more perfect than the reality from which it came, it was deemed superior. Because it was deemed superior, the world of being could not have come from the lesser world of becoming. Thus, it must have been self-caused, and the lesser world of becoming must have arisen out of it. The world of being, then, must be the real world; the world of becoming is only an illusion. Nietzsche refers to this reversal, the foundation of Platonic philosophy, as simply an error.

Returning to the subject at hand, Korsmeyer explains how this erroneous hierarchical structuring of being over becoming led to the parallel structuring of the “distance” senses over the bodily ones, and how this then led to other parallel hierarchical relationships: “As we see from the reasons Plato and Aristotle advance in their studies of sense experience, this hierarchy accords with the elevation of mind over body; of reason over sense; of man over beast and culture over nature” (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 30). Thus, reason is associated with the mind; senses are associated with the body. Sight and hearing seem to perceive objects at a distance; they are subsequently associated with the mind and the intellect, as this distance affords them the capacity for reflection and reasoning. Knowledge follows from this intellectual activity. The senses of taste, smell, and touch, being intimately connected with the physical body, are by nature lesser in this construct. Because there is no distance between them and their objects, the application of reflection and reasoning is not thought possible. The sensations afforded by these senses are more immediate and subjective (e.g., pleasure or pain, delicious or disgusting). They cannot be sources for knowledge–or beauty.

Kant: How the Sense Hierarchy is Applied to Aesthetics

In an essay titled “Can a Soup Be Beautiful? The Rise of Gastronomy and the Aesthetics of Food,” Kevin W. Sweeney explains the prejudice that philosophers show toward taste and food in particular by discussing Immanuel Kant’s view of the sense. He writes: “Kant suggests that gustatory experience cannot offer a reflective aesthetic encounter. What we eat or drink provokes only an agreeable or disagreeable sensory response. Consequently, no object of gustatory experience can be beautiful” (Sweeney 121). For Kant, an aesthetic response must be a “disinterested” one. Food, as something that will satisfy a bodily appetite and provide nourishment, cannot create a disinterested aesthetic response in a subject. Also, Kant believes that beauty is a value present within objects and which rational minds can access universally and objectively. Korsmeyer explains it this way:

Partly because aesthetic pleasure is disinterested, it is available to all on the same terms from the same objects. We expect judgments of Taste to be shared by others. Not only are aesthetic pleasures universal, Kant notes that judgments of Taste have a kind of exemplary necessity: because they are based on features of the mind that are universal, all perceivers ideally concur in the apprehension of the beautiful. (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 55)

Clearly, there are two issues that Kant raises that need to be addressed in creating the possibility that food can be beautiful (and thus art):

  1. Is a person’s response to food really more immediate than his or her response to art? Also, is a person’s response to art always more rational and reflective (more “disinterested”) than his or her response to food?
  2. Does beauty exist outside of the subject? Is it really a quality of an object of appreciation and accessible to anyone who experiences the object and reflects on it rationally?

To address these issues, I will examine the evidence of the gastronome Jean Anthelm Brillat-Savarin and the empiricist David Hume.



Brillat-Savarin: Complicating the Hierarchy

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 2 of 8)


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:

  1. 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.
  2. Food is to be eaten (i.e., it has only an instrumental, nutritive value).
  3. 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.



The Hierarchy of the Senses

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 1 of 8)

Last month, I completed a course at Boston University called Philosophy of Food with a paper on the subject of taste.  More specifically, I explored the possibility that food can be experienced aesthetically and thus qualify as art.  I have decided to share this paper but with some caveats.  First, though the paper is lengthy, it is actually much shorter than it needs to be.  Our professor asked for fifteen pages; I had to use a smaller font size to meet this limit, even while simplifying some sections and excluding others.  Therefore, if you feel that certain sections are lacking or do not do justice to their respective subjects, please refer to my references (especially the work of Carolyn Korsmeyer, to whom I am most indebted).   My section on Kant and the section titled “Challenges” are particularly weak in this regard.  For those interested, the two sections that I had to exclude from the final paper are a comparison between functional foods and functionalist architecture and an analogy between food and performance art.

A few more caveats: I am not purporting to be advancing any new ideas in this paper.  I am simply summarizing ideas from multiple sources to offer a coherent defense of my thesis.  I am also not suggesting that food is qualitatively equal to other art forms–only that people tend to approach and respond to food in ways similar to those in which they approach and respond to art objects, whatever the media. Food is clearly different from painting, for example, in the same way that literature is different from sculpture (which, of course, says nothing about their value [learned and not inherent] in relation to one another).  Relatedly, though I try to show how the sense of taste has an epistemic capacity denied it by traditional Western metaphysics, I am not suggesting that it is qualitatively equal to the other senses.  This should go without saying.  Taste is different from sight, just as sight is different from hearing.  But each sense can be a source for knowledge about the world–and through each, then, we can develop a standard of beauty.

Finally, my present thoughts on taste and the definition of art may conflict somewhat (though ever so slightly) with earlier views expressed on this blog.  These present opinions, of course, supersede the earlier ones.



Works Cited

Bordwell, David. “Good and Good for You.” Blog. Observations on Film Art 10 July 2011. Web.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste. Trans. Anne Drayton. London: Penguin, 1970. Print.

Dargis, Manohla. “What You See Is What You Get.” The New York Times 8 July 2011. Web.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Human Knowledge: Classical and Contemporary Approaches. Eds. Paul K. Moser and Arnold Vander Nat. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. 167-84. Print.

Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Eds. Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008. 103-12. Print.

Jonas, Hans. “The Nobility of Sight.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 14.4 (1954): 507-19.

Jones, Jonathan. “Food Can Be Artistic–but It Can Never Be Art.” Blog. The Guardian 17 May 2007. Web.

Jones, Jonathan. “Food for Thought…Why Cuisine or Couture Can Never Equal Great Art.” Blog. The Guardian 21 Apr. 2011. Web.

Keeley, Graham. “Is Food Art? El Bulli Chef Creates a Stir.” The Independent 16 May 2007. Web.

Kois, Dan. “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables.” The New York Times Magazine 29 Apr. 2011. Web.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting.” Food & Philosophy: Eat, Think and Be Merry. Eds. Fritz Allhoff and Dave Monroe. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. Print.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. “Disputing Taste.” TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine 20 Jan. 2010. Web.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1999. Print.

McGee, Harold. “Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault.” The New York Times 13 Apr. 2010. Web.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin, 1976. 463-563. Print.

Ratatouille. Dir. Brad Bird. Walt Disney Video, 2007. DVD.

Smillie, Susan. “Is Food Art?” Blog. The Guardian 24 May 2007. Web.

Sweeney, Kevin W. “Can a Soup Be Beautiful? The Rise of Gastronomy and the Aesthetics of Food.” Food & Philosophy: Eat, Think and Be Merry. Eds. Fritz Allhoff and Dave Monroe. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. 117-32. Print.