Friday, August 21, 2009
Beauty in the juice
Could a sculpture be "bitter," or "doleful" a roast? Could one say, the soup is "detached"?
Though I'm a bit of a francophile, my synesthetic questions above have little to do with Mallarmean symbolism. I'm trying to explore the uneasy relationship between art and food.
It's not difficult to surmise why there's so much written about art and why -aside from cookbooks- there's such scant critical reverberation on food. It all harks back to Eighteenth-Century thinkers like Kant*, who (loved food, but) disliked the association of beauty in art -or goodness in morals, for that matter- with that of the plebeian "practicality" of food.
Don't you sense a bit of sight-over-taste sensory discrimination in the history of Modern Western thought?
Meanwhile, Dutch Still Life painters like Willem Claesz were doing exactly the opposite!
Is there anything more "Dutch" than nature morte? This is the obvious sight/taste, food/art connection! Perhaps this link was picked up by Scottish philosopher David Hume, an avowed Hedonist, for whom judgments about art and food are similar (the Scott was a well-known gourmet). Hume regards the recognition of value-qualities in objects to be a function of the pleasure and pain-responses of perceivers. The magic word is "taste."
As a person with a cold is not in a position to assess the taste of a meal, someone without experience or education is not be ready to properly evaluate a work of art. Wine tasting is a good example: A neophyte is in no position to evaluate all the subtle notes implicit in the juice. Something similar happens with beauty. The standard is given by the experts' consensus. Perhaps Hume thought that such standards of beauty could become hostage of an elite group and preferred consensus to withstand the weigh of time. This is what is called "good taste," and the point at which another German philosopher starts.
For Kant, "taste" (Geschmack ) is independent of the sensual sphere, not a product of desires. Taste for Kant is subjective and universal: Subjective because they are responses of pleasure, independent of the essential properties in the objects. They are universal in that they are not merely personal. But the fundamental Kantian distinction is that the pleasure (of taste) should be disinterested (the explication of the term takes a longer discussion). What Kant means is that the cognitive and aesthetic values are different. If values can express sentences, "the earth is flat" is a world apart from "I hate anchovies." So, let's come back to wine.
Is the taste of a Clos de los Siete, 2007, from Mendoza, Argentina just a subjective property?
Kant forgot the juice!
Let's talk about the wine in the bottle. It's here that Hume’s hedonistic theory plays a necessary role. While my preference for wine is somewhat subjective, there must be something in the Cos de los Siete that is beyond a subjective opinion on my part, i.e., the quality of the juice.** And this is what decides the difference between a good and a mediocre wine.***
You have the right to say, "I do not like Clos de los Siete." But to suggest that the juice in the bottle is not good is simply untrue.
*If not the only thinker to endorse the distinction, Kant is the most famous advocate of High/Low before Clement Greenberg. **What makes "good wine" good? A good combination of terroir, viticulture and vinification. 1- Terroir addresses the the influence of the place where the grapes are grown. Variations in factors, such as micro-climate (topography), soil properties (drainage and water availability, but possibly also chemical differences). The right viticulture: Yield is very important, this is how many grapes are grown per hectare of land; it is quoted in hectoliters per hectare e.g. 50 hl/ha. For example, fewer grape bunches per vine the more intense their flavor will be. At the very best vineyards yields can be as low as 30hl/ha, e.g. top quality Burgundy, as opposed to around 100hl/ha for non-quality wines, e.g. Liebfraumilch. The right vinification: Grapes must be made into wine as soon after they have been picked as possible, because contact with air causes oxidization, which spoils their flavor. Understanding the effects of air, as well as temperature control during fermentation have been breakthroughs in modern wine-making techniques. ***It can work in art as well. Once we establish the code of a given style (say, Renaissance art, or Twentieth Century Cubism), we can entertain certain objective qualities of the given art work. Is there something "objective" (and this is objective with lower case) about Michelangelo's Pietà independent of our personal evaluations?