Pieter Claesz: “Allegory of the Five Senses, Still Life with Musical Instruments”
This essay aims to develop an approach towards understanding food as a form of fine art. I hope to convince the reader to see food and drinks in such manner, and do so by examining the similarities between culinary arts and other validated forms of art. I started to think about this as I recently got more involved in cooking and realized that I was actually enjoyıng it.
The fact that cooking, or a really good dish, does not come up as an artistic creation has been bugging me since then, even though some actually may think of it as art. And even though the term “culinary arts” itself contains the word art, it is generally used in the sense of a craft, instead of referring to the artistic creation or aesthetic experience per se. We will examine the difference between these words, and discuss when would a form of creation be art and when it would be considered a craft.
I will first discuss the art-ness and craft-ness of arts, and briefly discuss their difference and relevance to the topic. I was later intending to delve into the related literature in a separate section, but decided that it would unneccassarily elongate the essay and to simply refer to the relevant sources where needed will be more than enough.
Before I had done the research, I was assuming that food was not approached by philosophers as fine art, at all. I was wrong. Even though much of the philosophical literature focuses on topics like the ethics of food consumption, what to and not to eat, the distribution of food, etc., there is plenty of text discussing food as an art form.
In the discussion section we will examine the commonalities between cooking and other creative fields such as painting and composing. Later, we will be analyzing the uniqueness of culinary arts as an expression of creativity and address the problem of functionality, which comes up as a major counter-argument to the art-ness of food, mentioned as far back as by Aristotle.
Art: Craft with Intentions
The terms craft and art are often used interchangeably, as seen in martial arts, textile arts, or culinary arts. This may cause a confusion with regards to categorizing cookery and requires us to define and examine what art and craft are. This section takes a brief look at it, summarizes what might be the determining factors of an artwork, and tries to draw a frame for the sake of our argument.
The Dictionary of Cambridge defines craft as “skill and experience, especially in relation to making objects; a job or activity that needs skill and experience, or something produced using skill and experience.” Art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for beauty, or emotional power” (Dictionary of Oxford). The difference between the two is clear. Craft requires skill in producing something; whereas, art’s primary aim is expression of creativity.
Based on the distinction one makes between the two, whether cooking classifies as art or craft will change. One may claim that if the work is intended for contemplation, then it is a work of art; but if for use, it is a work of craftsmanship. Based on this distinction one may argue that cookery does not qualify as art, because of its use. Another distinction between art and craft focuses on the degree of creativity, suggesting that if the amount of creativity is low and is more based on instructions it is craft; and if it is the opposite, it is art.
In my opinion, the crucial factor for a work’s art-ness is its purpose of creation. The work should be produced to be appreciated for beauty or to evoke emotions. I call this aesthetic intention or artistic concern, and believe it to be the fundamental base of artistic creation.
Aesthetic intention, or artistic concern, refers to an artist’s aim so that the end-product, or the process of creation is appreciated for the sake of its beauty. Surely, one might have to define what to be appreciated for beauty means, what is and is not beautiful; or whether a work even should reflect beauty. But I’m not getting in there.
Obviously though, it doesn’t only refer to visual beauty. Each art is perceived through different senses and appreciated in accordance with pre-existing aesthetic reservoir. This aesthetic intention, may provide a partial answer into the discussion of whether food-related creation is art.
In her book Food for Thought, Telfer makes a similar point. She argues that “If something is a work of art, then its maker or exhibitor intended it to be looked at or listened to with intensity, for its own sake. … So a chair can count as a work of art if the maker intends it primarily to be looked at in the way one would look at a picture, even if intends it to be sat upon” (1996, p. 45).
When we think of culinary arts in such manner, we can make the claim that if the maker intends the food being cooked, or the drink being made to be appreciated for the beauty of its taste, even if he also intends it to satisfy one’s hunger or thirst, then it is a work of art.
Speaking for cooking, it would not be artistic creation if I looked up a brownie recipe online and followed the instructions, and as a result make a brownie that is technically well-made, is aesthetically pleasing; and was intended to be appreciated. Even though there is aesthetic intentions, I am not the artist. Because the initial creation is not mine. I am a performer at most –similarly to other interpretive arts.
As much as I am eager to declare a well-made latte an art piece, the same applies to that. The barista may have the most artistic intentions, but the recipe is not his, unless he makes some tweaks of his own.
When a pianist plays an existing piece, s/he does carry aesthetic intentions. But because the initial creation is not hers/his, it can only be called interpretive art. An architect is not an artist if he is simply given a work to draw that’s already been designed, even if he partakes in the construction phase. The architect who did design the structure, and was only involved in the idea creation, would be the artist even when he does not partake in the construction phase. So a work ought to also be creative.
In short, until my view changes, I argue that a work is art if, 1) it aims to reflect some sort of beauty, 2) was intended to be appreciated for its beauty, 3) it is done by someone with some level of expertise, meaning it follows certain structural rules, and 4) is creative.
Cookery, as a creative field, shares a number of commonalities with other accredited forms of art. These similarities include abiding by certain principles of harmony, requirement of skill to be made well, having a conscious creator and experiencer, and triggering aesthetic pleasures. The uniqueness of culinary expertise with regards to the sense it appeals to gives it a special place, aesthetically speaking –a fact that’s been overlooked.
Here, I will present two main arguments, one will discuss the similarities between culinary expertise and various other artistic endeavors; the next will underline the uniqueness of culinary expertise and address the problem of functionality. In short, cooking, similarly to various other art fields, produces objects for aesthetic appreciation; and it is open to creative discoveries. So, we will conclude, depending on a number of conditions cooking is a form of artistic creation, and food, a work of art.
Similarity #1: Principles of Harmony
Art works that we admire usually share certain set of characteristics, even though they are in different styles. For any given art work, certain principles of harmony are in work. A painter should be aware of the colors he uses, the values of those colors, the overall composition, the hierarchical order in which he places the objects, the focal point, and so on. One does not necessarily consider them all, but does use at least some of one‘s own choice.
In principle, authenticity of the initial idea or subject, application of the rules, and intention of the painter to create something beautiful will result in a good painting. Principles naturally differ from one field to another. A musician would have to pay attention to the structural rules he/she should abide by, so would an author. The structural perfection doesn’t always promise a perfect work, but is an important aspect of creating something beautiful.
Certain principles of harmony apply to cooking as well. It’s not that every flavor works well together. We don’t sprinkle hot chili on a chocolate cake. Certain spices work better with certain ingredients. Some ingredients should only be cooked to a certain degree, or else the taste is damaged. Anyone who has some experience with cooking, or eating really, will understand what I mean.
Similarity #2: Necessity of Theoretical Knowledge or Experience
This similarity is closely related to the first one. Creativity in arts requires a certain skill level, some theoretical knowledge, and/or experience. Without these, it is just playing and exploring, which are of course necessary for growth in the field. But as the saying attributed to Picasso suggests: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can brake them like an artist.”
Egon Schiele, an expressionist artist, drew his twisted figures far from anatomical perfection. But he could only break the rules, because he knew how to. A professional artist understands which ones to break, and still apply some others such as correct values and light use.
A painter should know about color theory, for example, either theoretically, intuitively, or by experience. This painter would have to have enough practice in the field to know what to do next, which materials or colors to use or to play with. The lack of these features is why we don’t count children’s paintings as works of fine are, even though they are often times successful in creativity and sometimes in technique.
This necessity of theoretical knowledge and/or experience also applies to creating good food, or fine dish. One can only accidentally create an aesthetically pleasing dish, if one has no experience or knowledge at all.
Similarity #3: Improvisation and Discovery
The above mentioned factors allow an artist to improvise, test new ideas, and find creative solutions. An artist who is skilled, and is practiced in the field will discover new things during his/her processes of creation. Just as visual arts, music, and dance are open to improvisation and discoveries, so is cooking. Creativity is improvisation that succeeds. Discovering a new recipe by testing different ingredients, or playing around with an existing one by adding a pinch of this and that, either by the help of experience or intuition, is a creative endeavor.
Similarity #4: Conscious Maker and Experiencer
There are two subjects of artistic creations and aesthetic experiences: a conscious maker and experiencer.
The maker is the creator, the artist. The artist is the producer of the artwork. The painter of a painting, the composer of a musical piece, the choreographer of a dance performance, the author of a novel, or the cook of a dish. Even though it may not seem like a controversial topic, the necessity of the maker to be conscious is worthy of note. A painting made by a robot does not qualify as art, because artistic intention requires consciousness.
The second party, the experiencer, is the one exposed to the artwork, and has a more passive experience, despite the emotions a good artwork can very actively evoke. The viewer of a painting in a museum, the listener at the concert who is enjoying a divine-like experience, the reader of a novel who goes through all the feelings and lives the story, is still just an experiencer.
The main difference between the two parties is -obviously- the artist has a more active role; whereas, the experiencer is more inactive. Surely, most of the time the creator is also the experiencer. But the artist’s creative process makes the artist stand out from the group of mere experiencers. The artwork has a different meaning for the artist –the process of creation. For the artist, it is a whole process with all the steps and stones of the way. The moment when the idea first emerges, the first draft or sketch, and all the way to the final piece, calling it done at a certain point, putting in the work. The artist has a more meaningful experience.
Uniqueness of Culinary Arts as an Aesthetic Experience and the Problem of Functionality
Among those who did not see culinary arts as artistic expression was Plato, who concluded that only the objects of seeing and hearing could be beautiful, and therefore food could’t because it’s something we smell and taste (Sweeney, p. 2).
Our senses have been seen in a hierarchical structure, with seeing and hearing generally ranking the top. However, the reason for that is not really clear to me. Why exactly are seeing and hearing considered higher than the sense of touch, or taste? Even though it was objectively true that seeing and hearing are more valuable, why wouldn’t objects of tasting and smelling still be beautiful and worthy of being considered artistic?
This perception of importance, along with functionality of food, has prevented us seeing the artistic or aesthetic qualities of creating food and drinks, and experiences of eating and drinking.
In addition to its similarities with other art fields, one of the strongest points as to why cooking can be artistic creation is its uniqueness. Cooking is unique in the sense that it’s the only form of creation that appeals to our sense of taste.
Most aesthetic joys are experienced as a result of a special kind of appreciation of the data perceived through our senses. Let’s take seeing. There’s a lot things we see. So, it makes sense that only some of what we see will be fine art, those that stand out from others, aesthetically. There aren’t many things that we taste. One could of course attempt to taste a sculpture (that'd be interesting).
Some arts appeal to multiple senses such as dance performances and textile works. Similarly, eating (and drinking) is a multi-sensory experience, where taste is accompanied by smell, sight, touch, and even voice. But, nonetheless, food is the only one that addresses the sense of taste. That should give it a special place.
Another objection may suggest that the temporariness of the eating experience as well as the food itself, disqualifies it from being art. First of all, why exactly? What kind of requirement is that? And isn’t music also temporary? It only revives when one plays or listens to it.
Problem of Functionality
The fact that eating satisfies our need for hunger has prevented us philosophically approaching cooking as an aesthetic endeavor. This issue was presented as one of the most common objections as to why it shouldn’t be seen as such.
Even though Aristotle believed that the experiences of eating and drinking ought to be enjoyed, he suggested that fine cooking could not represent or express anything beyond itself the way mimetic arts do, such as nostalgia and comfort (Sweeney, p. 50). He also argued that since the main reason why one makes and consumes food is the desire for nutrition, and even if the dish is cooked by a very good chef, it could not be perceived as beautiful. “The desire to taste and eat such dishes would overwhelm one’s ability to perceive beauty in them” (Sweeney, p. 49).
Aristotle also thought of our senses in a hierarchical manner in which vision and hearing placing the top. Again, even if this structure was objectively true, and tasting and smelling were lesser sensations, why would that prevent its object from being considered beautiful? Based on that logic one could at most claim that they’re lesser forms of art, and that’s it. After all, the goodness of a food is merely determined by the pleasure it produces, how well it is made, similarly to a musical piece. We will be addressing this problem of functionality by stressing two main points: the beautification of food and the case of architecture.
It is understandable that the functionality of food might be seen as a problem in terms of its art-ness. Although the stance has an issue: We prefer to eat a dish’s tastiest version; we don’t just go for a mash of veggies. We use spices to embellish the dish, follow the instructions so that it’s cooked correctly, and appreciate when we eat something good, and praise its maker (i.e. “God bless your hands,” “Eline sağlık,” in Turkish).
If it was merely about its function, we would either go for the cheapest, the easiest, or the quickest dish to cook, or to eat. Even though the goodness of the dish isn’t necessary to satisfy our hunger, we do seek the beautification. We prefer certain ingredients over others and have specific choices of taste. So why beautify the taste if you simply and merely want to feed yourself?
For our second point, we will briefly examine an example. The fact that a creation’s primary function is something else has not necessarily prevented us from labeling it as art, nor from appreciating its beauty. Take architecture. We’ve built buildings for certain needs. It has a major functional role to accommodate and to protect.
We’ve built places of worship to praise our gods; we’ve built concert halls so we can gather and appreciate the events and the sense of togetherness; we’ve built houses to live in, and placed roofs on top to protect us from any external danger. Yet, we’ve beautified each one. And once we’ve done so, correctly, we called it good architecture and considered it a work of art. Because it is.
The experience one has when one enters an awe-inspiring structure can be profound. We praise the great cathedrals and mosques, the works of Renaissance architects, the cultural authenticity of artifacts. Good architecture is beautiful for the sake of its beauty only; not because it provides a safe place to live or to pray in. We seek the beautification, because it does matter. Similarly, we don’t cook a mesh of veggies everyday to feed ourselves, just as we don’t live between plain stone walls –though it might be aesthetic.
Beauty attracts. That is a fact. It is awe inspiring. It is truth being experienced. Places where works of fine art are presented attract people from around the world. One can see Mona Lisa on the internet but still does visit the Louvre, line up and wait for hours to see it in person.
I can listen my favorite songs on my phone, even watch the concert records, but still prefer to go a to a concert to experience the music there and then. Just as these artworks of the masters and architectural masterpieces attract visitors, so does fine food.
Even though they can very well be consumed elsewhere, one may wish to eat sushi in its home country as well as to see traditional Japanese architecture, to visit Italy for its historical beauties, but also for its pizza, pasta, and espresso. France attracts with its museums and architecture, but also with its croissants and wines; Gaziantep for its kebabs and baklavas, Nablus for its kunafa, Belgium for its chocolate and waffle… The list is long, but I think the point is clear.
As discussed above, the functional role of food comes up as the major objection for it not being considered art. It is not obvious why something’s functionality or the temporariness of its experience prevent its art-ness, as it does not with architecture or music. Besides, regardless of its feeding qualities, we beautify what we eat and appreciate when we eat something good.
This essay was an attempt convince its reader to see food and drinks as artistic creations. This required us to take a look at what factors constitute an artwork. I tried to examine this question to a degree.
Surely, not everything that evokes aesthetic pleasure is art, but also something’s functionality does not prevent it from being art, which we referred to above, as the problem of functionality.
I argue we should see food as fine art because besides we would agree that it triggers aesthetic experiences, there are many commonalities with other artistic endeavors. These similarities, the uniqueness of it with regards to the sense it addresses, and the fact that we beautify our foods, do qualify cooking and food as works of fine art.
We are not making the case that every dish made is immediately an artwork just because it has certain similarities, say with a painting, or because someone created it. It has to be made with the intentions of producing something tasty, beautiful, to be appreciated for that beauty. The dish should be creative, and the cook should have a certain level of knowledge and experience.
It’s not difficult to imagine being in a concert hall enjoying the music with those around you who appreciate the same intense experience. Thinking of music as art is easy. It has is no other function other than to evoke emotions or to be enjoyed for its beauty. But because its such an everyday thing and a fundamental need, we overlook the aesthetic joys of our food consumption.
Nevertheless, it is worthy to recognize the beauty of what we eat and drink, and appreciate these experiences as aesthetic processes. As with many other aesthetic experiences, attending to the experience improves its quality. So, the next time we attend to our eating experiences might make our lives more aesthetically rich, and our lives more tasteful -figuratively,- and full of delight.
Music heals the soul, they say. So does a fine dish.
Dictionary of Cambridge, craft
Dictionary of Oxford, art
Sweeney, K. W. (2018). The Aesthetics of Food: The Philosophical Debate about What We Eat and Drink. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield International
Telfer, E. (1996). Food for Thought. New York: Routledge.
Allhoff, F. & Hales, S. D. (2007). Food & Philosophy: Eat, Think, and Be Merry. UK: Blackwell Publishing
Kaplan, D. M. (2012). The Philosophy of Food. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Perullo, N. (2016). Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food. New York: Columbia University Press.
Quinet, M. (1981). Food as art: the problem of function, in British Journal of Aesthetics, 21(2): 159-171.