A bit of thought-fodder to get the New Year off to a provocative start:
I was driving out to Bide-A-Wee one day in September, listening to The Ideas Network of Wisconsin Pubic Radio, 88.3, WHWC, Menomonie-Eau Claire, "Talk about issues that matter to you," (in Jim Fleming's emphatic reading). Veronica Rueckert* was talking to Denis Dutton, who wrote a book called The Art Instinct, the thesis of which was that art has an evolutionary function in human history, that artists, rather than being the outlandish freaks some see them as, in fact contribute and have always contributed to societal development in ways that assure for art, artists, and the aethetic sensibility a veritably Darwinian niche in our cultures. People were calling in with amazingly thoughtful comments and questions. I was learning about flint-knapping and throat singing and all kinds of interesting stuff, and I was thinking, "Man, I love WPR," and I was thinking that Professor Dutton, though he sounded a bit academic at times, really did have a feel for the subject, for art itself.
And then this:
Veronica Rueckert: An email here from Matt who says: "Please address the art of cooking, where does flavor end and art begin?"
Denis Dutton: It’s quite interesting, because cooking involves some aspects of the arts, but others are conspicuously missing. And one of the ways in which I’ve noticed when I’ve spoken about this is that if I do get on cooking people become extremely sore unless I come down flat out and say, “Oh yes, cooking is a high art and cooks are among our highest artists, and this has to be seen as some kind of an art form.” I don’t completely buy it. …I think I enjoy good cooking and I appreciate the great chefs and the great cooks of the world, in a sense, perhaps, as much as anyone. But the problem with cooking is this: Though it involves pleasures, and a lot of deep and I think intense pleasures—I’m not sure how deep they are, but they certainly are intense pleasures—and they involve smells, they involve taste, and they involve textures; and though the creation of these…involve a lot of high virtuosity and high skill…the one element that’s missing from cooking…is emotional expression. That is to say, there’s something expressive in singing, in a Bach violin partita, there’s something expressive in a Raphael painting, which actually, in a way, breaks our hearts, it actually…brings us to the point of tears. Food only brings you to the point of tears if the bill was vastly too high and you wish you hadn’t paid all that money for it. It’s not expressive in the same way…. …People become very annoyed when I’ve said this in the past, and I’m afraid some people will be annoyed at my saying it now. I do think that there is a lot in common with the arts with culinary art, but it’s not fully a canonical art in the way that music, painting, and literature are, because it doesn’t involve the sense of the transmission of human emotion in the way that the arts at their highest do. That’s my answer to that. As I say, it’s not going to satisfy everybody.
Veronica Rueckert: Hmm, yeah we could obviously talk about that one more…. I’m sure that there are people listening who would say “I cook with passion, and the emotions are there in the food…”.
Dutton: …I’m sure that the best cooks actually do feel a sense of the transmission of emotion, but whether or not, if they were in the kitchen and people were just indifferently getting the food and eating it out in the dining room, whether they would actually experience this emotion, well, I think that would be a pretty tough ask.
I will admit that I sometimes roll my eyes when chefs are treated like a sacrosanct, effete tribe of Michaelangelos in toques and whites, and I was going along with Professor Dutton for a while, hearing him out, at least. The lame joke about the cost of a fancy meal bringing one to tears kind of made me cringe, but what really soured my porridge was the bland, bald assertion that a plate of food could categorically not be expressive in the way that the traditional, "canonical" arts can.
I also had to take issue with the professor's claim that he appreciated fine cooking as much as anyone, because, well, I think it was pretty clear from his attitude toward it that he doesn't (the dogs, in the back of the car, agreed, I think). But then, it's a pretty boring world in which everyone agrees with your opinion (or you agree with theirs), and as I thought about that exchange I found that I wasn't entirely sure where I stood on the topic. On the one hand, I certainly feel that food can be expressive, that it can transmit emotional impact. On the other, food has a utilitarian function that the traditional fine arts generally don't, and yet.... And yet, I can indeed think of food that has brought me near the point of tears with its deliciousness and meaningfulness--but I'm still not sure that makes it art.
So without going on at ponderous length about my reactions, I'd just like to say:
Please discuss. I would love to hear whatever thoughts you clever people have on this topic.
Can food and cooking be considered art? If so, in what contexts? Must it be self-consciously "artful" food, prepared by an ambitious restaurant chef, or could Ukrainian grandma cooking rise to the level of art in some way?
Okay. I'll say no more. I will, however, offer a couple more tidbits, to whet your intellectual appetites, as it were:
'“I’m one of the few men in France who cooks for himself every day with only fresh products,” [Gérard] Oberlé tells us, with what we come to realize is characteristic immodesty (and probably not great exaggeration). “In my house I have not one single industrial food product. I don’t like food that’s been chewed before I get it. And I make only a cuisine of the season. I don’t eat strawberries at Christmas. It’s not a philosophical decision—it’s purely animal, hedonistic. I know personally all the people who make the products I consume. I’m my own chef and my own gastronome. But for me, cuisine is not one of the beaux-arts. A chef is just someone who makes soup. I ask only that the soup be good.” '
Colman Andrews in Saveur magazine, November 1998
'Perhaps it is even inappropriate to use the same adjectives with food that we do for Mozart and Gauguin. If the veal chop is “marvelous,” what do we have left for Van Gogh? Quite a puzzle, and it bespeaks once again our limitations with language rather than the limits of language itself. '
Jim Harrison, "Thirty-Three Angles on French Cooking," from The Raw and the Cooked
(There's a Jim Harrison connection in the Saveur quotation, too, as it was he who put Colman Andrews in touch with Gérard Oberlé, who also appears in Mr. Harrison's book, and who, upon being offered a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast at Mr. Harrison's house, utters the timeless phrase, "Gérard does not eat cow food...". )
Click here for the link to the WPR audio archive. The show aired September 10, 2010.
Star Tribune's "restaurant of the year," Doug Flicker's Piccolo, which serves a celery root custard described as "a work of art." How so?
*I originally said that Ms Rueckert was sitting in for Kathleen Dunn, but in fact Rueckert has the regular Friday slot from 9:00 to 11:00 am, and rightfully so.