Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is Cooking an Art? Can Food Be Art? Discuss

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.


darius said...

I suspect there IS an art to cooking and food, as I have glimpsed a time or two since I gave up industrial food.

Mind you, that's not with my own cooking, but in what I have seen in a few others who can turn something like a mushroom into a work of art to the eyes, nose and palate.

Anonymous said...

Culinary art museums were a failure as people ate all of the exhibits.

el said...

Hmm. I completely agree with the art instinct in that there is a compulsion to make, to build, to do that does include making food. Utility, though, is a tough nut, and I see how you trip over it (everyone does, frankly). You can't truly take the utility away from architecture yet I would argue it is definitely one of the arts.

But here you go: it has to be good architecture, supremely good food wrought from a special hand, and of course the rest of the beaux arts are a lumping of just that, the best of the arts. IN other words, it's the singular hand of the artist that makes it art. Whether that artist is singing an aria or plinking on a piano or acting or dancing or writing, drawing up the building or whipping the eggs, it's got to be the hands (or lungs) that make it so.

Diagrams of how much of our brains are wired up simply for the action of our hands are completely mind-blowing. Dolphins, say, have big brains too but nearly none of their brains are connected to their front flippers. I think the very use of the hand, and doing with it what we do with it, is what makes us singular.

But yeah, I would say Thomas Keller or Charlie Trotter are definitely artists. But artists can have down days too and not everything that comes of what they make is capital-A Art.

Trout Caviar said...

Darius: You know, sometimes, with really amazing, instinctive cooks, what they do seems more like magic than art. We very recently had dinner with friends, and while we chatted with them over a glass of wine, I-ming nonchalantly sliced through a pile of vegetables with her Chinese cleaver, a supremely useful though not expensive knife. It wasn't until we sat down to eat that I saw that she had cut just about every piece nearly paper thin, you couldn't have done better with a mandoline. You could have read the newspaper through the mushroom slices. And the salad was freaking delicious. She criticized her own technique, however, noting that the pieces were not all identical in size and shape...!

Anon., I worked as a gallery guard at a modern art musuem a long time ago, and I wish someone had eaten some of that stuff. But a lot of it, you wouldn't be able to choke it down if it was smothered in nacho cheese....

El, your comment got me thinking that a lot of things considered art also have utility--pottery, say, or fine furniture (maybe the closet parallel to architecture?). Then it occured to me, what other artist faces the fact that his/her audience comes literally hungry to experience said art? Food not only has utility; it is a NECESSITY of life (sorry 'bout the shouting caps but I can't seem to do italics here).

And then that begs the question, in a world where many people simply don't have enough to eat, are there moral or ethical issues involved with treating food as art?


Trout Caviar said...

I've pasted in a link to an article from today's Star Tribune newspaper at the bottom of the original post. Piccolo, a decidedly ambitious, "artistic" restaurant is the Strib's "restaurant of the year."

Anonymous said...

Such an interesting question.

I have always felt most creative when I'm in the kitchen. And I have always felt that my dishes taste better when I cook with love and emotion. Cheesy? Maybe, but it seems to work for me.

Being creative and cooking being an art are clearly two different things. There are some dishes I've had in my life that I felt have reached in and grabbed my soul - to the point of having an emotional reaction. I'm not talking about sobbing or wailing, but just more emotion than if I were eating a burger and fries. While a lot of that could have to do with the entire situation, I do think in certain cases it was clearly because of what went in to the preparation of the dish. Does that make cooking an art? I don't know.

I think how food is plated can absolutely be art...but at the end of the day it doesn't matter if it doesn't taste good.

So, I clearly have not answered the question but instead rambled a bit and maybe confused myself.

If I had to answer as a yes or no question, I would lean towards cooking being more of a science and food itself and it's presentation being an art.

Thanks for making me think today. :)

Daniel said...

I used to want to be a musician, but I switched to cooking (and filmmaking) both of which satisfy my desire to create some form of art. There are dishes that are inpsired, that go beyond simple ingredients and are truley a work of art. Food that not only satisfies hunger and taste, but that creates emotion, memory, joy. There are degrees of art, there is the painting on the wall in the Motel 6 compared to a Picasso. Perkins compared to Per Se.

Daniel Klein

sylvie in Rappahannock said...

If art is the spark of the divine, I don't quite see how cooking is art. And frankly so much of the so-called artistic food seems contrived to me. But then again, there are always people who don't get the newest artistic trends... so maybe I am one of them.

But just because we eat every day and must do so, there is no reason why we can't eat beautifully / thoughtfully... artfully?. And if art is a way of sharing, then certainly cooking can be art: one can think of building a meal, choosing and gathering the ingredients, weaving them together as "artful" even if the result is not art. How many photographers - or painters - after all are not artists? Not even craftsmen... Not everybody is gifted... With cooking we can weave - modestly - a little beauty in our everyday life and we can tie ourselves to our corner of the world. I am not sure I would call it art though... to me it's a craft, it can be profoundly personal, but art? I am not sure...

May you walk in beauty.

sylvie in Rappahannock said...

and bonne annee to you & Mary.

sylvie in Rappahannock said...

I meant to say (2nd para, 2nd sentence)
"And if art is a way of sharing, then certainly cooking can be ART-LIKE: "

Macaroni said...

Brett, Cooking is an art .. and there is also an art to telling jokes, and splitting wood. Hidden in the question somewhere is the issue of where cooking stands in the hierarchy of the arts and crafts. Nowadays we find the same arrangement of “players” in the realm of gourmet cooking that we find in the other arts: the chef, the “cool” people who know the chef, the “trendy” people who write about the food, and the rich people who can afford to eat it—and then tell their friends they did. But I think cooking is more at home in the “craft” end of the spectrum, where it speaks to values that lie beyond the personal expressiveness of the chef—of the earth, of down-home sensuality, of friends sharing such things together, and fine art be damned.

Sharon Parker said...

As to cooking as art or craft or whatever, I think others commenting here have said it well and I pretty much agree with all of them. But I wish to take issue with Mr. Dutton equating art with emotion and then dismissing cooking as not really involving or inspiring emotion. WTF!? Does that man not have a mother? Of course food, and by extension cooking, is about emotion. Good grief. I can't believe he said that.

Trout Caviar said...

Wonderful thoughts here. Thx to all for your ideas. I'm writing on a little phone so will respond more in a couple days. You've kept us thinking and talking out here at Bide-A-Wee. Happy new year all.


el said...

Gosh, Brett: are you some kind of oracle or something?

Trout Caviar said...

Well, first let's spare a moment's thought for Denis Dutton, who, as El informed me via the NY Times link, passed away last Tuesday of prostate cancer. He was only 66.

That adds an unexpectedly somber note to this discussion, but perhaps it puts it in perspective, too. On the one hand, a conversation about whether food can be seen as art seems rather trivial when the man who inspired it has died. On the other, it's a tribute to the reach of ideas, to a wonderful connectedness that shared passions can bring, even when we don't all agree. And then, while in our time discussions of food can fly away quite rapidly into abstraction, or obesssion, or trendiness, this is a topic which, at its most basic, really is a matter of life and death--in that we must eat to live, in that for many of us, eating means that other creatures die. Oh, for morbid....

I've certainly been moved to thought, and just plain moved, by the things I've read in your responses. Jen, I don't think you confused the issue at all; rather, in talking about cooking as a creative outlet for yourself, you highlight exactly why we might consider cooking an art. Daniel, I've seen your passion for this topic on display in your Perennial Plate videos, and I perfectly agree that much of this is a question of perspective, and of taste--yes, there is Perkins, and there is Per Se, and there are always going to be those who prefer the former to the latter, and can we honestly say that the strawberry roll-up crowd is just a bunch of benighted rubes? Yes, what goes into a Thomas Keller meal is vastly different from the chain experience. I'm not sure that that necessarily makes it art. (As an aside, I think that one big problem with the American dining landscape is that between Perkins and Per Se, there's not a lot else worth considering; bring on the neighborhood bistro, to give us some relief from the dizzying highs and lows!)

Sylvie--you always seem to get to the heart of things. It's that French romantic pragmatism, I think! You touch on something El mentions, and that Jen implies--the satisfaction in craft, in making, which is expression, and does transmit emotion. Maybe it's not a grand and timeless sort of art, that is going to hang in a museum or grace fabled stages, but "...a little beauty in our everyday life and we can tie ourselves to our corner of the world"--that is lovely, and bears repeating.

John, I think you sort of reframed the question, though not necessarily for the worse. I wasn't seeing it as a hierarchical question, though. I started listening with a lot of resistance to the idea of cooking as art, and then had my head turned by that seeming denial that food could be expressive, at all. Personally, I lean toward a view that I think is close to yours (can that be possible?!?), of finding art and meaning and value in activities, in forms of expression, both canonical and mundane. Don't we really create our own realities, and mythologies, in just that way?

I'm remembering back to a discussion from long ago, brought about by some piece of conceptual or performance art (actually I think it had to do with swimming the length of the Mississippi as an artistic endeavor). And whoever the hell I was arguing with, we eventually reached agreement to stop arguing about the question, "Is it art?" and instead concede--the person doing this says it's art. Let's move the discussion along: it's art, but is it good art? What does it say, and how does it say it?

So, what does Jim Harrison's marvelous veal chop mean? Evaluate the significance of Doug Flicker's celery root custard (I'd really like to try that!).

Oh, and Sharon: I'm sure your kids (and handsome hubby!) sense the love and care you put into your cooking; probably not all children (or spouses) are so lucky...not sayin' that I wasn't, I was, just sayin'....

Thanks, everybody. Fruitfulness, artfulness, joyous tables to all in 2011~ Brett

Meg said...

It was so great to meet you today and I'm totally in love with your blog. I have asked myself and been asked this question many times and I always seem to have a different answer. But I think Leo Tolstoy said it best.

"In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life."

Like Jen who replied above, I have felt the most creative (and satisfied) in the kitchen. Mostly I believe that art is created for the artist and if he/she chooses to share it with other people and they enjoy it...well, bonus! Perhaps that is selfish, but for me it is the truth. Music and cooking go hand in hand for me. I can't cook without my playlist blaring in the background and I'm totally self-absorbed when cooking. However, I am constantly amazed and proud when my cooking is received well. It truly does form a relationship between the creator and the receiver, IMO.

Thank you for such a thought provoking post.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Meg: It was great talking with you, as well--Darlene's Corner Cupboard restaurant in Boyceville is the place to be in Dunn County, WI, folks! Great food and fascinating people. The only down-side is that she's only open for lunch, Thursday to Saturday.

One thing that's clear from the comments here is that a lot of people now see cooking as a form of creative expression, which I think may be a cultural sea-change--we're a long way from the "I Hate to Cook Book" days! So while you could argue the live-long day away over whether cooking is a fine art, the fact that so many people find a creative outlet there, that's its own justification, beyond debate.

The Tolstoy quotation is excellent. I think it goes along with Denis Dutton's main point in his book, that art and the aethetic sensibility cannot be separated from the rest of human experience/nature. It all grew up together, though perhaps, at different times in the histories of various cultures it has had more or less prominent roles--and then how it is expressed has changed greatly throughout history, too.

So with the question of cooking and art, as the "canonical" arts were getting all canonized, food was probably nowhere in the picture when art was considered. A hundred, fifty, twenty years ago, who would have thought that "molecular gastronomy" would be quite a common term in certain circles of our society? Who would have anticipated Chowhound, or pop-up kitchens?

But, you know, in various places at various times, and going way back, there's been a lot of ceremony and significance attached to food, it has been seen as sacred, even. Japanese tea ceremonies, for instance, and the elaborate progressions of a kaiseki meal, these things have a very long history.

And then, let's not forget about the Last Supper, the Eucharist, quite a meaningful nosh there, for many people.

I see that this conversation could go on and on. Let's all meet at Darlene's to continue it...!

Cheers~ Brett

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