Is fine food a form of art? Can we appreciate artisanal food as we appreciate poems, paintings or sonatas? Should we treat creative chefs as artists, like those working in the established arts?
A number of arguments have been advanced to the effect that the answer to these questions should be yes. We need food to stay alive, and we value various foods for their nutritional and health benefits. But we also appreciate food for its aesthetic qualities, such as beauty, elegance, balance, refinement, originality, and so on. In the case of fine food especially, aesthetic appreciation appears to be an end in itself, independently of its nutritional value or health benefits. Thus, food is often appreciated, and is meant to be appreciated, in ways similar to those in which we appreciate works of art.
Furthermore, artisan food often involves the kind of talent, skill and creative work we typically find in the arts. Like artists, master chefs possess a rare and special creative talent that needs to be cultivated through education, training and hard work. Creative chefs must develop skills and master techniques, but they are also expected to show originality, imagination and inventiveness. There are schools and traditions of cooking, continuity and discontinuity with past practices, innovation and adherence to inherited ways. In all these respects, creative cooking is quite similar to what is involved in the established arts, and exceptional chefs are praised and recognized not unlike artists in the established arts.
Creative cooks combine and arrange tastes, flavors, and textures to produce patterns and forms that please our senses and are meant to be appreciated for what they are. Again, their activity is reminiscent of the arrangement of sounds, colors or shapes in music or the pictorial arts. Actually, dishes may also be arranged so as to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
Also, food is not devoid of meaning. Food may express cultural values, attitudes and traditions. Innovative cooking may follow and reflect wider developments in society, science, or culture. Food may also elicit emotional responses: a certain choice of ingredients may invoke feelings of nostalgia, a certain combination of tastes and smells may convey a feeling of peace or tranquility. Thus, food also resembles art is its capacity to express meaning and emotion.
The appreciation of food is not entirely a matter of subjective taste. We have to train our senses to appreciate fine food. We use evaluative terms to characterize food (“fine”, “excellent”, “superb”, and so on) and we make judgments about food that appear to claim at least some validity: some dishes are judged finer than others, and people with a cultivated taste should be able to tell the difference. Once more, the similarity with the arts is striking: appreciating art is not entirely a matter of subjective preference, and the cultured person is expected to make respectable aesthetic judgments.
Nevertheless, the idea that food can be a form of art is still met with a lot of skepticism. Food is not widely recognized as art, and there is a lot of resistance in the art world to the inclusion of fine food among the arts. But this consideration may not deter those who argue that artisan food should be recognized as an art. After all, the art establishment may be wrong, and this is actually what is at stake in the debate.
Food lacks the permanence characteristic of works of art like paintings and sculptures. However, performance arts lack permanence as well, yet they are still recognized as arts. Besides, a dish may be short-lived, but the recipe for its preparation remains even after the dish has been consumed. A recipe could be considered as analogous to the score of a musical composition, and a particular execution of the recipe as analogous to a particular performance of the composition. Actually, recipes usually exhibit a degree of vagueness that allows a chef to interpret it in her own way, as a musician interprets the score by performing it.
Sometimes food is denied the status of art because, apart from its nutritional value, its purpose is supposed to be nothing loftier than the satisfaction of the senses. Food is a mere bodily pleasure and as such it lacks the spirituality or the loftiness characteristic of true art. Nevertheless, defenders of food as art may still respond that this argument is based on a mind/body dualism that unfairly debases the body and its sensations. Further, they may point out that food can exhibit aesthetic qualities and express meanings that go beyond the mere satisfaction of the body.
Finally, skeptics argue that even if food has aesthetic qualities, it cannot attain the complexity and richness of form and aesthetic qualities exhibited by recognized works of art. Similarly, even if it can express certain meanings and emotions, it can never reach the wealth of meanings, ideas and emotions expressed by works in the established arts. Though this contention can hardly be questioned, it may still be doubted whether there is a threshold of richness and complexity in form and content beyond which a creation of human ingenuity cannot be considered as a work of art. Perhaps what the argument shows is not that food cannot be art, but that it can only a minor art. It may not be entirely dismissed as an art form, but it cannot be elevated to the status of major arts such as literature, music, or painting.
These are some of the main arguments that have been advanced for and against the idea that food is a form of art. The issue is rich and fascinating, and the presentation above is merely a sketch of some of the main points that have been made in the debate. It is an issue that we will certainly revisit in the future, in greater detail. But no matter where one stands on the issue, all parties would probably agree that food is a fascinating topic of its own, and it is worthy of our attention and appreciation independently of its status as an art form or not.1
1 For a more elaborate discussion on these arguments, see Elizabeth Tefler's, “Food as Art” http://www.food.unt.edu/arguments/Telfer.pdf, which has been the main source for the short sketch provided here. See also the short presentation in the Philosophy of Food Project http://www.food.unt.edu/arguments/#150 and the suggested readings at the end of the relevant unit.
Copyright, Symposion Journal, a trading name of COGNEA Ltd. May not be reprinted without permission.