• Alexander Novack

What is Food Art?

Updated: May 11, 2020

In my last post, I proposed that deliberately creative acts are (at least one) way of becoming a unitary being (as opposed to just a mere collection of bits). I had in mind that such creative acting (and the capacity for such actions) is a non-reductive property of genuine beings. We credit the artist as the salient cause of her art, not her kidney + her spleen + her left lung + etc.

There is much written about certain forms of art (painting, sculpture, music, etc.) and what makes such things art. There is far less written about food art. Obviously, not all food is art, just as not all paintings are art. But, would ANY food EVER qualify as art? Without doubt, some people will deny it. Skeptics will say something like: "In the great museums of the world, we see Michelangelo's sculptures or Rembrandt's paintings, but not a chocolate croissant!" You might be surprised that a philosopher of first rank, Immanuel Kant, might well defend the croissant's being in the museum before Michelangelo's sculptures!

The philosophy of art is called aesthetics. It is a field of somewhat recent (by philosophy's timeline) inception and development. While the ancients had strong opinions about certain forms of art, the more fundamental question of what art is, in and of itself, was not seriously probed until the 18th century.

Kant argued that art is the pure enjoyment of nature. As such, most of what sits in museums is not going to be art, according to Kant, unless it can overcome its manufacture and lure us to enjoy nature in despite of its unnaturalness. In fact, Kant insisted that true art is free of concept. So, for instance, paintings that depict great battles or important persons, etc., are 'impure' art precisely because they are about this or that and because they convey this thought or that idea. Art shouldn't lock the mind up, says Kant, but rather, it should emancipate the mind and allow cognition to be in free play.

In this way, the croissant has a leg up on Michelangelo's sculptures! When you bite through the cultured buttery layers of a croissant, some crisp and some pillowy soft, as the waves of sweet and salty and creamy run circuits across your palate, you'll not be intellectualizing much! You'll probably look like you've gone on a mental vacation, in fact. You are as purely enjoying nature as it can be enjoyed!

There's some additional support for this from neuroscience, no less. According to the theory first proposed by Paul MacLean, our brains are layered in ways that roughly correspond to different points in our evolutionary history. The uniquely human layer, the neocortex, is the newest addition. This is where, according to the experts, we think our most intellectual (conceptual) thoughts. It is also where most visual processing happens in humans. By contrast, the reptilian part of our brain is where smell and taste get processed. It is associated with the seat of our emotions and the place our deepest memories reside. Thus, if Kant had in mind that art should be non-conceptual, pure enjoyment of the world, then it should be by way of the intellectually uncontaminated joy that is experienced through our most ancient organs of sense, the nose and mouth. What better route to the apprehension of natural beauty?

In apparent challenge to my thesis, Kant also said that art is not a matter of crude sensual gratification. Isn't eating a croissant just raw hedonism? NOT SO FAST! It could equally be alleged that, for whatever else it provides, a Monet painting is visual "eye candy" and gives us sensual gratification in the way that it pleases the eyes to gaze upon it. It helps to point out that Kant distinguished different sorts of pleasure. There is pleasure in the beautiful, and then, there is pleasure for pleasure's sake. The former has as its object the beautiful thing, while the latter has as its object the body itself. In other words, artistic pleasures are those which are not motivated by biological desires. I'm threading the needle here, but on my reading anyway, one can be consistent with Kant's requirement on aesthetic response and also experience pleasures that gratify the body. The key to doing this, however, is that the bodily gratification be incidental not primary. As any food or coffee connoisseur will tell you, anything less than superb quality is not going to scratch that aesthetic itch, even though it will still tickle your buds and satiate your hunger or thirst. I like FUNYUNS® as much as the next guy, but FUNYUNS® don't elevate me the way a slice of aged, goat milk gouda would. Similarly, beholding a gorgeous sunset at the beach would qualify as a genuine aesthetic experience for Kant, but that doesn't rule out the sensory gratification the same affords our eyes. It's not like we must suffer bodily in order to apprehend art.

When I enjoy a perfect cappuccino, as our baristas always make, it is so much more than a mere sensual experience. There is no explicit biological need for coffee (though it sure feels like it at 6am). As I sip my cupful of miracle, there is a chemical drama that unfolds in my nose and mouth. When done right, I'm brought into balance. I find my grounding.

In that one, small sip, I have taken in over 1000 different chemical compounds, always differently ratioed in any given cup, depending on the particular plant, the particular species of which that plant belongs, the particular climate (including sunlight/shade, seasonal temperature variations, humidity fluctuations, etc.), the particular age of the bean from plant to roaster, the particular roasting method, and so on. There is a lengthy duration of time that it takes for the full chemical story to reveal itself in my nose and mouth. At different points, I will (for instance) taste these flavors: malty grainy, caramel, dark chocolate, touch of blueberry, woody/earthy, and a hint of stone fruit. As coffee connoisseurs know, there's no such thing as a generalized one-size-fits-all "coffee flavor." That's like saying every painting in every museum is just "color patches."

In short, in the experience of eating or drinking beautifully crafted foods, I'm connecting with the world in the most intimate way possible, vastly more so than visually or auditorily (whose objects are always at some distance), whereupon at its final step, the substance I consume literally becomes me with a gulp. What truer way to connect with the natural world and to appreciate it more thoroughly? Was there sensual gratification involved? Sure, but that was just a happy accident. Making love to a person I deeply respect and adore is not the same experience as a quick-and-dirty romp, though there is sensual gratification that happens in each case.

There is a very deliberate reason we use the word "craft" in our work with our creations. In the latter half of the 19th century, John Ruskin and William Morris ushered in the Arts and Crafts movement. At that time, along with the industrial revolution which brought about the cheap and mechanized production of building and interior elements, there was, at the other extreme, a dismissive and exclusionary attitude among the art elite towards craft. Ruskin and Morris went to battle against both forces, and they (and others) established the crafts as bone fide artforms. Today, the works of the Arts & Crafts artists take rightful place among the "fine arts" in museums around the world. "Craft" is no longer a second-tier designation. In the right hands, craft is art.

St*rb*cks is the industrial revolution applied to coffee. Try a straight-up espresso shot over there, unmasked by the sugary glop and ersatz formulations they add-in. The operator pushes buttons and the machine does the work. It tastes like burnt rubber and spent motor oil, both because of the inferior beans that are carcinogenically scorched in drum roasters and the mechanical indifference to the extraction of the shot. There is no craft; there is no art. It is to coffee what the bougiest home deco on clearance at Ross is to architecture. We mourn the loss of soul and art-blindness that affects so many among us, but for those with any intact aesthetic sensibilities, the discovery of Syndicate is paradise found.

At the other end, art snobs will privilege the visual or auditory over the other senses when it comes to art. While it is true that we take in concepts visually and auditorily, as argued above, the conceptual (can, at least) obstruct art. Indeed, contemporary art seems to have privileged the conceptual over the art itself, to the point of denying the term "art" to anything not sufficiently trollingly conceptual. One might well declare (cue the pearl clutching) that pranksterism has surreptitiously replaced art. I suppose that is another post for another day in the continuing meditations on aesthetics.

At any rate, the craft we do at Syndicate engenders the flourishing of the artform of food. I hope, in this post, I have, in a small way at least, provided the grounds for this assertion. Come in, and you be the judge. Perhaps, one day, we'll see one of our chocolate croissants in Louvre.

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