The Aesthetics of Food
by Rachel Hite
Food is a basic necessity for human survival. Likewise, many an artist will undoubtedly tell you that art is a also basic necessity, an inherent part of human life without which one literally cannot survive. But can food itself be art?
Let’s consider food from an aesthetic perspective. Art in the aesthetic sense deals with the idea of creation and reception, and a relationship between the object itself, the artistic creator, the artistic receiver, and the environment or context in which those three interact. In order for food to be art, then, must the chef intend for it to be so? And what of the receiver? Can food only be art if the consumer appreciates it in that way?
Obviously, artists and chefs can manipulate food into what we tend to think of as more “traditional” visual art forms, but the results of these efforts are often not meant for consumption and this interpretation of ‘food art’ is not what I am interested in discussing. Elizabeth Telfer argues in her article “Food As Art“ that there can be aesthetic reactions to taste and smell and that these reactions are distinct from the natural appreciation of food as merely a source of survival (11). She also makes an interesting connection between the design and execution of a particular recipe to that of a play or musical performance. The recipe itself can be seen in this way as the original piece of art, the script or score of a work. Each subsequent iteration of that recipe is then the performance, interpreted by the director of the meal as part of a new take on the original work. Often the argument against food as an art form is its temporal nature, but this is likewise the case with live performances of theater and music, both of which have long been considered some of the most aesthetically important forms of art.
Telfer goes on to argue that although not all food is or should be considered art, there are many meals that are intended from their inception “to be savoured, appraised, thought about, discussed” in the same ways as conventional art, “and many eaters consider them in this way” (14). I could not agree more wholeheartedly that there is food in this world that is created to not only nourish the body, but to nourish the soul and the mind as well, encouraging us to be mindful and contemplative about what exactly it is that sustains us. However, she claims that although it can be considered through an aesthetic lens, food cannot have meaning. Says Telfer, “food does not represent anything else, as most literature and much visual art does. We can see the representational arts – painting and literature – as telling us something about the world and ourselves, and we can see the world and ourselves in the light of ways in which they have been depicted in the representational arts. But we cannot do either of these things with food” (25). It is here that Telfer and I begin to differ in our opinions on food as art, and where Glenn Kuehn takes up a perspective with which I can better identify, in his essay “How Can Food Be Art?”
Kuehn argues, and I agree, that Telfer neglects to acknowledge a philosophy of food, “nor does she offer a context through which food can be seen as part of a profound and significant aesthetic experience. If food is going to be seen as art, it needs a context in which significant experiences of the aesthetic can come from everyday life” (194). Kuehn’s succinct assessment of the ability of food to represent the aesthetic in the everyday perfectly captures my own experience with food as art. He goes on to argue that the meaning of food as art lies in the organic interaction between its “production, presentation, and manner of appreciation.” I would agree with this idea, and argue that because all these aspects occur around an artistic medium that is literally essential to our survival, food not only must be art, but it potentially offers some of the greatest artistic meaning we can experience (195). As Kuehn so eloquently puts it, “when you eat you are taking an object, some other ‘thing’ in the world, and adding it to your being” in a way that is far more real than is possible through “traditional” art forms (210).
Maybe I’m just too much of a “foodie” to see it any other way, but to me good food is inherently art, and I absolutely view it through an aesthetic lens. My memories of appreciating great food are almost all tied to some other aesthetic experience I’ve had in the world, to an emotional reaction to or about that food, and to the context in which I first consumed it. Isn’t that precisely what art is about? Again, Kuehn says it best when he acknowledges of his food-related memories that “the food was the medium through which [he] experienced the expression of harmony, arrangement, articulation, skill, and depth of feeling” (205).
Telfer, Elizabeth. “Food As Art.” Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002. 9-27.
Kuehn, Glenn. “How Can Food Be Art?” The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Ed. Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. 194-212.
Other links of interest from The Muse Dialogue:
Rachel Hite continues her consideration of food in “Mimesis and Molecular Gastronomy: The Cognitive Dissonance of Food Art“
Andrew Swensen, “An Art Overlooked”
Aaron Kagan, “Food, Second Among the Arts”