Can Food Be Art?

Directly Above Shot Of French Food In Plate On Table
Can food be art?. Pinghung Chen / EyeEm / Getty Images

Can food be art? This is a question that has received increasing attention over the past few decades in aesthetics; in this article we shall deal with the main reasons that have been brought forth against the palatability of gastronomic experiences being, in some instances, forms of ultimate artistic experiences. For three different manners in which food and art may be intertwined, see this separate article.

The Caducity of Food

The first point that may be raised is that food is fleeting: a sculpture, a painting, or a temple may last for centuries, maybe millennia; the delicious food that the restaurant El Bulli used to prepare just a few years ago is long and gone. Or, consider a delicious coffee espresso: experts suggest it being consumed within two minutes from when it’s done. Because of this, it seems that the extent within which gastronomic experiences can be shared and preserved within a people is very limited.

On the other hand, one may reply that, first of all, a great deal of contemporary visual art is in the form of installations, thus as fleeting as most foods. Moreover, forms of art such as theatre and some music (e.g. jazz) are performance-based. Finally, even if we consider works of art such as Michelangelo’s David, it seems that each and every time we encounter it we do experience something different; that is, it seems that the best way to regard art is by analyzing the experiences that it makes possible, rather than the durability of the objects that induce such experiences; unless the durability is a condition of the experience in question.

(We may recall, here, that like many forms of music, cuisine is dominated by persisting entities that help preserve consistency across time: i.e., recipes.)

The Subjectivity of Food

Secondly, one may object that gastronomic experiences are more subjective than other forms of aesthetic experiences. This is not simply because foods are fleeting, but also because taste is a destructive sense: you’ve got to destroy what you taste.

Hence, taste in unavoidably an individual affair. We may, at best, talk about our individual gastronomic experiences, hoping that both the objects we experienced as well as our manner of conceiving of them will somehow come to overlap. Thus, of course everything we experience may be deemed as relative to a subject; but in the case of food we are dealing with an even more compelling constriction to relativism.

The Meaning of Food

The objection from subjectivity is linked to another, perhaps more fundamental, objection: that food cannot vehicle meaning. This is not to say that what you eat means nothing to you, or that if your lover brings you chocolate that might not mean that she loves you; the point is that the meaning is not in the food; the meaning may be in the gesture, in the words proffered while the food is offered or consumed; the food in itself can vehicle all sorts of meanings, does not carry any specific statement per se.

A reply to the latter objection moves from the observation that even a painting or a sculpture may be interpreted in a infinity of different ways, depending on how it is experienced. It is not clear why gastronomic experiences, in this respect, shall be regarded as less transparent than gastronomic ones.

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