LIZ WILLIAMS (this article was published on November 13, 2012)
- Ferran Adrià exhibit at Palau Robert, Barcelona; 2012. Photo by Kippelboy via Wikimedia Commons.
In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, William Deresiewicz has fallen into the fallacy of attacking a straw man – that the current interest in food is to blame for a lack of interest in the other arts. He claims that food is not art. He says that an apple is not a story. With this assertion, I agree. He says that a curry, regardless of how and why it is made, is not an idea. I disagree with this statement.
Food is a word that we use in English to mean both those things that occur in nature and that we consume for nourishment, like an apple. We also use it to mean those dishes that are created by human minds and hands, like a risotto. A delicious peach may taste like a poem, but it isn’t one. Something wonderful confected with that peach by the right hands could be one.
- ” Risk, Freedom, and Creativity.” Ferran Adrià exhibit at Palau Robert, Barcelona. 2012. Photo by Kippelboy via Wikimedia Commons.
Food is also something that is essential to life. And although art may be essential to a satisfying spiritual life, it is not necessary for staying alive. And because food is important in this basic way and since all people eat, it is easy to overlook that the act of cooking can create a dish that is art. That does not mean that all cooking is art any more than all music is art or that all visual artistic expression can be said to be art.
The fact that sound patterns can be used to bind us culturally or to create popular music does not mean that all sound patterns rise to the level of art. The fact that we hear sound patterns all of the time does not mean that some of those sound patterns are not art. The fact that word patterns may strive to be literature does not mean that everything written rises to the level of art. Every visual expression does not necessarily rise to the level of art. That does not take away from the fact that some visual expression is art.
Brillat-Savarin in his Physiognomy of Taste discussed both cooking and eating as arts, in the same way that the French see the art of listening to and appreciating music as the other side of the art of composing and playing music. And the discussion of food as an art was taken seriously. That appreciation of the arts has been taken to a very inclusive level in France, such that cartoons, film, fashion, and photography were first considered arts there. In the U.S. we have already come to see film and photography as art. Perhaps it is only now that we are coming to see food as art, especially given that the nation has a Puritan background that makes our current food awakening a sort of Babette’s Feast.
If there is a loss of emphasis on the traditional fine arts in the nation’s elite schools and our new graduates have not attained the ability to discuss Tintoretto with some degree of understanding as Deresiewicz claims, it is indeed a loss for us and for art. That phenomenon does not make the current interest in food and eating any less serious or important or the cause of any loss of interest in the other arts.
The issue reflects the differences between the French Enlightenment and the English Enlightenment. Those steeped in the culture of English rationalism, which did not embrace the culinary arts as true fine art, are not able to accept the culinary arts are true art today. But both Voltaire and Rousseau discussed cooking and eating, as well as the other arts and culture, in their philosophical writings, encouraging the cooking and eating of the food of France as an artistic expression.
How can it be said that Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls is not an idea or that Ferran Adrià’s food does not tell a story? Not every chef is creating art, but that does not make those chefs who are any less artists than painters or composers. Food is not supplanting art; it is finally being recognized as a form of art. Food is too often ignored as a form of art, because it is also a component of survival. But an emphasis upon and understanding of one aspect of the arts, say literature, does not take away from painting, but in fact enhances an appreciation of the other arts. Deresiewicz seems to be from a school that has not considered culinary art to be art. I assert that one can surely appreciate Oysters and Pearls as completely and as spiritually as one can appreciate the Mona Lisa.