Does food have an aesthetic? Or, is food an aesthetic object? For sure, it has visual features and the word “taste”—arguably the most prominent feature of food—not only designates the human ability to perceive the qualities of food but also serves as an analogy for the ability to perceive the qualities of fine art. Food might have good taste, and so might a reviewer of artistic expressions.
Aesthetic issues are at play in relation to many food issues. Commercially, for example, there are concerns about the size, shape, and color of fruit and vegetables: the greenness of beans, the firmness of bananas, and the straightness of cucumbers. These aesthetic issues are of concern to consumers; they are mediated by retailers and have direct consequences for producers. Aesthetics are also at play in many other contexts, including the plating of restaurant food and the display of supermarket goods. It is also possible to discern a personal aesthetics at play within the domestic sphere and at the level of individual consumers, as explored in Elizabeth Mosby Adler’s (1981) work on the many ways to eat an Oreo cookie. This essay will, however, concentrate on some of the philosophical issues that are stake in questions of culinary aesthetics and related concerns about taste.
As a concept, aesthetics comes from philosophy and relates to art, more specifically to the judgment of the viewer, the quality of the artwork and the ontological status of art (what is art, and what is it good for?). But throughout the history of philosophy, the gustatory sense itself has come to occupy a low place in the Western hierarchy of senses, where vision and hearing have been considered the most noble ones (Korsmeyer 1999, 2002). Together with the haptic sense (the sensibility for touch, pain, temperature, movement, and force) and the olfactory sense of smell, taste has been considered a “lower sense,” one of the body, a subjective one and therefore inappropriate for rational or aesthetic judgment. This supposed hierarchy and the perception of art that comes along with it is a longstanding Western ideology, dating back some 2,500 years and found among the ancient Greeks. According to Plato, vision and sound are what give us information about the world. These can be shared and rationally estimated together with others; they engage the intellect, while tastes and smells encourage appetite, which in Plato’s worldview was primitive, instinctual, and thereby strictly opposed to the rational faculties.
In tracing the historical line of Western taste ideology, Carolyn Korsmeyer (1999) finds a historical point where these already-diverging lines could have converged: the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) and his essay “On the Standard of Taste” (1757/2005). For Hume, there is a definite parallel between gastronomic and aesthetic appreciation. This route was, however, not followed through. Instead, gustatory and aesthetic taste is discussed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who instead reinforced the division between taste and Taste. For Kant, smell, taste, and feel are personal, bodily incitements, incapable of reaching to the moral, rational, and aesthetic faculties—those faculties that, by our access to them, make us human. By the end of the eighteenth century, food was disqualified as an acceptable artistic medium.
From the very opening of the book, Korsmeyer’s view is simple: food is not art. The reason for this is that art and food simply have different histories, and historical processes are what determine what is art and what is not. Although Korsmeyer tests this thesis throughout the book, at the end she arrives at a similar conclusion: food is still not art, but as food represents, expresses, and exemplifies, food and taste have symbolic functions—and as such, they are aesthetically relevant.
The use of the word taste in the gustatory sense is a valid metaphor for any cultivation of perceptual experience, not only in Western culture. The Western concept of aesthetics is, however, a deeply Eurocentric one, built upon the division of the senses originating from the Greeks and reinforced by Kant. What qualifies the “higher” senses as high and the “lower” senses as low is the ability of the senses to have perceptions of things distant from the subject. Hearing and seeing imply a distance from the body; the objects might well be seen or heard in exactly the same way by others. Smelling, tasting, and feeling, however, are activated in direct contact with other bodies. Among these senses, taste is the most intimate one; it arises when another body is already a part of your own. The Austrian phenomenological philosopher Mădălina Diaconu argues this commonly assumed inability of the lower senses as due to the qualities of the experiences of tasting, feeling, and smelling; the sensory data generated tend to cluster in synaesthetic configurations (meaning that they tend to leak into each other, creating synergy effects together). Hence, it is seldom possible to distinguish exactly what data come from what sensual organ (Diaconu 2006). “Taste” does not exclusively refer to gustatory activity but to experience generated by all the senses together, centering on the mouth and nose.
Diaconu examines art that addresses other senses in order to arrive at an aesthetic inquiry that is able to consider synaesthetic experience, as art today is more and more inclusive of the whole body of the viewing subject and as the creative industries—partly as a response to the visualization of life that followed the information technology (IT) revolution—tend to work toward the lower senses as well, providing an expanded “aesthetization” of the everyday.
The philosopher Yuriko Saito points out that the specifically Western bias of aesthetics that make it difficult to expand it to the “lower” senses is that it “presupposes the institutionalized art world and certain cultural and economic conditions” (Saito 2001: 88). Western aesthetics is closely tied to the idea of art that resides in a specific domain, outside of the everyday. She notes that many cultures, such as the Inuit and Balinese, do not even have the concept of art. Aesthetics is instead inextricable, integrated, practiced everywhere, in everything done. If Western aestheticians do not aim to exclude such non-Westerners from being able to have a sense of aesthetics at all, then they should try and formulate an aesthetic relating to such things that actually are universally shared. Using the example of the Japanese tea ceremony, Saito shows how expression and communication are integrated aesthetic traits that have to be considered in order to grasp the aesthetic value of this practice. In Western “ocularcentric” aesthetic theorizing, any element of communication is bracketed off, and so is all data outside the visual register, leaving some quite poor theoretical tools for understanding such rich phenomena as the tea ceremony. Hence, Saito calls for a nonvisual aesthetic, one able to take into account not only the richness of integrated cultural phenomena outside or inside the Western cultural sphere, but also the less pleasant consequences of the power relations unavoidably engendered by the aesthetic discriminative capability that is Taste.
When visual media today get more dominant by the minute, aesthetic practices are at play on many levels. Food styling is today an occupational branch in its own right, creating tasteful imagery of foodstuffs for magazines, TV shows, websites, and packaged edibles. As one commentator puts it: “The photograph must appeal to all five senses, but most importantly must be unified into a single, visually appealing image” (Finello 2010). The visual image apparently is not intended to be seen in its artful isolation; on the contrary, it aims to create a synaesthetic effect, to engage the whole body of the supposed viewer. This is an aesthetic whose synergetic effects are played out in the field of human appetite and not necessarily as a creation of beauty—still it is undoubtedly an aesthetic effect. Another effect of a visualized and mediatized culture of food was pointed out by Eric Stice and Heather Shaw (1994): that the overall dominant ideal of female beauty was the impossibly skinny body, an ideal propagated by bombarding the public with pictures of extremely skinny models and actresses, professions in which the rate of eating disorders is extremely high. Sheila Lintott (2003) brought this together with Kant’s aesthetics, arguing that attempts to control one’s own body through excessive dieting was the most intense way that women are encouraged to reach the sublime. Again, aesthetics acts over distance, through food and eating, and into the body.
It may also be that “food” and “taste” are too narrow categories for us to understand the dynamics of a possible gastronomic aesthetics. In aiming for a more universally viable aesthetics—one trying not to bracket off all of reality except that of vision/hearing from the aesthetic event but still not using generalized abstractions such as “food” or “taste”—we might instead talk about eating, eating considered a practice in its own right. And, considering that “art” is also a Eurocentric and rather limiting concept, might there also be a more universally useful conception of art to go along with eating considered a practice that might enable us to talk about an “aesthetics of eating”? This seems to be what many writers on the subject are calling for.
One possible way forward might be the route taken by Australian philosopher Elizabeth Grosz (2008). Grosz utilizes a Deleuzian vocabulary to construct an aesthetic so abstract that it actually does not confine itself to the human but still stays within the aesthetic event. For Grosz, aesthetics begins with sensation itself; sensation as a mobilizing force that is neither the property of a given subject or a specific object but a third thing that connects the two—a force in its own right, activated in encounter. For Grosz, gastronomy is “the art of the mouth” (Grosz 2008); an intensity making all organs function together in a specific manner but centering on the mouth and nose in what might be coined an “alimentary event” (Dolphijn 2004), where someone becomes eater and someone (or something) becomes food. Such an aesthetic stays with the event. It might very well go further but does not necessarily take the one-way route into the sublime and isolated realm of fine arts. It comes from somewhere but neither restricts its actors to cultured Westerners, nor excludes the possibly less pleasant aesthetic forces, such as the visual imagery of those that have self-starved their bodies to sublime beauty.