I am fairly certain that the answer of most of this blog’s readers to the question in the title of this post will be yes. As in, “yes, of course, well, duh.” Insofar as there are pre-theoretical opinions (i.e., opinions of non-philosophers) on the definition of art, the opinions tend to hold that the definition of art should be very loosey-goosey. Regarding food, in particular, I agree with the “yes,” although not really with the “well, duh,” in that I think it’s a question worth asking.
I will consider this without a definition of art. I have never read an account of a definition of art that I find completely satisfying. I’m skeptical that there are necessary and sufficient conditions for art. That said, I think there are clear-cut cases of art (Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror) and clear-cut cases of non-art (the collected contents of the top right drawer of my desk) and the non-clear-cut cases (a well-designed car). I am pretty set on the idea that art must be something that is made or presented by a person with the intention of being regarded in a certain way. How to cash out “a certain way” non-circularly eludes me. So perhaps possibly a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition. I think most of the general public’s view is a little too loosey-goosey. But I do think food should be considered in the clear-cut cases.
Philosophers have historically not considered food to be art. There are a couple of reasons for this.
One is that it doesn’t meet one or another of some definition of art or other. Say, that all art is representational, or non-temporal, expressive of emotion. These don’t work because the definitions fail. Music is often non-representational and always temporal, and if we can’t include music as art, we’re done. Similarly, a map sketched out on a napkin showing someone the nearest store to buy beer is representational, but most likely not art. Being expresive of emotion may or may not be a necessary condition, but it’s certainly not necessary and sufficient (my child’s temper tantrum is certainly expressive of an emotion and certainly not art). Also, I’ve eaten food that was clearly intended to be witty, nostalgic, evoke a sense of place, evoke a mood. Food can indeed be emotionally expressive. Most modern philosophers don’t adhere to these definitions, and I don’t think it can be as easily ruled out on most recent attempts to define art.
Another reason it gets discounted is that philosophers have historically put a special primacy on sight and hearing in a hierarchy of the senses. These senses are considered to be more intellectual. Sight and hearing are, it is argued, more disconnected than are smell, taste and touch from one’s sense of pleasure and pain. You can consider things at a distance, not intimately connected with your body. Aesthetic pleasures are supposed to be about regarding an object in itself, not for the satisfaction of some further desire. Another objection is that food preferences seem arbitrarily distributed (one person likes vanilla, another chocolate, and who’s to say who is right?). Presumably, there should be some consistency among perceivers for artworks.
I’m not opposed to the Kantian idea that the distinctiveness of specifically aesthetic pleasures lies in its disconnection with the satisfaction of one’s other desires. Still, I think we can count food as art even though we eat food to satisfy hunger.
So, I’m not at all sure that sight and hearing are less connected to primal pleasures. There’s a reason why visual porn is a mighty big business. Moreover, some paradigm cases of arts are nudes. Presumably, sometimes, a viewer gets a little satisfaction of some desire other than aesthetic desire when viewing a gorgeous nude. So how can we say there’s an aesthetic experience going on? Because one can get pleasure from one object in multiple ways at the same time. So one can look at a nude and get a bit of a cheap thrill while also regarding it at the same time as an object in itself. (Perhaps this is a way to distinguish art from porn.)
There are times when I eat food where I have a desire to satisfy my hunger, but at the same time I also appreciate the workmanship of the food in itself. Sometimes I’m not particularly hungry at all when I go out to eat, but I just enjoy the food. Also, taste is not the only sense satisfied with food. I appreciate the arrangement of food on my plate.
As for the randomness of taste preferences, I’m not sure we need unanimity of pleasure in perceivers to call something art. In fact, is there an artwork or kind of artwork that has unanimous appeal? And even if there’s no way to say vanilla is better than chocolate, most of us have had one vanilla ice cream that is better than another. One cannot say whether blue is better than red, but one can say that the Mona Lisa is better than the drawing I did for games of hang man as a child.
Also, one can train oneself to get over food aversions. I’m a super-taster, and I had to do this with multiple food categories. Repeated exposures reduce aversions. I was able to train myself to like coffee, bitter chocolate, alcohol, vinegar. (Grapefruit, you’re next.) I did this so I could better appreciate great cooking.
I don’t see how eating at a Thomas Keller restaurant is different in such an important way from listening to Prokofiev that one must conclude a meal at Per Se cannot be art. One can perceive the creativity and craftsmanship. One can appreciate the product in itself. If this matters (and I don’t think it does) there is reasonable unanimity that the food there is great.
Mmmm, food. Off to eat lunch!