Can food be art?

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!


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


    • I take a Popperian approach: I can only keep going, looking for the falsification of the premise. So far so good.

  1. I’m sympathetic to the idea that food can be art.

    The rise of restaurants Alinea seems to lend credence to the idea that food can be pure art, in the same way as painting or music. I’ve never eaten there, but I gather that the chef specializes in advanced food science to create dishes that aren’t so much foods in the conventional sense as opportunities to experience the interplay of different senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Each course is like a sculpture installations that you can not only see and touch, but lick and swallow as well.

    Some sculptures are strictly hands-off, for aesthetic and/or practical reasons. But some sculptors think that touch is an important way in which the audience connects with the work. I’ve always loved touchable sculptures. Maybe certain kinds of dining are just the next logical step down this continuum. With most art objects, the viewer doesn’t consume the work. But food also has a performance element to it, like music or theater. You can never experience the exact same performance of a play. It’s recreated every night. So too with food, arguably.

    • I actually had Alinea in mind when I was talking about how food can be evocative. I heard an interview with Achatz (?) where he was saying that he wanted to capture the smell of leather in food form.

  2. Great post, Rose.

    I would think a problem with Food As Art is that it is not so easy for more than one of a few people to experience. If I slave all weekend to make a dish, and present it in a certain way, is it art? Well, the your people who ate it will have an opinion, but everyone else will just have to take someone’s word for it. With a painting or a poem, however, everyone can make their own independent assessment.

    Which is to say that some Food may indeed be Art, but it is so fleetingly transitory as to be impossible for us as a tribe to build a coherent system of appreciation.

    • Damn typos and spell correct!!!

      ” Well, the your people who ate it” should have been “the FOUR people who at it.”

    • If we’re talking about restaurant-based cuisine, the entire menu is designed to be repeatable, usually several times per night. If we think of food as a performance, it’s not so different from a jazz trio playing in a tiny club.

  3. Yes. of course it is art. Just ask the Japanese. if arranging flowers is art, then so is arranging food artfully on a plate.

  4. Hasn’t there been an idea out there that art is differentiated from craft by its impracticality? That cooking, carpentry, architecture and the like are constrained by practical considerations like edibility, functionality, and structural integrity, while art has no application outside of our senses?

    • You raise an interesting point.

      Not 100% on-topic, but I’ve noted this tendency lately for actors to go on and on about their “craft.” I find this new pretension odd, since I’ve always understood arts and crafts to be distinct from each other, and if one held more prestige it was the former.

      • Actors interpret (or re-create) a text — just as musicians interpret a score — and cede artistic primacy to the author. This brings a welcome humility to activities (crafts?) that require showmanship to no small degree.

        To those of us who still cling to the arts/crafts dichotomy art does take precedence, it turns a mud hut into Chartres and a tom-tom into the Berlin Philharmonic.

      • My sense is that “craft” for actors is roughly analogous to what musicians call “chops”–i.e., technical mastery of acquired skills. The craft of acting includes stuff like breath control, movement, vocal skills, and so on.

        • I dunno. Whenever one of them is rhapsodizing about their “craft” while accepting a SAG Award, it seems to be in reference to “this great, wonderful thing that we all do” rather than mastery of an accent.

    • The Kant point is related to that. Art is not supposed to satisfy any other desire or purpose. That’s what I was addressing by going on about nudes or eating when not hungry.

      • The Japanese say the cook ought to feed the eyes before the stomach. A nice plate of sushi might not be a Vermeer but I’m not sure we’re doing Art any favours by saying it ought to satisfy no other desire or purpose.

        • What’s wrong with Vermeer as sushi-for-the-soul? That sets a pretty high bar.

  5. 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.

    Hmm. I think this may be where I draw the distinction between “art” (something that has no function other than to be appreciated) and “craft” (something that can have beauty and quality and provide aesthetic enjoyment, but also serves a purpose – functional forms of pottery or woodwork; the idea of food fitting this area is new to me but makes sense; the idea of a car fitting it is…trickier, but has potential). I don’t think at all that “art” should be regarded as more valuable than “craft” (if anything, perhaps the opposite is true – beauty combined with utility may be more admirable than beauty alone) but I do tend to instinctively regard them as distinct.

    • Can’t. a 3d mockup of a building is “art” by your def, the building itself is a “craft”. unless you use the 3d mockup to make the building, in which case the whole definition collapses into itself

      • A 3D replica of a building could be considered “craft” because it has a purpose beyond pure aesthetic value – to give people a clear understanding of the building’s layout and architecture on a smaller scale than walking around in it or looking at photographs of it will.

        If you created a 3D model of a building that didn’t actually exist, just to make something that looked neat, that would be art.

        • … then what if someone decided to make a building based on your “art”?

        • Zara Hadid won the Pritzker prize, architecture’s most prestigious award, in 1994 on the basis of her designs alone — she had very few realized buildings to her credit. Happy to say, she’s proved her mettle in the real world many times since then.

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