Are foodies the demise of fine art?

“Art reveals the how of experience that we call aesthetic” Michel Henry


There was a great op-ed piece in the New York Times sunday paper a couple weeks ago by William Deresiewicz about the foodie movement (that I pointed to in my last blog), where the author surmised that “we are in danger of confusing our palates with our souls.” At the advent of the foodie movement nearly twenty years ago, he hoped that “our newfound taste for food would lead, in time, to a taste for art”—a correlation was what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu found to be more than simply plausible in 1979 book Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. My dissertation A taste for life: Exploring our senses and their influences upon our sensibilities includes a chapter on the foodie phenomenon. Deresiewicz and I both find cuisine often falls prey to becoming a vehicle of social status. I also find the insatiable appetite for novelty and ever more sublime experiences is a symptom among many others of a subtle discontent or uneasiness with contemporary culture.

Deresiewicz keenly describes how “aestheticism, the religion of art inherited the position of Christianity” amid the secularizing trend and the growth of liberal education at the turn of the last century, yet this has been superseded by “foodism” at the millennial turn. He reminisces of “the patina of high culture” and “old world sophistication” of a refined aesthetic sensibility, redolent of Bourdieu’s barely veiled attitude towards the uneducated working class and the correlations he found between literal taste for food and taste for art.

Surely, while one may appreciate an amazing meal, it is not like the aesthetic experience of fine art or literature, as it will not “give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.” Yet, in the young and gastronomically enthusiastic, he surmises, foodism is an expression of “creativity. . . politics, health, almost religion.”

I suspect Deresiewicz  would agree with the food writer MFK Fisher that you are how you eat, not simply what you eat. Metaphorical taste suggests this how. One doesn’t experience the work of art in the same fashion as they would a car speeding towards them, or the numbers when doing their taxes, or, as the usual derision of sensual pleasure in aesthetic theory goes, an attractive person you have amorous intentions towards.  The biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon describes aesthetic experiences as “unprecedentedly deviant emotional states.” Michel Henry describes how “through the mediation of the artwork,” we experience “a kind of intensification of life,” where “there is the constant possibility for the installation of a new ontological dimension,” “something like a horizon,” that avails us to “more fundamental potentialities”. Art is, according to Henry, “ethics par excellence.”

Taste is, to use a Foucauldian term, an apparatus of sensibility. Giorgio Agamben reminds us that the translation of apparatus in Latin heralds from the Greek economy. Taste as a sensibility expresses a different economy of sensibility, a different ethics of existence from that of either monotheistic religion, the marketplace, what Husserl deemed a crisis of science and Hans Jonas decried as the “mathematization of nature,” or a deference to juridically-based normative judgments.

While Deresiewicz is right to suggest that “Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art,” our experiences of food do not happen in a solipsistic bubble. We must recognize our experiences of food are often the site of “conviviality,” to borrow the notion from the Slow Food Movement. A shared meal is always the potential site of collaborative, improvisational performance art. Further, we can consider this event as what Agamben describes as a “profanation” of the meal and cuisine, while also as what the Italian philosopher  Mario Perniola describes as a “ritual without myth.” May I suggest  a profaned meal is an aesthetic ritual of a secular religiosity that stimulates an intensification of life?

In his multivalent critiques of the bounds of fine art, Richard Shusterman proposes a more robust aesthetics that includes practices of embodiment under the neologism”somaesthetics.”  His book’s title “Thinking through the body” lauds a wisdom of embodiment that is redolently aesthetic, and only accessible through practice.  In allegiance to the practical nature of the somaesthetic endeavor, and its profoundly beneficial influence upon human wellbeing—philosophy’s calling—we invite you to not only visit our blog, but also indulge the practices of Flavor Play.




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