Ars Gastronomica: Food, Art, and Pleasure

Detail of a gummy bear Chandelier by Kevin Champeny. More at Colossal.

Detail of a gummy bear Chandelier by Kevin Champeny. More at Colossal.


Last week, I had a post up about the food, art, and aesthetic experience at Table Matters. (Are you reading Table Matters? You should be. Just last week alone you could have learned whether the fish you buy is honestly labeled and which wines to by for under $10, among other things.) Writing the post was immediate but revising it was fairly difficult; all of my notes and essays about aesthetics are in philosophyspeak, which is not incomprehensible but is uncommon enough that I would have needed to challenge my word limit with explanations of what I mean by subject and so forth. Had that not been the case, I probably would have namechecked Kant and might have even quoted from Critique of Judgment, which was very much on my mind while I wrote.

Kant’s Critique of Judgment gives a compelling and comprehensive account of what goes on in the mind when we enjoy things through the senses. I don’t consider it scripture; Kant loves classification–if you like it, it’s agreeable; if you esteem it, it’s good; etc.–and I like my philosophy to be a bit more flexible on definitions. It’s ironic, too, to use Kant as a foundational element of my food philosophy, since Kant actually dismisses food outright as a vehicle for meaningful experience. He claims that the ability to judge food is impaired by hunger—which, everyone knows, is the best sauce–and that the only way to tell if someone is exercising aesthetic judgment on food is if he is not hungry. (Which sounds like a terrible idea, doesn’t it?) Taste in food is among the preferences he calls taste of sense: everyone has his own taste of sense, he says, and it would be silly to argue over it. It’s important to Kant that there be some designation that everyone can and will agree on—but, importantly, of their own free will. That’s what “beautiful” means to him: a beautiful object is one would invite anyone’s mind to contemplate it pleasantly without the biases of desire, use, and so forth. “He must not call it beautiful if he means only that he likes it,” Kant writes. “Many things may be charming and agreeable to him; no one cares about that.”

Oh, but I do. I do indeed care about what is charming and agreeable, pleasurable and gratifying.

One of the elements of Kant’s Critique that impacted me deeply was his description of the mind’s response to liking a sensory experience. When a subject–a person–likes or dislike a taste, color, or sound, that charm does not belong to the object but “is a feeling which the subject has within itself.” Or, as he rephrases elsewhere: liking is the subject “feeling itself.”  Kant doesn’t pause to wonder at that experience–he’s much more interested in cognitive responses that depend on reflection–but I do. That feeling the self is more or less the same thing  we honor Descartes for claiming when we quote “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes speaks thus after describing the phenomenon of doubt, and Kant when describing the phenomenon of pleasure. Neither man elevates the experience of pleasure alongside the experience of doubt, reflection, and other such dignified faculties. . . but I do.  So does, I think, Carole Korsmeyer, another philosopher whose work my work depends on.  Korsmeyer critiques the classical division between senses that are supposedly objective (vision, hearing) and which are privileged over those that, in her words,  “direct our attention inward to the state of our own bodies” (taste, smell, touch).Historically, she says, philosophers have fretted that too much attention to these bodily senses can lead down a path of moral degradation. But to me, this inward-directed attention sounds like an extension of Kant’s “subject feeling himself” and Descartes’ “thing that thinks.” To know pleasure of the senses, I’d like to think, is to know thyself.

And just as importantly, to know pleasure is to know others (about as well as anyone can). Think of all the forms of bodily pleasure that in immoderation or solitude are supposed to indicate moral degradation: eating, drinking, sex. And now think of the ways the same things are culturally considered honorable and valuable if done moderately and in camaraderie. While you can never know the mind of another and never feel what another body feels, you come close when sharing a pleasurable experience. The moment that everyone at the table goes silent, then giggles, as everyone enjoys a meal; the moment two or more people turn to each other at a concert or amusement park and grin; countless other moments of mutual laughter or enjoyment when you do more or less see what the Other sees.

And that’s why I do what I do.  For me, the study of food is fundamentally the study of pleasure. It is itself pleasurable, an inherently playful engagement with theory and language: thinking about food turns so much foundational philosophy on its ear and bops it on the nose. Because while the phenomenology of the mind is an old and venerable study, it continually privileges the experiences that obscure the fact that the mind resides in a palpable, irregular, hungering body. The study of food sees the body and mind as integrated, and sees pleasure as a fundamental and interesting human experience that is worth studying, worth valuing, and worth–sorry, Kant!–caring about.

2 responses to “Ars Gastronomica: Food, Art, and Pleasure

    • Thanks so much for that link! It was amazing to watch. 75 pounds. . . I can’t believe it.

      I think it’s a gorgeous piece. I have no special affinity for gummy bears but they look like pure pleasure arranged like this, all colorful and catching the light.

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