What is Art?

Seriously. I ask, because there’s this: How Food Replaced Art As High Culture. Don’t be fooled. In its musings, that article from the New York Times doesn’t give the explanation it suggests that it might, but it does say this:

But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art.

You can be forgiven if you are confused by this point, or if you sense that the article is a wee bit patronizing, because it is. Here, I’ve boiled it down for easier understanding:

The Red Herring Within the Text

In a culture based upon advertising, partisan debate and rhetoric, expect fish.

Yes, everything in the article is true about food. Food really isn’t art, as least as the article presumes it is. That’s not the question, yet here’s how the article puts it, with its unstated assumptions:

Art, as WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ sees it. Food as he doesn’t.

Art is story, idea, symbol, and evoker of emotions. Food is food and a sensory pleasure. That’s what the man says.

Can he really have it both ways? Can he reserve all these categories of thought for art and none for food? So far, classified within the thingamajig he calls art, Deresiewicz has fiction, philosophy, mathematics, and emotional doodad. I promise, tens of thousands of artists, writers and thinkers across the world would be happy to refute every one of those points. And that’s not even getting to the poets, who seem to be strangely left out of Deresiewicz’s universe. In fact, any broad collection of happy thinkers and cognitive and cultural workers would dismantle Deresiewicz’s thesis in endless profusion. And would still be a red herring. The question would be better put as this:

The Real Question

Now we’re getting somewhere. Take a pear. It has a history. It has colour, to which people respond. It has nuances of flavour and shape. Has a context and provides a context. It has social, political and ethical connections. It provides personal and cultural meaning. It must be cultivated, can be produced industrially yet tastes far better and does better social work if produced artistically. It  does the soul good. It is alive. Those aren’t art, exactly, but they’re parallel to it, which means that, yes, they’re art, just for a different class of people, within a different intellectual, social, and aesthetic context.

Horticultural Watercolour of a Vicar of Winkfield Pear

When illustrations such as this were made a century ago, watercolour painting was not considered art. It was considered a technique for the accurate rendering of colour and shape in medical, botanical, zoological and agricultural specimens.

Artists moved on, and showed how watercolour technique could develop a rich language of textures and gestures. When it did, it was accepted as art, although one could point out that it was art before that as well. The pear, on the other hand, was industrialized. That was a cultural choice, not something inherent in pears. Pears today, remain as that cultural choice. Anything we do with pears is in dialogue with such cultural choices. And not just pears…

1930s California Orange Crate Label

A century before the art and illustration within horticultural paintings parted cultural ways, pears and art had not been separated from each other yet. The planting of pear trees and the growing of pears was considered high art indeed. It was all craft, which included the crafts of painting china, writing poetry, dance, painting portraits, and growing pears, just to give a few examples. There was a time in which this mattered. Here’s an image from that time. This statue looks out over the botanical garden towards the greenhouses of a baroque remake of a renaissance city residential palace in Fulda, Germany:

Agriculture, Stadtschloss, Fulda

Here is her consort:

Mathematics, Stadtschloss, Fulda

They were a a pair. Through applying the spiritual and intellectual force known as the art of agriculture, in conjunction with applied mathematics, known as land surveying, a prince could run his kingdom, through applied art. The only difference between that and Deresiewicz’s conception of art as a high craft is that the focus has moved from the leading of kingdoms through the integration of all sensibilities in the court (and especially in the body of the prince) to the administration of constitutional democracies through the development of those characteristics within all individual citizens. It’s not the prince who develops thought through balances between various emotional pressures in Deresiewicz’s world, but everybody. It’s not the balanced administration (hopefully) of a kingdom that is the goal, but the balanced development (hopefully) of individuals, who can then contribute their deeply developed energies to a common pool of energy. The conclusion Deresiewicz might have drawn is that these people, given an art that granted privileged status to universal feelings of social and political connectivity through narratives of the individual and his or her emotions, have now accepted that, and have moved into it. The circle is complete. No, the new food culture that is the result is not ‘art’, as Deresiewicz defines it, but it does what art does, for a new people, looking for an expanded sense of ethics able to more accurately reflect the complex interconnectivity between citizens.  And why not, when the kind of connectivity that comes out of Deresiewicz’s art world leads to manipulative discussions, such as Deresiewicz’s own? Here’s an image of what I mean:

Wild Cherries Left on the Branch …

…against a backdrop of colonial era orchards. Early November. Okanagan Landing, BC

The fact that pears, or apples, or peaches are even grown is very much a series of cultural choices, which meant that other cultures, such as, in the image above, the Sylix plateau culture, were suppressed in order to grant it ascendancy. It’s all politics. It’s all ethics. It’s all art or the suppression of it. As the East German dissident writer Stefan Schütz said, after being stripped of citizenship and booted out to the West (in paraphrase), I will look for  creative energy wherever I find it, even among the criminal classes, if that’s where it is, because it is invaluable and I’ve seen too often what is there when it isn’t. He meant, even among the political elites. He meant, even in the sanctioned artistic classes.

Public Art Installation (Electrical Power Box) Okanagan Landing

This is what official, public art looks like when politics and art have been divorced. That the people are asking for them to be reunited in the context of food is a good thing. Let’s run with it. The confluence of energies produced a whole world once, the world we’ve been living in for a couple centuries. We can do it again. Art’s not dead. It’s just gathering its breath for a new flowering.

Why not join the conversation? I’ve been exploring these ideas for over a year now, in my blog Okanagan Okanogan. For a summary of the story so far, click on the .pdf file at the bottom of this page.


2 thoughts on “What is Art?

  1. Pingback: Writing With the Land | Okanagan Okanogan

  2. Pingback: What is Art? Further Reading | Jennifer Nichole Wells

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