Wine and the Epiphany of Depth

by Dwight Furrow

Traditional aesthetics at least since Kant has been focused on the form of a work of art. It’s the design and composition of a work that strikes us beautiful. In a genuine aesthetic judgment, according to this view, we do not enjoy Van Gogh’s Starry Night because it contains our favorite color or reminds us of the night sky in our hometown. It’s the arrangement of colors and shapes that compels our pleasure and warrants the judgment of beauty. Even pre-Kantian, classical conceptions of aesthetics were focused on form in that they emphasized symmetry and harmony as criteria for beauty.

Despite the continued influence of formalism in the 20th Century there were currents of dissent that took an opposing position. Thinkers as diverse as Heidegger, Whitehead and Deleuze were arguing that genuine aesthetic appreciation is not about form but the unraveling of form. Despite their considerable differences, each was arguing that the most important kinds of aesthetic experiences are those in which the dominant foreground and design elements of a work are haunted by a background of contrasting effects that provide depth.  It’s the conflict between foreground and background, surface and depth, between what is known and what is mysterious that give art its allure. The uncanny is the key to art worthy of the name. For example, for Heidegger in his famous study of Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes, it’s the seemingly insignificant brushstrokes in the background of the painting that allow amorphous figures to emerge and begin to take to shape as we view it. The background figures preserve ambiguity and allow the concealing and unconcealing of multiple interpretations to take place, which Heidegger argues, are at the heart of a work of art. Read more »

“Insanity is never trusted”: A conversation between Andrea Scrima and Ally Klein

by Andrea Scrima

Ally Klein was born in 1984 and studied philosophy and literature; she lives and works in Berlin. Carter (Literaturverlag Droschl, Graz, Austria, August 2018) is her first book.

Ally Klein. Photo: Pezhman Zahed

The novel’s plot is easily summarized. Carter, the main character of the eponymous novel, is dead. When the narrator hears the news, he or she—the sex is never clear—is caught by surprise. The book opens with an introductory recapitulation of events, but reveals very little in the way of biographical information about the person telling the story. When the story proper begins, the narrating self wanders ghostlike through the streets of an unknown city until, one night, it runs into Carter—a striking figure bursting with so much life energy that she immediately pulls the narrating self into her orbit. Fascinated, this self tries to court Carter; the ensuing relationship wavers between intimacy and distance, the respective degree of which always lies in Carter’s hands. In the end, everything ends in catastrophe, while the narrating self gradually appears to lose its sanity and its grasp on reality.

Andrea Scrima: In one sense, Carter reads like a fever dream; when the narrating self moves to a small city divided by a river, its mind is already beginning to break down. Whether or not Carter might be a product of the self’s imagination or a projection of a part of the self is something the book leaves open. Without focusing too much on interpretation, my question is: does the novel allow for this read?

Ally Klein: Yes, among all the other possible interpretations, you can also see Carter as a product of the imagination. The question is where this imagination begins, and how far it carries. As the book opens, the reader learns that Carter had been suffering from a heart condition that, in the end, proved fatal. The narrating self, which came close to getting a degree in medicine, is shocked by the news; somehow, it managed to ignore all the telltale signs.

Perhaps the self doesn’t want to face the obvious; when they meet the first time, it sees nothing but vitality in Carter. It interprets the sound she makes inhaling a cigarette as a potent life force, whereas for Carter, breathing presents a real struggle. This is where the so-called imagination begins. Carter’s entire identity is filtered through the perception of the narrating self. Read more »

How Wine Expresses Vitality

by Dwight Furrow

Although frequently lampooned as over-the-top, there is a history of describing wines as if they expressed personality traits or emotions, despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally have these characteristics—wines are described as aggressive, sensual, fierce, languorous, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to these descriptions or are they just arbitrary flights of fancy?

Last month on this blog I argued that recent work in psychology that employs “vitality forms” helps us understand how music expresses emotion. Will vitality forms help us understand how wine could express feeling states or personality characteristics?

Vitality forms are “the flow pattern” of human experience, “the subjectively experienced shifts in the internal states” that characterize sensations, thoughts, actions, emotions, and other feeling states. Discovered by Daniel Stern and described in his 2010 book Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development, vitality forms constitute the temporal structure of experience, the duration, acceleration and intensity of an experience. Importantly, vitality forms are not tied to a specific sense modality. All five senses as well as thoughts and feelings exhibit vitality forms. “A thought can rush onto the mental stage and swell, or it can quietly just appear and then fade”, as Stern notes.  So can sounds, visual experiences, tactile impressions or emotions—anger can explode or emerge as a slow burn. In short, a vitality form is how any conscious experience emerges and changes over time. Read more »

Rorty and Geertz on ethnocentrism

by Dave Maier

If someone accuses you of “ethnocentrism,” they’re probably saying that you come off as arrogant or dogmatic in rejecting other cultures’ practices as illegitimate or inferior. Richard Rorty, however, applies that term to himself, and indeed takes it to be a central part of his own view. Since he’s not, I take it, thereby confessing to arrogance or dogmatism, he must be using the term idiosyncratically. Even so, Rorty’s conception has drawn criticism not only from the usual suspects but also from perhaps the most prominent critic of “ethnocentrism” in its usual sense: anthropologist Clifford Geertz, a thinker with whom, given their shared liberalism (generally speaking), as well as their shared intellectual inheritance from Wittgenstein, we might expect Rorty to agree.

Photo credit: Steve Pyke

So what’s going on here? As noted, Rorty’s ethnocentrism (I’m going to stop putting the word in quotes now) plays a central role in his philosophy. In particular, he tells us, it’s the conceptual link between his “antirepresentationalist” view of inquiry, on the one hand, and his (somewhat self-mockingly dubbed) “postmodern bourgeois liberalism” on the other:

“[A]n antirepresentationalist view of inquiry leaves one without a skyhook with which to escape from the ethnocentrism produced by acculturation, but […] the liberal culture of recent times has found a strategy for avoiding the disadvantage of ethnocentrism. This is to be open to encounters with other actual and possible cultures, and to make this openness central to its self-image. This culture is an ethnos which prides itself on its suspicion of ethnocentrism – on its ability to increase the freedom and openness of encounters, rather than on its possession of truth.” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p. 2)

That Rorty’s ethnocentrism isn’t just some free-floating doctrine (which shouldn’t be surprising, given his lack of interest in coming up with philosophical theories which (simply) “get reality right”) means two things. First, we’ll need to see what it’s doing in order to see what it is. Second, we won’t be able to dislodge it and replace it with something better unless our suggested replacement isn’t simply a better explanation of, say, belief and inquiry, but also fits just as well with the rest of what we say as Rorty’s ethnocentrism does with the rest of his thought. This may require giving up some of those other things as well – for better or worse. (Was anyone actually happy with “postmodern bourgeois liberalism”?) Read more »

Music, Emotion and Forms of Vitality

by Dwight Furrow

That music and emotion are somehow linked is one of the more widely accepted assumptions shared by philosophical aesthetics as well as the general public. It is also one of the most persistent problems in aesthetics to show how music and emotion are related. Where precisely are these emotions that are allegedly an intrinsic part of the musical experience? Three general answers to this question are possible. Either the emotion is in the musician—the composer or performer—in which case the music is expressing that emotion. Or the emotion is in the music itself, in which case the music somehow embodies the emotion. Or the emotion is in the listener, in which case the music arouses the emotion.

I suspect the most popular view among the public, since it draws on the romantic views of the self and creativity which is still very much with us, is that music expresses the emotional state of the artist. But this is implausible. I doubt that song writers when writing a sad song are in a state of sadness. At best the song could be expressing a composer’s understanding of sadness or perhaps a memory of a previous emotional state. But even if that were granted, we usually know little about the emotional states of composers, song writers, or musicians and so the listener is forced to somehow “read off” the emotion from the music itself. The emotional state of the artist just seems irrelevant to the process of determining the emotive content of the music. No doubt some composers and musicians are expressing their emotions in specific cases. But the only way to know that, short of inferring it from biographical details, is to infer it from the music itself, which seems to locate the emotion in the music. Read more »

Beauty is Neither Harmony Nor Symmetry

by Dwight Furrow

Beauty has long been understood as the highest form of aesthetic praise sharing space with goodness, truth, and justice as a source of ultimate value. But in recent decades, despite calls for its revival, beauty has been treated as the ugly stepchild banished by an art world seeking forms of expression that capture the seedier side of human existence. It is a sad state of affairs when the highest form of aesthetic praise is dragged through the mud. Might the problem be that beauty from the beginning has been misunderstood?

The Ancient Greeks were the first to define beauty. Using the perfection of geometrical bodies as a paradigm, symmetrical, perfectly proportioned objects connected the world of finite human beings to the infinite, divine world. In the Symposium, Plato has Diotima regale Socrates with stories of the soul ascending towards beauty, driven by Eros, the god of love, leading from the sensible world to the intelligible world and ultimately the discovery of Beauty in itself. In theory, beauty could be extracted from objects via reason if we were sufficiently expert geometers.  Beauty is a concept, a ratio, a specific proportion between parts which gives us insight into the ideal structure of the cosmos, a manifestation of something eternal. The neo-Platonists emphasized that such an ideal harmony must exhibit unity, all difference and multiplicity swallowed by an intelligible whole, a state of pure integration governed by a principle that organizes the elements and to which the elements must conform.

However, conceptually, these notions of perfect symmetry, unity, and harmony are problematic. Read more »

The cromulence of wasabi, and other stories

by Dave Maier

One starting point for any philosophical account of language is that the truth of a statement depends both on what it means and on how the world is. Handily for contemporary pragmatists of my stripe, this fits neatly with the post-Davidsonian project of overcoming the dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content. All we need to do is show that the two factors that make up truth are not so detachable as contemporary dualists claim.

If it were as easy as that, though, we’d be done by now. Last time I said some things about semantic externalism, the idea that our meanings and other mental contents depend in some way on how things are in the world (as opposed, that is, to being transparently internal to the mind in the Cartesian manner). While not uncontroversial (there are a number of versions of this idea, some of which lead to serious problems), this thought is not generally regarded as scandalously radical or insane – possibly because when it goes bad, it does so in the direction of realism, contemporary philosophy’s default metaphysical assumption. The world, and the semantic content it determines, turns out to be too independent of our minds for us to know for sure what we are even saying. But again, for most contemporary philosophers, metaphysical realism, even of a problematic sort, has always seemed preferable to the unthinkable alternatives.

Things get dicier, or can easily seem to, if we consider the converse thought: that how things are in the world depend in some way on our meanings and beliefs. Stated so baldly, the only people who accept it are the most hard-bitten idealists. Not only does this thereby fall off to the forbidden side, it’s not at all clear how to state it in any more acceptably hirsute fashion. (I except the obvious cases, the subject of an entire book by contemporary realist John Searle (The Construction of Social Reality), such as the straightforwardly conventional, mind-created, but thereby no less real, truth that this sawbuck is more valuable than that fin – although inventive if also perverse counter-examples are available even for that one.)

I won’t be arguing for any particular doctrine today, let alone anything controversial, but instead simply batting about some examples, in the hope of a better understanding of a few important and interrelated things: first, how diverse our semantic options really are, and how little the dictionary really tells us about them; second, how essential to meaning are the creative and expressive aspects of language use; and third, the overlapping and indeed interconstitutive notions of a) knowing what a word means; b) knowing how to use a word appropriately; c) knowing the word’s referent; d) knowing what such a thing is. With any luck this may clear the way to discussing matters of meaning and truth without the threat of linguistic idealism seeming to hover over us at every turn. Read more »

Wines of Anger and Joy (Part 2)

by Dwight Furrow

Wine-bottle-supplier-300x273Wine language often suggests that wines express emotion or exhibit personality characteristics despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally possess these characteristics. There is a history, although somewhat in recession today, to refer to wines as aggressive, sensual, fierce, grand, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to such talk or is it just arbitrary flights of fancy?

Last month I argued that it's perfectly intelligible to conceive of wine as expressive. Wine expresses the geography and climate of a region or vineyard, the vintage characteristics, and the winemaker's idea of those. More importantly, wine can sometimes express the winemaker's feelings about wine, especially the inspirational experiences that explain their love of wine that they wish to communicate to their patrons. But the aforementioned wine language suggests a broader notion of expression, one in which wine, perhaps like art, can express fundamental features of human experience.

In aesthetics, this question of how art can express feelings has typically been pursued using music as the prime example, because there is a broad consensus that music is deeply connected to human emotion. In trying to answer this question about wine, it makes sense to use these resources developed in the debate about music. So bear with me as I go on about music and the emotions for a bit; wine will get its due towards the end of the essay.

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Wines of Anger and Joy (Part 1)

by Dwight Furrow

Emotion and wineCan we make sense of the idea that wines express emotion?

No doubt wine can trigger feelings. Notoriously, at a party, wine triggers feelings of conviviality via the effects of alcohol. But the wine isn't expressing anything in that case. It's the people via their mannerisms and interaction encouraged by the wine that are expressing feelings of conviviality. The wine is a causal mechanism, not itself an expression of these feelings.

The concept of expression need not be restricted to feelings. To express is to externalize an inward state. In a very straightforward sense some wines express the nature of the grapes in a particular vintage and the soils and climate of the vineyard. But for better or worse, in aesthetics, we tend to be more interested in the expression of psychological agents rather than pieces of fruit. Perhaps that is a mere prejudice, but one we are unlikely to dispense with given the importance of human emotions to our sensibility. If wines are expressive in the sense that is of interest in aesthetics, it will be because they express some human quality.

Of course a wine expresses the winemaker's idea of what the grapes of a particular vintage and location should taste like. But that is an idea, not a feeling or emotion, and at least historically, the concept of expression in aesthetics has focused on feelings as the central case. Thus, although wine expresses ideas and nature, it will be via emotion that it earns any expressivist credentials.

The most discussed expression theory was formulated by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, and we can begin to unravel the sense in which wine expresses feelings by considering his theory. While implausible as a general theory of artistic expression, Tolstoy's “transmission” theory has the virtue of being an intuitively plausible account of how some works of art express emotion, and I think it directly applies to at least some wines.

According to Tolstoy, a work of art expresses emotion when an artist feels an emotion and embodies that emotion in a work of art in a way that successfully transmits that emotion to the audience who then feel the same emotion as the artist. Thus, for example, a composer might intend to express sadness via her music using a minor key and lugubrious rhythm. If the audience then feels sad as a result of hearing the composition, the work is successful as an expression of sadness, according to Tolstoy's theory.

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Beauty is Not Skin Deep

by Dwight Furrow

Turner the fighting temeraire

Turner's The Fighting Temeraire

Beauty is not solely in the eye of the beholder so I argued last month. This month I can't resist taking on the other platitude that harms our understanding of beauty—that beauty is only skin deep.

The word “beauty” has fallen on hard times in the art world despite occasional signs of a revival. Yet, in everyday conversation the word “beauty” is so ubiquitous it has fallen into cliché. Perhaps these two phenomena are related. It is routine to say a flower is beautiful; and almost all flowers would seem to qualify regardless of how ordinary. But that just reduces the concept of “beauty” to meaninglessness. I want to rescue the term by arguing that to grasp the nature of beauty we need an aesthetics of depth, not of surfaces, which is to say that beauty is not skin deep.

There is, it would seem, an obvious counter example to my thesis. I suspect the word “beauty” is most often applied to women largely because throughout history most people who publicly wrote about or depicted beauty were men. And this seems to apply to physical features especially in the way the beauty industry uses the term. But this is not because beauty is superficial; it is because beauty is an object of longing, especially the kind of “ideal”, unattainable beauty portrayed by the beauty industry. It's the depth of something out of reach, illusive, a consummate idealization, of satisfaction infinitely deferred that is at work in this form of allure. The whole process of cosmetics is to make something desirable and is thus no longer only about appearances but rather something more subterranean.

The idea that beauty is about superficial qualities readily apparent in our experience is an assumption adopted by much of modern aesthetics since Kant and Hume. Aesthetic experience is made possible by a bundle of qualities and if the qualities are alluring enough we call the object beautiful. Yet to report that a painting is red, rectangular, depicting figures of a certain shape, and suitable for hanging tells us nothing about its aesthetic appeal.

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Reality Check: Wine, Subjectivism and the Fate of Civilization

by Dwight Furrow

Perfectly round circlesI must confess to having once been an olfactory oaf. In my early days as a wine lover, I would plunge my nose into a glass of Cabernet, sniffing about for a hint of cassis or eucalyptus only to discover a blast of alcohol thwarting my ascension to the aroma heaven promised in the tasting notes. A sense of missed opportunity was especially acute when the wine was described as “sexy, flamboyant, with a bounteous body.” Disappointed but undaunted, I would hurry off to wine tastings hoping the reflected brilliance of a wine expert might inspire epithelial fitness. It was small comfort when the expert would try to soften my disappointment with the banality, “it's all subjective anyway.” So one evening, while receiving instruction in the finer points of wine tasting from a charming but newly minted sommelier, I let frustration get the better of me and blurted “Well, if it's all subjective, what the hell are we doing here? Is it just your personal opinion that there is cassis in the cab or is it really there. We all have opinions. If you're an expert you should be giving us your knowledge, not your opinion!” Someone muttered something about “chill out” and it was quickly decided that my glass needed refilling. But the point stands. The idea of expertise involves the skillful apprehension of facts. If there is no fact about aromas of cassis in that cab there is no expertise at discerning it.

These conversations over a glass of wine are more pleasant (because of the wine) but structurally similar to the semester-long task of getting my college students to realize that moral beliefs are not arbitrary emendations of their lightly held personal attitudes but are rooted in our need to survive and flourish as social beings. Yet even after weeks of listening to me going on about the sources of value they still write term papers confidently asserting that with regard to “right” and “wrong”, eh, who knows?

Subjectivism, the view that a belief is made true by my subjective attitude towards it, has long been the default belief of freshman students and arbiters of taste. Unfortunately this tendency to treat it as the wisdom of the ages has escaped the confines of the wine bar and classroom into the larger society. Buoyed by the cheers of multitudes, our fabulist-in-chief, routinely finds his “own facts” circulating in what seems to be an otherwise empty mind. Unfortunately, this is no longer mere fodder for a seminar debate.

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Creative Receptivity

by Dwight Furrow

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Goldsworthy, Maple Leaves Arrangement

There is an ingrained set of assumptions and attitudes about creativity in the arts that harms our understanding of art and ultimately human existence. That is the idea of the artist as a relatively unconstrained maker, a fashioner ex nihilo who brings something new into being solely through the force of her imagination and capacity for self-expression. We might contrast this with an older view of art perhaps best expressed by this quote attributed to Michelangelo:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

On the view expressed by Michelangelo, an artist is like a skillful craftsperson who attends to the inherent qualities of a piece of raw material, it's shape, grain, texture or color, and then decides what she can do with it. Art is too varied and complex to wholly fit either description, both of which are drawn too starkly, but I want to make the case that Michelangelo's view has more to recommend it than first meets the eye.

Aesthetic appreciation is often described in terms of adopting an aesthetic attitude, a state of mind in which one attends sympathetically and with focused attention to the aesthetic features of objects. Part of that aesthetic attitude is a willingness to be receptive to what is in the work, to refrain from imposing preconceptions on it, to let the work speak for itself. The viewer or listener must open herself up to being moved by the work and to discover all there is to be discovered in it. As important as this attitude of openness and receptivity is to appreciating art, it would be exceedingly odd if this aesthetic attitude was not also part of the process of creating the work. But if we take this receptive attitude seriously it shows the limitations of our assumptions about artists as ultimate masters.

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Creativity and Art

by Dwight Furrow

Abstract artPhilosophical definitions of art are not only controversial but tend to be unhelpful in understanding the nature of art. While trying to accommodate new, sometimes radically unfamiliar, developments in the art world, philosophical definitions typically do not explain why art is something about which we care, arguably something a definition should do. Institutional theories that treat art as any work intended to be displayed for the art world, or historical theories that view art as having some intended relationship to prior artworks, leave out any reference to why art is worth making and appreciating.

Aesthetic theories get closer to bringing the value of art into the picture. They privilege an artist's intention to imbue objects with aesthetic character, which when successful produces aesthetic pleasure, surely a primary reason for valuing art. But embodying an intention to produce aesthetic pleasure is not sufficient for something to be an artwork. An attractive, mass produced set of dishes or a potted plant might be intended to have aesthetic properties but are not works of art. Furthermore, the appeal of some works of art such as the ready-mades (e.g. Duchamp's shovel) is not primarily aesthetic at all. Clearly aesthetic pleasure is an important goal of art and one reason why we value it. But considering other reasons to value art might get us closer to a definition that clarifies art's nature.

It seems to me that in addition to art's ability to produce aesthetic pleasure we value works of art because they are accomplishments. We admire and appreciate the skill, effort, depth of insight and conceptual dexterity required to produce art. But more importantly we appreciate works of art because they exemplify creativity. Above all, works of art are works of imagination that constitute a departure from the everyday and the mundane. They surprise us and move us because of their unfamiliarity. I would argue that creativity constitutes the distinctive kind of accomplishment that is a work of art. Thus, it is puzzling that most philosophical definitions of art do not include creativity among their conditions.

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Wine and Nature’s Rift

by Dwight Furrow

Vineyard3Most of the wine purchased in the U.S is an industrial product made by mega-companies that seek to eliminate the uncertainties of nature in pursuit of a reliable, inexpensive, standardized commodity. But most of the wineries in the U.S. are small-to-mid-sized, artisan producers who lack both the technology and the inclination to make a standardized product immune to nature's whims. For these producers and their customers, the call of the wild is at least a murmur.

Although wine is one of the most alluring products of culture, its attraction is in part due to its capacity to reveal nature. When made with proper care, wine in its structure and flavor reflects its origins in grapes grown in a particular geographical location with unique soils, weather, native yeasts, bacteria, etc. Although the grape juice becomes wine via a controlled fermentation process and is the outcome of an idea brought to fruition by means of technology, the basic material came into existence through natures' bounty– roots, trunk and leaves interacting with soil, sun, and rain. Despite the technological transformations that occur downstream, the character of the wine is thoroughly dependent on what takes place inside the clusters of grapes hanging on the vine in a particular, unique location. As any winemaker will tell you, you cannot make good wine from bad grapes and the character of a wine will depend substantially on those natural processes in the vineyard. When you savor a delicious wine you savor the effects of morning fog, midday heat, wind that banishes disease, soil that regulates water and nutrient uptake, bacteria that influence vine health, native yeasts that influence fermentation, the effects of frost in the spring, of rain during harvest—an endless litany of natural processes over which winemakers and viticulturists often have only limited control.

In this respect wine differs from most other beverages some of which are made in a factory by putting ingredients together according to a recipe; others which are directly a product of agriculture but don't display so readily the unique character of their origins. Orange juice from California tastes like orange juice from Florida. Beer can be made anywhere without significant geographical effects on flavor or texture. Not so with grapes. For most wine lovers, it is that taste of geographical difference that fascinates, a difference that is, in part, nature's murmuring.

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Wine and Epiphany

by Dwight Furrow

Vineyard 2Almost everyone connected to the world of wine has a story about their “aha” experience, the precise moment when they discovered there was something extraordinary about wine. For some that moment is a sudden, unexpected wave of emotion that overcomes them as they drink a wine that seems utterly superior to anything they had consumed in the past. For others it's the culmination of many lesser experiences that overtime gather and build to a crescendo when they recognize that these disparate paths all lead to a consummate experience that should be a constant presence in their lives going forward.

For me it was the former. As a casual and occasional consumer of ordinary wine for many years, I had my first taste of quality Pinot Noir in a fine Asian “tapas” restaurant. I was blown away by the finesse with which the spice notes in the food seemed to resonate with similar flavors in the wine. The wine, I now know, was an ordinary mid-priced Pinot Noir from Carneros; Artesa was the producer. But to me in that moment, it was extraordinarily beautiful and I resolved to make that experience a regular part of life.

A simple Google search will turn up any number of these stories. The Wall Street Journal's Lettie Teague interviewed several wine lovers about their “aha” moment. One became intrigued by wine while an art student in Italy, another when he discovered he had a discerning palate, many report childhood experiences of being impressed by the serious conversations about wine among the adults in their lives, others were intrigued by wine's complexity or the sense of adventure and risk involved in the winemaking process. Teague herself reports the wine talk of her study-abroad family in Ireland as the catalyst that launched her career as a wine writer.

These stories have two things in common. In each case the experiences are motivating. Like all experiences of beauty we don't passively have them and move on. The recognition of genuine beauty inspires us to want more.

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Art and Artification: The Case of Gastronomy

by Dwight Furrow

Atelier crenn

In grasping the role of art in contemporary life, one noteworthy theme is the process of artification. “Artification” occurs when something not traditionally regarded as art is transformed into art or at least something art-like. As far as I know, the term was first used in a Finnish publication by Levanto, Naukkarinen, and Vihma in 2005 but has found its way into the wider discussion of aesthetics. It is a useful concept for addressing the boundaries between art and non-art that are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated in contemporary society.

The general issue I want to address is whether artification is a confused and superficial misappropriation of art, a kind of “making pretty” of ordinary objects which we normally associate with kitsch. Or should we welcome artification as an enhancement of both art and life?

Since at least the 18th Century we have had a fine arts tradition that included painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, classical music, and the performing arts of dance and theatre. But over the last century cultural phenomena from architecture, film, jazz, rock music, and hip-hop to graffiti, video games, and even some natural objects have aspired to, and to some degree succeeded in, being included in the extension of the concept of art. The world in which “art” refers to a specific kind of object is long past

Furthermore, many cultural practices including advertising, science, and education are being mixed with art in order to introduce creativity, imagination, and emotional engagement. Among this group of artified objects and practices, many people would include gastronomy, which I want to use in this essay to test assumptions about art and artification. What does this process of artification mean in the context of gastronomy?

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Camus and the Aesthetics of Stone

by Dwight Furrow

I recently finished reading Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms on the same day in which the utter hopelessness of our political situation became obvious, as the “beacon of liberty” accelerates its descent into fascism. The final passages of the book didn't help my mood much. In Hemingway's masterpiece, the drudgery and pointlessness of war becomes a metaphor for the drudgery and pointlessness of life. In the end, neither the heroism of love nor the promise of birth can stanch the tragic flood that threatens every idyll. For Hemingway, stoic resignation seems the only proper attitude as Henry slogs his way home from the hospital where Catherine and their child had perished, huddled against the relentless rain that had darkened the final pages.

The world is not good enough and we can't do much about it. Soldiering on is the best we can do.Sisyphus

When in such a mood I like to consult Camus. No, I'm not masochistic, or at least I don't think so. The Camus that inspires me is not the fist shaking Camus of The Rebel or the dubious, Stoic-tinged Camus of the Myth of Sisyphus. There is another side to Camus that gets far too little attention. In an early essay, Nuptials at Tipasa, he writes:

The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. Yet people have often told me: there's nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow. It is to conquer this that I need my strength and my resources. Everything here leaves me in tact, I surrender nothing of myself, and don no mask: learning patiently and arduously how to live is enough for me, well worth all their arts of living. (Nuptials, 69)

In the face of a world unresponsive to human values, despair is ruled out, for ensconced within Camus' numbing litany of all-too-human failure are lovely passages in which pure sensuous enjoyment lifts the spirit and provides justification even in life's trying moments. This is the lyrical Camus extolling what he sometimes calls the “Mediterranean life” where the live-in-moment vitality of sensory experience is a repository of meaning infusing life with significance in the absence of transcendental certification, even in the face of inevitable loss.

Intuitively, Camus' idea that meaning is to be found in the everyday rendered alluring by our willingness to see its beauty is appealing. The problem is I have never found an argument in Camus' work that links the Stoic-like absurd hero with the happy hedonist. How could something as seemingly trivial as the sun and sea provide meaning in the face of the absurd?

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Why Americans are Fascinated by Food

by Dwight Furrow

Beautiful foodFor much of the 20th Century, the U.S. was a culinary backwater. Outside some immigrant enclaves where old world traditions were preserved, Americans thought of food as nutrition and fuel. Food was to be cheap, nutritious (according to the standards of the day) and above all convenient; the pleasures of food if attended to at all were a minor domestic treat unworthy of much public discussion.

How times have changed! Today, celebrity chefs strut across the stage like rock stars, a whole TV network is devoted to explaining the intricacies of fermentation or how to butcher a hog, countless blogs recount last night's meal in excruciating detail, and competitions for culinary capo make the evening news. We talk endlessly about the pleasures of food, conversations that are supported by specialty food shops, artisan producers, and aisles of fresh, organic produce in the supermarket. Restaurants, even small neighborhood establishments, feature chefs who cook with creativity and panache.

Why this sudden interest in food? As I argue in American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution, our current interest in food is a search for authenticity, face-to-face contact, local control, and personal creativity amidst a world that is increasingly standardized, bureaucratic, digitized, and impersonal. In contemporary life, the public world of work, with its incessant demands for efficiency and profit, has colonized our private lives. The pressures of a competitive, unstable labor market, the so-called “gig” economy, along with intrusive communications technology make it increasingly difficult to escape a work world governed by the value of efficiency. This relentless acceleration of demands compresses our sense of time so we feel like there is never enough of it. Standardization destroys the uniqueness of localities and our social lives are spread across the globe in superficial networks of “contacts” where we interact with brands instead of whole persons. The idea that something besides production and consumption should occupy our attention, such as a sense of community or self-examination, seems quaint and inefficient—a waste of time. Thus, we lose touch with ourselves while internalizing the self-as-commodity theme and hiving off all aspects of our lives that might harm our “brand”—a homogenized, marketable self. Even our vaunted and precious capacity to choose is endangered, for we no longer choose based on a sensibility shaped by our unique experiences; instead our sensibilities are constructed by corporate choice architects, informed by their surveys and datamining that shepherd our decisions.

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Wine Tasting and Objectivity

by Dwight Furrow

Wine judgingThe vexed question of wine tasting and objectivity popped up last week on the Internet when wine writer Jamie Goode interviewed philosopher Barry Smith on the topic. Smith, co-director of CenSes – Center for the Study of the Senses at University of London's Institute of Philosophy, works on flavor and taste perception and is a wine lover as well. He is a prominent defender of the view that at least some aesthetic judgments about wine can aspire to a kind of objectivity. His arguments are worth considering since, I think, only something like Smith's view can make sense of our wine tasting practices.

The question is whether flavors are “in the wine” or “in the mind”. On the one hand, there are objectively measurable chemical compounds in wine that reliably affect our taste and olfactory mechanisms—pyrazines cause bell pepper aromas in Cabernet Sauvignon, malic acid explains apple aromas in Chardonnay, tannins cause a puckering response, etc. But we know that human beings differ quite substantially in how they perceive wine flavors. Even trained and experienced wine critics disagree about what they are tasting and how to evaluate wine. This disagreement among experts leads many to claim that wine tasting is therefore purely subjective, just a matter of individual opinion. According to subjectivism, each person's response is utterly unique and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste the same thing. Statements about wine flavor are statements about one's subjective states, not about the wine. Thus, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality.

The problem with the subjectivist's view is that no one connected to wine really believes it. Everyone from consumers to wine shop owners, to wine critics, to winemakers are in the business of distinguishing good wine from bad wine and communicating those distinctions to others. If wine quality were purely subjective there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality–wine education would be an oxymoron. In fact our lives are full of discourse about aesthetic opinion. The ubiquity of reviews, guides, and like buttons on social media presupposes that judgments concerning aesthetic value are meaningful and have authority even if enjoyment and appreciation are subjective. In such cases we are not just submitting to authority but we view others as a source of evidence about where aesthetic value is to be found. Wine tasting is no different despite attempts by the media to discredit wine expertise. So how do we accommodate the obvious points that there are differences in wine quality, as well as objective features of wines that can be measured, with the vast disagreements we find even among experts?

The first important distinction to make is between perception and preferences. As Smith points out:

I think when critics say it is all subjective they are saying your preferences are subjective. But there must be a difference between preferences and perception. For example, I don't see why critics couldn't be very good at saying this is a very fine example of a Gruner Veltliner, or this is one of the best examples of a medium dry Riesling, but it is not for me. Why can't they distinguish judgments of quality from judgments of individual liking? It seems to me you could. You know what this is expected of this wine and what it is trying to do: is it achieving it? Yes, but it's not to your taste.

This is important but all too often goes unremarked. Wine experts disagree in their verdicts about a wine and in the scores they assign. But if you read their tasting notes closely you will often find they agree substantially about the features of the wine while disagreeing about whether they like them or not.

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Wine and the Metaphysics of Time

by Dwight Furrow

Old wine storageWine is useless. It bakes no bread, does no work, and solves no problem. The alcohol loosens tongues and serves as social lubricant, but wine is an inefficient delivery system for alcohol—there are faster, cheaper ways of getting drunk. No one needs wine. Wine does nothing but give pleasure.

Love of wine is thus a useless passion, an arena of pure play, but therein lies its peculiar power. It joins the realm of those objects that express rather than perform–objects like old musical instruments, ancient manuscripts, childhood toys, or Grandma's jewelry. Useless but precious because of the experiences they enable.

When we are consumed by a useless passion, we become more attuned to the allusive meanings and hidden dimensions of the object of love. The object acquires an aura of mystery when unmoored from practical function and can serve as a universal talisman to which all sorts of meanings can be attached. Those moments in which we experience a useless passion and grasp the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of things are not only moments of pleasure but moments in which we glimpse a world of the imagination yet one in which matter resists conceptualization, the hard surfaces of reality resist manipulation because they have their own capacities and developmental direction, and meaning expands beyond what can be calculated or measured.

Among objects of love, wine has its own peculiar attractions. Wine, when considered aesthetically, brings traces of the sacred to our lives that are otherwise thoroughly enmeshed in practical tasks. The demand to slow down and savor opens a time and space in which we can be receptive to multiple ways of understanding the interplay between nature and culture because wine partakes of both.

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