Monday, November 1, 2010

Art, food and drink

The following seems very plausible to me. Even if I enjoyed Sheckley's fiction more than Tolstoy's, I have reason to read Tolstoy's novels because they are better aesthetically, and my greater enjoyment of Sheckley would simply poorly reflect on my tastes. (There are also aretaic reasons, in that Tolstoy's work is more likely to lead to the kinds of insights into the human condition that help make one be a better person.) Likewise, even if I enjoy Star Trek episodes more than Kurosawa films, I have reason to watch the Kurosawa films because they are better aesthetically.

But is the same true in respect of food and drink? Suppose I enjoy sweet tea more than a fine wine. Do I have aesthetic reason to drink the fine wine, simply because it is aesthetically better, even though I don't enjoy it as much? Or suppose I enjoy the taste of a Big Mac over an artfully prepared steak. Do I have aesthetic reason to eat the steak? Here, I want to bracket reasons of health, social justice and the like, and even reasons having to do with the potential for developing a future enjoyment: I just want to focus on the immediate aesthetic reasons.

Here is a conjecture: the analogue of the Tolstoy/Sheckley and Kurosawa/Star Trek thesis is much less plausible in the case of food and drink. It seems plausible that if I really prefer a Big Mac over the fine steak, and they are equally (un)healthy, etc., I have no reason to shell out the money for the steak. This is puzzling.

Here is a possible resolution. If I enjoy a Big Mac more than a fine steak, maybe this is because my sensory apparatus lacks acuity, and so I am unable to experience those respects of the steak which make it aesthetically better than the Big Mac. And so I have no aesthetic reason to eat the steak in place of the Big Mac, just as the deaf person has no aesthetic reason to have Mozart playing in her room. But assuming I am of normal intelligence and literate, I have the relevant acuity of sensory apparatus to experience those aspects of Tolstoy that are superior to the work of Sheckley, even if I do not have a particular enjoyment of these aspects. I find this resolution implausible on the Big Mac side: why couldn't it be that I do experience those aspects of the steak that make it superior to the Big Mac, but I simply don't appreciate them?

Maybe I should bite the bullet and conclude that I have aesthetic reason to prefer the steak to the Big Mac, and the fine wine to the sweet tea, even though I do not like them as much? This would be an uncomfortable conclusion for me, as I don't want to live by it. Maybe I could still say that I have non-aesthetic defeaters (the steak and the wine are more expensive; the wine might be addictive).

(In case anybody wants to know, I do actually enjoy Kurosawa more than Star Trek and Tolstoy more than Sheckley, but I enjoy Star Trek and Sheckley a lot, and they can be more relaxing on many occasions. I prefer a really good chicken fried steak to a Big Mac. I do not know if I've ever tasted a fine wine, but I suspect I'd prefer a decent sweet tea.)


Heath White said...

I agree with your conjecture. Here is an alternative resolution.

The appreciation of art, etc. is cognitive in a way that the appreciation of food and drink is not. Cognitive development matters; mere appetitive deveolopment doesn't. Therefore, etc.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think gourmets and wine afficionados may disagree. And where would music fit in, then? I am inclined to take music to be more like novels than like food. But is music cognitive in a way in which a really good dinner is not? Maybe--music is a mystery to me, as I am largely tone deaf.

Anne said...

Say I enjoy Kelly Clarkson's music and not Mozart's. If my reason for liking Kelly Clarkson hinges on my lacking a capacity to appreciate music, maybe there is an aesthetic reason to appreciate Mozart but that is not a reason for me (like it's not a reason for the deaf person). If I am tone deaf but have a sense of rhythm or can sense changes in dynamics, though, I still have some musical sensibility. So there is a reason for me to appreciate Mozart. It seems that I ought to take Aristotle's advice and try to cultivate a habit of listening to Mozart (even if I don't enjoy it for the first month, year, 5 years) in hopes that I will acquire a taste for his music. A 7 year old doesn't appreciate the game of soccer when he first plays it, but in learning to perform the right moves in a game over time, he acquires the skills he needs to engage in soccer as a practice. So too with music?

DL said...

I say, yes, aesthetic reasons apply to food. Perhaps they apply less to food (maybe because they are secondary to the essential purpose of food, while being primary factors when it comes to art), and so in practice it's not such a big deal. (That is, while Anne may be doing herself a disservice if she does not try to cultivate her taste in Mozart, she would be doing herself a much smaller, arguably negligible, disservice if she failed to cultivate her taste in fine wines. All sorts of other factors come into play here, such as "fancy" food being significantly more expensive, whereas a book or CD by Tolstoy or Mozart probably costs about the same as a rubbishy book or CD.)

However, I think your example is comparing apples to Valencias. Fast food really is aesthetically (and nutritionally!) inferior, but it seems much more plausible that a gourmet hamburger might be just as good as a really fine steak. We have to be careful of the snob factor: I argue that aesthetics is relevant to food, but that a "mere" hamburger can be aesthetically virtuous qua hamburger. Conversely, a sloppy, mutilated steak would give you reason not to choose it (it could conceivably be inferior to a mediocre fast-food burger!).


DL said...

Just as we require different kinds of food to make a healthy diet, so we require different kinds of art to feed a healthy soul. So we don't, and in fact, shouldn't subsist solely on aesthetically great novels by Tolstoy; our diet should include, say, aesthetically great Bugs Bunny cartoons. (What's Opera, Doc is, I venture, as great qua cartoon-short as War and Peace is qua big profound novel.) Star Trek is not aesthetically as great, even qua light entertaining space-western, but there's no reason a show in that genre couldn't be great.

Of course, in our fallen fallible state, we often prefer (or think we prefer) less good instances of food/art/anything else. That's why we should all follow Aristotle's advice and train ourselves to develop more virtuous tastes. On the other hand, while almost anyone (short of being deaf or otherwise severely damaged) can appreciate Mozart somewhat, probably very few people can (in this life) appreciate Mozart fully. So that provides some excuse for devoting some of our attention to lesser music that we are able to appreciate (hm, P.D.Q. Bach?!). And as always with real life, practice is more complex than theory — e.g. an episode of Star Trek that you can discuss with all your friends and colleagues may be more intellectually worthwhile than an obscure foreign language classic that nobody else has seen.