This thought came to me earlier this evening as I was eating some canned soup (If you eat canned soup, I recommend Progresso). Food shows like Top Chef (Bravo) and Iron Chef America (Food Network) and many others that are available now on cable networks demonstrate this very intriguing facet of life: even in the midst of a great variety of cultural experiences, underneath this we find it a naturally human thing to want to rate artistic endeavors on some kind of common scale from worse to better to best--from less to more valuable to the culture.
Cooking on a high level where artistry and great culinary talent and skill are on display, I would say, falls within the realm of artistic endeavors. Now, I'm not talking about a hot dog stand, but about cooking that aspires to deliver something culturally wonderful, ennobling, exhilarating--something excellent and valuable as a culinary production. Great chefs are artisans; this is integral to their vocation. And even though we acknowledge that high cooking is an art, it seems to me that the world of the culinary arts is the most subjective of all the arts. Truly, can it be said that a particular dish prepared by a particular chef is greater than all other dishes? No. But does this imply there are no standards by which we may assess a dish's level of perfection? No.
For example, imagine three chefs are making a dish using the same kind of fish--cod, let's say. And let's imagine that each of them makes a dish that is very different from the other two--different styles, different spices, different ingredients to complement the fish. And let's imagine they are in a competition and a panel of judges is tasting their dishes (such as on a show like Top Chef). Even though the dishes are very different, the very fact that they are being judged against each other and are ranked by the judges in order of excellence as first, second, and third, implies the obvious assumption that there are some common standards by which to judge them. The fish, for example, should be cooked properly. Undercooked or raw fish would be unacceptable. Likewise, overcooked fish would be unacceptable. The presentations on the plate are different, yet, they are expected to be appealing and attractive to the eye. The use of the ingredients is expected to complement the fish, not drown it out or clash with it. The way all the ingredients are prepared would be expected to display a high level of skill in using the knife and likewise in all the ways the ingredients were handled.
There are some expected standards of cooking that the judges would rightly expect to see in a great dish. Nobody expects the food of different chefs to taste just like each other. Yet, nobody seems to object to the idea that we can judge and rank different chefs in comparison to each other, even as they prepare different dishes and use different ingredients. Travel guides and web sites and newspapers have a variety of rating systems whereby they indicate the level of excellence of a particular dining establishment. Food critics are people whose profession is to taste food and critique it, judging it and rendering a final opinion as to the level of excellence of a particular dish or of a particular chef or restaurant.
So, there is a great (seemingly endless) diversity in culinary styles and in types of prepared food dishes--Italian, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Thai, French, Mexican, etc. There are regions within regions. There are chefs who specialize in certain regional foods and ethnic food customs, and yet each chef has his own particularly distinctive character as an individual chef. One French chef's food does not taste exactly like another French chef. Yet, we do not think it strange or impossible or unfair that we should compare different chefs and render a decision as to whose food is better. And this is as it should be. Of course we can judge different chefs and conclude who is best. Every travel guide giving the number of Michelin stars awarded to restaurants is a testimony to this.
How is it that we can do this? It is because, underneath the vast variety and differentiation among food styles and among chefs, there still remains a body of some common standards by which we judge the final results. Fish cooked properly has certain characteristics, no matter what sort of dish it is in. Food should not be over-seasoned (or under-seasoned). A gravy should not have lumps. Watch the judges make critical comments and render their final conclusions about various dishes on a competitive cooking show like Top Chef or Iron Chef America, and you will see there are common expectations even in the midst of the dizzying variety. And of course, the bottom line that is always present no matter what--the food should taste good!
Now, switch from the culinary arts to considering the visual arts--particularly contemporary art. All of a sudden, what we find obvious and natural and take for granted in the realm of food--that we can use common standards in judging widely varying food dishes in comparison to each other and that we may rank them in levels of excellence in respect of each other--we seem to completely forget and ignore when it comes to contemporary visual art. (Or, more accurately, this applies to "professional" art critics and other regular figures of the contemporary art world). Why do we do this?
If anything, it seems to me, judging food is even more subjective than is the endeavor of comparing visual artworks. And yet, the gurus of the contemporary art world try to insist there is really no common standard of artistic excellence. Art, so this view goes, should be whatever the artist wants it to be. Each artist's production is like it's own independent cultural world, sealed off from the rest of reality, especially from the rest of the art world--especially that art which hails from the past.
I find this strange and even somewhat inhuman. We should approach visual art more like we approach the creations of great chefs. Yes, there is tremendous variety and uniqueness present among the works of different artists. But, this does not thereby render us unable to compare them to each other in the order of artistic excellence. There are natural, commonly apprehensible (even if difficult to articulate in words) standards which we can and should use to judge works of visual art. Visual art, though endlessly divergent and diverse, can be called better or worse; some works of art are of greater overall cultural value than others. And similarly, as with food, while there is a component of individual taste there are still commonly understandable standards even in the midst of vast variation.
I think most ordinary citizens realize this, even if they don't normally think about it in a particular way.
And so, this is how foodie shows--especially competition shows with judge's panels--manifest the universality of our human striving toward a commonly recognizable perfection through the activity of creating art. And because such shows indicate an implicit acceptance of a shared understanding of perfectibility toward which artistic creativity strives, they also, I would suggest, constitute a rebuke to the strange avoidance of standards in the assessment of contemporary visual art. Perhaps if you watch Top Chef, you might become better (more comfortable?) at evaluating other types of art, being more rooted in the naturalness of applying universal standards to a variety of artistic outputs.