The Art of Eating and Being Together
US sociologist Howard Becker coined the expression Art Worlds: “The network of people whose cooperative activity, organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produce(s) the kind of art works that art world is noted for” (Becker 1982, X). This tautological definition and systemic approach, apparently trivial, has interesting consequences summarized by the statement, “A work of art is what people say it is”. Individuals and institutions have the power to steer popular opinion on the aesthetic value of an art work. The same, as we will see, goes for taste and food consumption.
Art worlds and art markets follow opaque and evanescent rules, often linked to the preferences and idiosyncrasies of a few opinion leaders. They orient taste and define what is valuable in aesthetic terms, therefore even in monetary terms. This top-down model will endure over time, but it is showing its limits, especially in financial terms. This sort of oligopoly leads to a very limited use of the art market’s potential.
Concerning food production and consumption, the discourse, declined in a different way, does not change much. Even in this field the game is about orienting or re-orienting consumers’ practices and, following the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1979), practices of “distinction.” People’s sense of identity can be reinforced, and sometimes shaped, through the consumption of a product. This is the case for the “veg-veg” (vegetarians and vegans) culture, but the dynamic consumption-identity can also be seen at work in diet regimes clearly linked to a specific idea of the aesthetic beauty of the body. If scientific criteria to define an art work are opaque, in the field of nutrition “science” comes into play in a strong and pervasive manner. Nutrition means health; it means drugs or herbal extracts; it means wellness. However, a scientific criterion is often bent in one direction or another, and it is frequently supplanted by another based on new scientific discoveries. Years ago I was put on a diet to manage my cholesterol levels, and the well-paid nutritionist told me: “Egg is a poison for you.” I recently discovered that the new nutritionist mantra is “an egg a day keeps the doctor away.”
Scientific fields are not immune to the struggle for power and money. And the “scientific” can become a means to launch a product or a long-term consumption trend. “Science”, then, plays a rhetorical function within the marketing discourse. The authority of science derives from scientists’ ability to provide unbiased and trustworthy knowledge. This is the “standard view of science” (Bijker 2001): the public and popular discourse considers science as universal, disinterested and value-free.
Michel Foucault, among others, instead tells us how scientific knowledge cannot be considered objective by definition; it can indeed become instrumental to the advancement of particular interests of certain social groups. More precisely, Foucault pointed out how categories of thought initiated by scientific discourse are able to shape the government of people’s lives and individuals’ understanding of themselves (Foucault 1980).
Emile Durkheim prefigured the relationship of authority-opinion in the way we contemplate science. He brought to our attention how science is often considered the antagonist of opinion, whose errors it combats and rectifies. But science “cannot succeed in this task if it does not have sufficient authority, and it can obtain this authority only from opinion itself. If a people did not have faith in science, all the scientific demonstrations in the world would be without any influence whatsoever over their mind.” (Durkheim 2008/1912, 208)
Getting back to the fields of art and nutrition, we can identify shared mechanisms regulating both fields. By using a simple formal abstraction, we can recognize the opaque blend of scientific and aesthetic judgement as a common governing criterion, which contributes to defining a common battlefield of trends, fashions and therefore wealth.
The distinction practices wind through what is valuable, in aesthetic and scientific terms, and what is valueless and in a certain sense false or sugar-coated. Let’s consider the strategic distinction operated within the tourism industry between travellers and tourists. Here the declared goal is to sell an authentic experience to the tourist – MacCannel (1973) calls it “Staged Authenticity” – be it food or art, so as to make the tourist feel like a traveller, a connoisseur: a person who, precisely, has knowledge, experience and taste in a particular field. One result of such a dynamic in a culturally globalized world is that people feel more cosmopolitan and less provincial. This apparently superficial and trivial identity attribute is pursued tenaciously by both tourists who want to be travellers and travellers who do not want to be tourists.
The social mechanisms regulating distinction practices generate wealth. The key criteria regulating the distinction are cultural, therefore constructed, and embody strong symbolic meanings. The start-up “CarneItaliana” moves within such a field of globally conceived cultural experience. Among other initiatives, it aims to realise the Study Centre “Cultural Identity and Consumption”. This gives the overall entrepreneurial project a far-reaching character, thanks to the monitoring of food production, distribution and consumption trends in Italy, in Europe and in the world.
The study centre will produce scientifically rigorous knowledge. Good knowledge promotes good individual choices (or at least more informed ones) and good economic entrepreneurship, for those who are eager to pursue it. Knowledge, however, cannot be limited to data collection. What is necessary is the multidisciplinary in-depth interpretation of data, aiming to construct theoretical propositions. I will lend a hand to “CarneItaliana” in this aspect.
For a critical approach to meat production and consumption, as well as a deeper understanding of the vegetarian or vegan culture, we need to extend the sociological examination to the interpretation of individual and collective identities. The theme “meat production-consumption” can be analysed under a plurality of viewpoints. Besides the distinction practices mentioned above, we can move in other directions. We can, for instance, take into account the late Zygmunt Bauman’s insights.
Bauman (2007) invites us to observe how the consumer society favours the disruption of group ties. He sees consumption, even in the company of others, as a solitary activity; he even goes so far as to deem it the archetype of solitude. The consumer society disintegrates traditional ties and promotes ephemeral ties, associated with the temporal and spatial limits of consumption activities. If we read Bauman carefully, we discover the importance given to the link between production and consumption.
The distinctive feature of “home”, represented by the family sitting at the dinner table, is neither “eat and go” practice nor a contrived display of knowledge about wine. The set table is the final distributive stage of a production process that begins in the kitchen, or even in the workshop or on the family plot of land. Within a traditional society, what unites the family is, in fact, the collaboration of each member in the overall production process, not just the enjoyment of its fruits (Bauman 2007).
This model may be unrepeatable, unique, or just a distinctive practice for a few (un)sustainable rich freaks. Yet we can imagine other production-consumption practices that might help to support the creation of deeper human bonds by transcending the act of mere consumption. Knowing what we eat, its origin, and the history of those who breed and deliver it to our table, might be a viable way to move forward from the disruptive effects of a consumer culture. The foundation of cultures such as vegetarian and vegan, but also the potential “grass-fed meat” culture, can strengthen ties and solidarities going beyond the consumption of a good dish and all the Master Chef fluff that goes with it.
Bauman tells us that fast food and TV Dinners render family meals obsolete, and that they symbolically indicate the insignificance of the human bonds of the consumer society. However, if the image of the traditional home seems to vanish or be severely compromised in our liquid times, nothing prevents us from imagining new homes.
Certainly, to gather around our own totems, and to despise others’ totems, does not seem the best way to move along. Discussion helps. That’s what we did in the debate “A qualcuno piace carne” (Some Like Meat). I introduced it and partially tried to gear it according to what I have written so far. The debate, which was not intended to be “academic” in the narrow sense of the word, was lively, polite and constructive. It certainly also portrayed the battlefield Omnivores vs. Veg-Veg (Vegan/Vegetarian). The two tribes hold on to their totems, supported (and influenced) by the interpenetration of old and new media logics. The event had an impressive audience on Facebook Live: 65,400 people were reached, 8,900 interacted with the post, 19,000 watched the debate from start to finish, 867 comments were made and the event was shared 76 times.
During the discussion, the two journalists and several people attending the event kept their feet in two shoes. The Facebook Live “like” and “angry face” dialectic, along with colourful comments, entered and partially affected the real-life discussion taking place in the physical room hosting the debate – and the other way around. It was a sort of “Live-Live” discussion, in which it was hard to distinguish between frontage, backstage and audience. Sometimes it looked like a house of mirrors. I realized that the day after, watching the video with analytic attention. Apparently, I was one of the few monotasking actors performing in just one scene, right there where I was with my body. We should probably change the title of the study center and add the word “media” somewhere.
Bauman, Z. (2007) Consuming Life. Cambridge: Polity.
Becker, H.S. (1982) Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bijker, W.E. (2001) “Understanding Technological Culture Through a Constructivist View of Science, Technology, and Society” Visions of STS:19-34.
Bourdieu, P. (1984/1979) Distinction. Harvard University Press.
Durkheim, E. (2008/1912) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
Foucault, M. (1980) The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. An introduction. New York: Vintage Books.
MacCannell, D. (1973) “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings” American Journal of Sociology: 589-603.