Report to the British Society of Aesthetics
Workshop held at the University of Warwick
27 March 2015

This interdisciplinary workshop was a day of conversation about meals aiming to acknowledge the complex experiences and values, as well as problems and conflicts, that converge in meals. Ten speakers gave talks, coming from fields with differing perspectives and methods relating to meals, followed by summary reflections by two further speakers at a concluding roundtable. The workshop was attended by approximately 40 people, representing a wide range of disciplines, and audience participation was sharp and stimulating. This was not an event that made aesthetics the focal point of discussion, but one of the good things about the day—here I offer my own impression—was how powerful and challenging the attention to artistic, creative and expressive roles of food and meals was. The combination of topics allowed meals to show up as occasions that can be experimented with, enjoyed, and shaped in response to problems.

A tour through the topics addressed: Rosemary Collier launched the day by showing the urgency and difficulty of understanding what ‘sustainability’ in agriculture means. Carol Bryce discussed how meals are experienced by mothers of young children as a symbol of family, bringing ambitious goals, and issues of gender and generational power, into the daily routine. Moya Kneafsey (who brought in a CSA veg box so we could hold muddy parsnips, etc.) linked the CSA movement to ‘alternative rationalities’, affirming the liberating effects of constraining one’s food choices, and the benefits of food production and distribution that de-prioritise profit. Zeina Ghandour, discussing her research in Nablus, told of cake-baking and pride in ‘stuffing everything’, and considered food’s ability to provide a feeling of home, and Durkheimian ‘effervescence’, even in conditions of war and homelessness. Tim White presented a series of striking examples of artistic-political projects drawing on food’s role in social cohesion and the meal’s potential for ‘microtopian’ moments and emancipatory participation (e.g., the Enemy Kitchen food trucks and Nalaga’at Theatre’s ‘Not by Bread Alone’).

We broke for lunch—an exciting meal of Warwick catered sandwiches (and good conversation)!

In the afternoon, Helena Tuomainen’s research on Ghanaian immigrants adapting to London life showed the importance given to preserving meal formats, food textures and colours when faced with unfamiliar foods and tastes, as well as the gradual change and acculturation that occurred within meals. Charles Michel celebrated an emerging food renaissance, in which art and science meet, and explored the psychological and creative possibilities for wellbeing, and deliciousness, open to us as cooks and enjoyers of food. Tereza Stehlíková, highlighting food as linking the internal and external, showed her beautiful film of a real and imagined Icelandic banquet, and raised the question of how art can help us pay attention to and change habits of experience. Rebecca Earle steered us to the rich scholarship on how identity is reflected in and constituted by diet, and gave an absorbing history of the model of ‘humours’ that were taken to determine our individual physical appearance and character, and to which diet was essential. Kate Rawles argued that we must recognise the unacceptable ethical status of our farming and food systems, based on their impact on human and non-human life, and that we need a kind of ethical renaissance in which we change our perspective on the role of the ethical in decision-making.

At the concluding roundtable, Liz Dowler pointed to the themes of celebration, banqueting and abundance that emerged during the day and are crucial to the human meaning of meals. But she also emphasised the excluded guests, people who have few food choices and little political voice, and highlighted the broad issue of food systems consistently meeting the demands of the economically powerful. Aaron Meskin posed two pointed questions that opened up the specifically philosophical significance of the day: (1) Does, can and should the ‘sustainability profile’ of food imbue our experience of food? And (2), with ongoing debates about ethical-aesthetic interaction in mind, how do the ethical and aesthetic value of food and meals interact?

One of the large questions that emerged in discussion concerned why we do not appear responsive to the huge body of information arguing in favour of changing our food systems and eating practices. Some ideas offered: we need courage, imagination in our ethical and social lives, better self-understanding, powerful storytelling, motivators other than fear, understanding of which issues are or can become ‘live’ for us, and constructive use of the aesthetic-ethical interaction.

Feedback on the workshop was very positive (an average of 8.9 out of 10 on our not-scientifically- conducted survey). People appreciated the interdisciplinary approach and said they got ideas both from the presentations and from the networking opportunities. One respondent said the range of talks was ‘really eye-opening’, and another thought ‘the day was really profitable for provoking thought outside the standard “green” box.’ We wanted to have an intellectually open event that could trigger further research and engagement. Information on the PhD and early career research projects of those attending has been posted on the workshop website, to be a resource for further networking. Based on the conversations that took place, the promise is there, and this was a good, interesting start.

After the workshop, speakers, organisers and some of the attending PhD students gathered for a meal, held at Cryfield Grange, with thanks to Helen Willoughby who cooked us a delicious dinner.

Organisers: Eileen John and Alisa Mandrigin (Warwick) and Tereza Stehlíková (Royal College of Art/Westminster)

Submitted by Eileen John

Further note: We were glad to have the encouragement to follow the BPA/SWIP guidelines. This turned out to be an event at which nine of the twelve speakers were women, so there was no difficulty in achieving good representation of women. There was also a good mix of senior and more junior colleagues, with, I think, no problems of disparate treatment. It was helpful to me as an organiser to have those sometimes delicate and ignored issues of career status in view.