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The Column icon The Column: Issue 51

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

Good Taste, Bad Art
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

The cooperative senses of taste and smell provide pleasure and warn of danger. Their impact in the arts is less significant however as compared with the dominant senses of sight, and hearing. This column investigates the importance of taste and smell in the context of creativity, and aims to shed light on these senses which seem confined to our primal sensibilities.

No art forms exist which are based on the senses of touch, taste, or smell. However touch is an intrinsic part of the creation and experience of several creative disciplines like sculpture and choreography. In my view touch should be regarded as a distinct sense that merits separate consideration in a future column.

The Primal Senses

The two "functional senses" of taste and smell are the only ones to benefit from cell replacement when the sense receptors become old or damaged. This points to their evolutionary significance.

Our sense of taste protects our body from unsafe foods and helps maintain a consistent chemical balance in our body. Liking sugar and salt for example, satisfies our body's need for carbohydrates and minerals. Similarly, eating sour foods such as oranges and lemons supplies our body with essential vitamins.

There are five types of tastes which are commonly recognized by humans:

Sweet This taste usually indicates the consumption of energy rich nutrients. Sugar is almost universally regarded as a pleasurable taste.
Salty Sodium helps to maintain the concentration of body fluids at correct levels. It also plays a central role in the transmission of electrical impulses in the nerves, and helps cells to take up nutrients.
Sour Typically the taste of acids. To maintain health, the human diet should consist of 60% alkaline forming foods and 40% acid forming foods. Human blood pH should be slightly alkaline ( 7.35 - 7.45 ). A pH of 7.0 is neutral. A pH below 7.0 is acidic. A pH above 7.0 is alkaline.
Bitter Bitterness allows us to sense a diversity of natural toxins.
Umami The taste of amino acids. Savouriness is the name for the taste sensation produced by the free glutamates commonly found in fermented and aged foods. In English, it is sometimes described as "meaty" or "savoury". In Japanese, the term umami is used for this taste sensation, whose characters literally mean "delicious flavor." Umami is also now the commonly used term by taste scientists.

Olfaction is the sense of smell and the detection of chemicals dissolved in air. Mammals have a highly developed sense of smell as many land animals are carnivores and smell helps in the hunt or in their defense. In contrast, the majority of birds have no sense of smell at all.

Nearly every human being displays a different pattern of active and inactive odour-detecting receptors. This explains why we have very different likes and dislikes of food and drink. There are also more complex processes that are at work when we taste and smell. Labelling an unpleasant smell for example with a more appealing name can improve its aroma.

Olfaction, taste and trigeminal receptors together contribute to flavor (the trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensation in the face).

The Creative Senses

Taste and smell are referred to in many creative activities as they are part of the human experience, however taste and smell are rarely intrinsically connected with creative mediums. For example, taste may be alluded to in a play, but it is not a required sense for either the play's composition or performance.

The table below shows the relationship between our senses and creative activity. You may also be interested to View the Disciplines associated with the creative areas shown below:

Creative Area
Sight
Hearing
Touch
Smell
Taste
 
both a sensory and cerebral activity
 
[ ]
primarily required in the creative process
 
|| ||
primarily a cerebral activity
 
" "
may be referred to
Buildings
Crafts
" "
Dance
[ ]
" "
" "
Design
" "
" "
Exhibitions
Film
" "
" "
" "
Illustration
" "
[ ]
" "
" "
Multimedia
" "
" "
" "
Music
[ ]
Music Video
" "
" "
" "
Photography
" "
[ ]
" "
" "
Radio
" "
" "
" "
" "
Television
" "
" "
" "
Theatre
" "
" "
Visual Art
" "
[ ]
" "
" "
Writing
|| ||
|| ||
|| ||
|| ||
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The World Of The Beautiful

The term aesthetics comes from the Greek "aisthetike" "aisthetike" and was coined by the philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in 1735 to mean "the science of how things are known via the senses.". Today the word "aesthetic" means:

The branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and expression of beauty.
The branch of metaphysics concerned with the laws of perception.
The study of the psychological responses to beauty and artistic experiences.
A conception of what is artistically valid or beautiful.
An artistically beautiful or pleasing appearance.

Can a taste or smell be beautiful? Perhaps by association, but not in itself. Tastes and smells can however be intensely pleasurable.

The Boundaries of Art

Taste and smell are subjective, perceived immediately, and envelope us with their chemical affect. Their powerful erotic aspect may restrict the realm of what may be considered aesthetic. One either has to be close to taste or smell, or the taste or small is so all-powerful in the environment as to dominate ones experience.

Taste and smell do not lend themselves easily to compositional manipulation, and no one to my knowledge has been successful in developing a consistent method of conveying emotion through taste and smell, despite the positive and negative associations we have of certain kinds of tastes and smells.

Art requires a medium to connect with its audience. The mediums of light and sound can be easily used and stored in a broad range of physical contexts. From paint on canvas, to MP3s on thumb drives. The personal physicality of taste and smell contrasts with the recorded or performed nature of the art medium.

It is also difficult to transport and deliver tastes and smells to a large audience with any consistency or continuity. Taste is an intimate sensation, and all but the most pungent of smalls dissipate with the lightest of breezes. The banquet hall may be a place of exquisite delight, and the phrase "culinary art" is often used to describe its products, yet it is clear that creating a recipe and cooking a meal lacks the essential essence of that which defines art.

Some argue the reason touch and smell do not feature in the art of our world is because we are are not able to keep a distance from the subjective character of the experience in order to adopt a critical and reflective attitude, a basic presupposition of the aesthetic experience.

Art is the product of human creative activity which often holds special significance. It seems the inability to convey spiritual and metaphorical messages, separates taste and smell from the world of art, but the power of taste and smell to transport you to a time and place is undeniable, and the future will I believe bring change.

Perhaps technologies will be developed that will allow us to more easily capture, manipulate, and deliver tastes and smells to an audience. The movie or game of the future may then become a more all encompassing sensory experience than we might ever imagine...


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also the Creative Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company.

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