Charlie Parker and the Notion of Wine as Art

CharlieparkerWine Is not Art.

I remain quite interested in the nature of wine and winemaking. Often this fascination of mine finds expression in the consideration of whether wine is art and winemakers artists. I was returned to this theme this weekend while watching the seventh of the ten episodes in Ken Burns' documentary "Jazz", which focuses on the emergence of Be-Bop in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

There are a number of ways to define "Art". With the help of Wikipedia we see these definitions:

"Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions and intellect. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings."

The use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others."

"A skill is being used to express the artist's creativity, or to engage the audience's aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the finer things."

"Purposeful, creative interpretations of limitless concepts or ideas in order to communicate something to another person."

"Art may be to communicate ideas, such as in politically, spiritually, or philosophically motivated art; to create a sense of beauty; to explore the nature of perception; for pleasure; or to generate strong emotions. The purpose may also be seemingly nonexistent."

By these and other definitions, it can appear that wine is an art and winemaking an artistic endeavor.

Yet these various definitions do not include what has always been two vital elements of the nature of art:

1. Art's ability to track, interpret, communicate and represent the movement and changes of a culture.

2. Progress through individual artists' innovations.

This second element of the nature of art that I cannot find in wine was foremost in my mind as I watched the description of the impact of Charlie Parker on the world of American Jazz in the early 1940s. Parker, the great Kansas City Alto Saxophonist, gave to the emerging Be-Bop artists a new harmonic paradigm that filled in the sound that progressive jazz artists were exploring as they moved away from the swing genre. Parker's great innovation was his discovery, out of his own imagination, of how to play any note and resolve it in the chard so that it would sound harmonically right. Upon hearing Charlie Parker's new way of playing, Dizzy Gillespie declared, "We heard him and knew the music had to go his way."

I'm trying to imagine any innovation in wine and winemaking that so fundamentally moves wine forward into a new direction through the result of creative genius a la Charlie Parker. I cannot identify such a thing. Is there in the last 50 years a new movement or new paradigm in the "art" of winemaking that moves the endeavor forward to new heights or at least into a new paradigm? I can't find the act of creativity that does this in the world of wine.

In querying my community of friends and followers, some have suggested that it is the art of blending wine that is the true artistic element in winemaking. Yet, blends have been created by winemakers for literally 1000s of years. That this blend of grapes or vineyards might be something new I don't think offers any significant paradigmatic shift or creative leap. Rather, it seems to represent an alteration in what is common.

Charlie Parker and his contemporaries such as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke created something that wasn't simply an alteration, but something really new in jazz. We see this kind of leap in innovation across various artistic fields. Yet, we do not see this fundamental kind of leap in the world of wine. At best, what we see in wine are new cultures and people picking up the the traditional methods of others. Hence, "Old World" and "New World" wines.

Of equal importance in considering the idea of wine as art is the notion that art reflects a culture and, particularly, the evolution of culture. This is for me among the most fascinating elements of art and art history. By observing the timelines and movements of various artistic endeavors, we seek how cultures are evolving over time. Jazz, a genre within the musical arts, is another good example.

To again use Bebop as an example, many commentators have explained the emergence of bebop in the 1940s among black American musicians as a response to the continued existence of a Jim Crow culture in contemporary music (swing music for example being adopted by whites often to the exclusion of black musicians in the big bands that exploited was was clearly a result of African American culture). In this respect, bebop is a re-appropriation of jazz by progressive black musicians in response to a dominant white culture and can be placed in context of the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement in America.

Changes and advancements in winemaking in America simply can't be used to amplify changes in the American culture, or any significant sector of the American cultural landscape. Winemaking does not reflect the evolution of of culture the way music, painting, film or literature do so well. If anything, an examination of winemaking might be used as way of representing technological changes over time. Perhaps winemaking also can be used to represent economic transformation or changes in America, but again this kind of analysis is far removed from the idea of "art".

I remain convinced that despite the aesthetic and symbolic nature fo wine, it is not art, nor is winemaking an artistic endeavor of any significance. I don't mean to belittle wine with this conclusion, nor belittle the focus so many of us put on wine or the important role it plays in many of our lives.

It is simply an observation.


9 Responses

  1. Samantha Dugan - December 12, 2011

    Just curious, do you see food as art? The way one chef can coax and create flavors, from the same ingredients as another, and somehow give you something different or better? I’ve always seen that as artistic and often think of winemakers the same way…

  2. Richard Auffrey - December 12, 2011

    Like many debates, this issue centers on definitions. Though wine apparently is Art by the Wikipedia definitions you cite, it fails to meet your own definition of Art. Do you have any supporting evidence that all Art must meet your two additional “vital elements?” If someone else’s definition of Art does not include those two elements, then their answer to the question would obviously be different.
    But, for argument’s sake, let’s go with your definition and see if anything might fit. What about the paradigm shift from the European way of wine=food and must accompany meals to the American shift to wine as cocktail, as something separate from food. I consider that a significant cultural difference. That different viewpoint has affected wine making in the U.S., and has spread now across the world as well to many different places.
    Maybe Japanese sake stands a better chance of fitting within your definition of art.

  3. mari kane - December 12, 2011

    Hey Tom-
    I too have contemplated the intersection of wine and art, here, with visual art
    Like I said in my tweet, Bird was to jazz as garagistes were to wine: innovators. Innovation is art. Dig it, baby!

  4. Jason - December 12, 2011

    You make some interesting points here, but I would challenge you on the assertion that reflecting technological change is a sort of analysis removed from art. Technological advancement has given rise to some of history’s most significant artistic evolution. What happened to painting as an art form when photography was invented?
    I have a broader definition of art than you seem to; for me the “aesthetic and symbolic” nature of wine is enough to qualify it as such. But I respect where you’re coming from, and wine is certainly more technical than music, painting, film or literature. I’ve found it useful to call it a craft. While “picking up the traditional methods of others” is the beginning of any dedicated artist’s journey, regardless of the field, it is more difficult (and less advisable) to deviate from these methods in the wine world.

  5. Tom Wark - December 12, 2011

    Much more so, Sam. But it’s really more of an “Applied Art”. That said, I think the opportunity for innovation and creativity exists more so in cooking.

  6. Tom Wark - December 12, 2011

    I’m not sure any evidence can be brought to bare on my definition, per se. People, however, can debate and discuss the meaning of art.
    As for the wine as cocktail, this might be an evolution in the way wine is used, but not an evolution in the craft. I’m not sure this tendency really has had an impact on how wine is made.

  7. JohnLopresti - December 12, 2011

    I liked the reflections about the emergence of modern jazz. I enjoyed playing with an alto saxophonist in a small rock band. Jazz, in my view, and in my acoustic and compositional sensibility, often seems to be a very demanding, almost instinctive, and intricate accomplishment by instrumentalists and vocalists, who have sound basics in producing well structured music; then to reach the morph into jazz the same structures are fractured. Or, as your article suggested, jazz resolves dischord by associating it phrasewise with more ordinary harmonic architectures. In a way, jazz is the gift of good instincts while embarking on mistakes, some accidental.
    There was an interview with drummer Elvin Jones on NPR with Terry Gross a few years back. He described Coltrane playing a 3-hour set in Philadelphia after breaking a valve in the trumpet. It’s not early jazz. There was a lot of blues and dixieland in early jazz intermingled, too. Coltrane is on a ride.
    But Monk turned to a college music prof to write some arrangements, too.
    These are subtle sciences. I believe AJEV has the chemical archive to answer your ‘art’ question with respect to US technology developed 1960-1999; but that trove of incremental experimentation is available only by professional subscription and it takes years of science studies to understand what each experiment’s relevance is.
    I thought of a few ways to approach some answers to the ‘art’ in wine. First, to me, is the experience of working with geniuses, whether transferring wine or taking a solo break in a slightly jazzy set. The break is a moment to talk what is in one’s personal muse while remaining inside the boundaries of composition and dialog, although with innovation and experimentation permitted.
    Another way to answer the difficult ‘art’ question is, I imagine, speaking with a few winemakers known as artists, or, in the alternative, creators; people of genius, with a distinctive personal ‘voice’. Some of them can write. I will email two names to TomW, people who might have interesting answers to the ‘art’ question, maybe in a Questioning Authorities reply format. Another possibly rewarding way to look for replies might be asking for a comparison from a few good musicians; the kind of people who know their chords yet can improvise, compose, and even write. I will mention one possibility in that category in the email as well. I think the blog is best when it stays generic without many names.
    Here is another, perhaps more relevant view, related to winemaking style. There is one winemaker known to prefer very well made, high quality wines; yet, he is infamous for favoring a nearly raw fruit overtone and often he adds spritz to accentuate that unique view. To me, his wines resemble flea market clothes selected for gaudiness.
    Of course, much is mystique and pseudo-cult about wine; and in some instances the products resulting are, indeed noble, even if surrounded by an excess of the trappings of luxury which blanketed the viticulturists and enologists who produced them.

  8. Edible Arts - December 13, 2011

    Examples of winemaking as a creative process aren’t so hard to identify. How about the innovations that created Sassicaia and Tignorello in Bolgheri in the 1970’s or the new approaches to pinot noir in California? These would certainly constitute a “leap in innovation”.
    One might argue that these examples draw on winemaking practices from other regions applied in a new context. But the same could be said of innovations in jazz. Parker’s new approaches to harmonic structure are not utterly divorced from the innovations of Stravinsky and other developments in music that predate Parker. In fact Parker was alleged to have carried scores from Stravinsky with him. Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were also influences. All art involves “borrowing” from others. Parker was no exception.
    As to your first criterion regarding art’s ability to track changes in culture, it is interesting to show parallels between development in the arts and development in the rest of culture. One can interpret Be-bop as a response to colonization of jazz by white swing bands in the 30’s and 40’s. But this can hardly be a criterion for all works of art. What changes in culture does a Rothko painting track? One could speculate about this perhaps but it is hard to argue that “Untitled 1949” represents some large cultural event. Yet it is obviously a work of art.
    Why could one not see the development of Sassicaia as a response to the inherent conservatism of Tuscan culture, or the development of modern styles of pinot as a response to changes in taste and a preoccupation with flavor that has characterized American culture since the 1970’s? I doubt that wine is the sort of art that depicts comprehensive historical stories but neither is music. Neither are fundamentally narrative arts. But why must all art be fundamentally a narrative?

  9. John - December 13, 2011

    Well hell – I spent 500 words on a comment but it disappeared completely when I hit “preview.”
    So, two words: “performance art.”

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