Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Coffee, Wine, and Art

I thought about doing a parody piece on coffee, because I happen to think that effete posturing about coffee (tea, wine, audio reproduction equipment) is silly. It didn't really gel, though. So this is what you get.

There are whole clouds of terminology and perception around coffee, around wine, around audio reproduction equipment. "Notes of chocolate", "Three-dimensional sound stage" and so on. You can spend endless amounts of money chasing every finer gradations of these things, which probably don't even exist in a real way. They are, mostly, products of a manipulated set of sensations.

By "don't exist" I mean something pretty specific. I mean that properly designed double blind study, a control group will taste "notes of chocolate" no more often than random, while the test group (prompted to taste it) will taste those same "notes" much more often than random. Perhaps you could prompt one group to taste chocolate, the other to taste plum, or similar. The point is that a properly designed study will reveal that most of these things do not originate in the beverage, but in the surrounding discussion. These studies have been done extensively for audio reproduction equipment, less so for wine, but the results are generally the same: identical to placebo.

Well, so what? I am fond of saying in audiophile mockery sessions that just because it doesn't exist, doesn't mean you can't hear it. Sensation is a complicated thing, and most of it is lies made up by our big fat brain anyways. It should come as no surprise that if I tell someone that the wine they're about to taste has "notes of raspberry" that they'll taste raspberry, whether a control subject does or not. Why should I deprive someone of their chocolate notes by getting all Science on them?

It comes down to the same mental models we use when reading and looking. There's a lot of stuff that goes in to how a glass of wine tastes, and the wine itself is a surprisingly small part of that. Much the same can be said about photographs, both individual ones and collections of them. We happen to know that Robert Frank was a man on a mission as he shot The Americans and that surely colors our view of the book. I have claimed that his mission shows in the book, that one can actually see the results in an objective way, in a way that one cannot with other books which I consider to be lesser books.

Surely what I mean, then, is something like this: in a well designed properly blinded study, subjects would perceive something of the criticism, the judgement, the depth, that I do. That a properly blinded study would find greater depth in The Americans than in Vivian Maier: Street Photographer.

What is obviously not true is that a test group with full background information would get out essentially the same experience as a control group with none.

It is absolutely the case that a major part of the experience of either book is to be found in the background information.

This, then, begs the question who cares about the no-background experience? By blinding a study, in this case, all you're really doing is depriving someone of the chocolate notes they so enjoy in their coffee.

Still, my claim stands. I genuinely do think that a properly blinded study would discover a qualitative difference between The Americans and the Maier book (or, for that matter, a book of Atget's pictures, since he was essentially the same sort of thing, hat-tip to Mike C!). We are currently still suffering from the belief that single pictures are the thing, and that therefore every group of 40 or 50 "good ones" is essentially equivalent. Greatest Hits books are not distinguished, adequately, from coherent Photo Essays.

Now, it is certainly possible that there isn't actually any real difference, in the Science sense. Perhaps, once you properly blind your study, the differences completely vanish. I don't think so, but I have to accept that it's possible.

If the differences do vanish, then we really need to reconsider photography as an art form. If, without background information, one cannot qualitatively distinguish any two collections of well executed photographs of appealing subjects, then that background information becomes an essential part of it. We wind up in an uncomfortable world in which the process the artist used is indeed a vital, essential, part of the finished product.

We already know that the process is, often, a valuable addition adding depth and interest, but we currently seem to be loath to embrace the idea that it is essential, that the enterprise actually collapses without it.


  1. 1. There are no great wines, only great bottles.

    2. When a photographer turns into an artist: Well, in Germany, after he has attended a master class with Bernd Becher at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.

    I think the logic in both points is somewhat related; even though, being more of a beer drinker and having studied with Heinz-Jürgen Steinhoff at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, I'm by no means an expert.

    Best, Thomas

    PS: How do they inaugurate them now, after Mr. Becher's death? I don't know.

  2. This is interesting as I'm a winemaker by profession. I can deconstruct a wine and tell you how it's made, at least for the styles I'm familiar with. To be frank, I think you're conflating a couple of things in this post but as I'm about to go to bed, with an early start on brewing a New England IPA tomorrow, I'll let it ferment over night and try to comment in detail anon.

    1. I have a suspicion that what trained sommeliers taste is largely real, but quite different from what amateur oenophiles taste.

      I await your remarks eagerly! Especially if you point out that I'm all wrong!

    2. I don't think what they taste is different - after all, they have the same gustatory apparatus - but they have a bigger vested interest in being able to talk about what they taste. If you're interested, have a look at 'Not All Flavor Expertise Is Equal: The Language of Wine and Coffee Experts', by
      Ilja Croijmans and Asifa Majid, 2016.

      Downloadable at http://pubman.mpdl.mpg.de/pubman/item/escidoc:2301529:8/component/escidoc:2306521/journal.pone.0155845.PDF