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Let them speak cake

March 17, 2016

David Jones, in his 1955 essay “Art and Sacrament,” on whether cakes are speech:

If the cook should say: ‘This is for Susan’s birthday—don’t you think it a work of art?’ you may or may not agree with the cook’s notion of beauty but you would not be able to deny the ‘art’. For leaving aside the art of cooking and the supererogatory art of icing, in so far as the cake is ‘made for Susan’s birthday’ it is ‘made over’ in some sense. By every possible test it belongs to Ars. It belongs to Ars, or rather it was pre-ordained to Ars, from the first movement of the cook’s mind to make something that should be significant of Susan’s birth. We might almost say it belonged to art ante omnia saecula, though perhaps that is going a bit far and we don’t want to be a sitting bird for the guns of unsporting metaphysicians. But certainly all the conditions, determining what is art from what it is not, are more than fulfilled. There is making, there is added making, there is explicit sign, there is a showing forth, a re-presenting, a recalling and there is gratuitousness and there is full intention to make this making this. Moreover this particular making signifies a birth. It recalls a past event and looks back at some anniversaries and looks forward to future anniversaries, it is essentially celebrative and festive: it would be gay. For as Poussin said of another art: ‘The goal of painting is delight.’ And this is universally true of all art no matter how difficult it is to posit the delight. But this mkaing, though joyful and celebrative of a birthday, recalls also, by implication, a day, or many days, of at least some degree of acute pain, perhaps of great anguish, and, perhaps, even of death. So that this making covers, in a rudimentary way, or contains in embryo, all that is shown forth in the greatest imaginable art-works. I mean no art can compass more than that attempted in the line of the Sequence for Easter Day: Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando.

It was pure good fortune that we stumbled on this example in the kitchen, for indeed we might have searched further and fared far worse. For probably there are not many arts that would so simply and conclusively show forth to us the nature and function of Ars.

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