Coffee has become my indispensable item. Like many other 20 year old students I cannot function sensibly without my morning cup; always a medium white Americano, preferably from Taylors and consumed whilst sitting on the library steps with a good book in hand. Chain shops are just not the same for me anymore. The mass-produced and commercialised branding that must force out hundreds of cups a day does seem to take away the magic slightly. But what is the magic? – That perfect gulp, hot so it warms your insides but the right temperature so that you don’t cough and spill it all over your Dostoevsky. The taste? – No one could deny that that is a factor, milky but not a milkshake and a kick that compliments a pain au chocolat in a way not matched by any other culinary combinations. While it cannot be denied that there is a knack to a good tasting coffee, it seems to be the experience of drinking it that people savour. My ‘coffee memories’ are from sunny days surveying Somerville College quad, an espresso in Kos when I hadn’t gone to bed and had multiple delays to push through and the breakfast family coffees poured from the silverware overlooking a green lake in Switzerland. They are the coffees I remember and it is not because of the taste. It is probably hard to tell much difference between chain and independent coffees, but I know with which one I would rather spend my morning.
It is unsurprising therefore that chain shops are using new tactics to demonstrate that every one of their cups is special, in order to encourage you to drink them. They implore you to believe that it is made with care, with love, with talent. In other words, it is art. This is the angle a well-known chain has recently taken with images of beans embossed with the words ‘coffee making is an art’ over them in its stores. What can they be doing other than trying to emphasise that they care about coffee, that it takes work to get it right, that it is not just mass produced, assembly lined liquid, but is considered, crafted and created.
But, what is it about coffee; the making, the final product, the experience of drinking; the ‘big R’ Romance of cafetieres and sun kissed mornings with a cigarette, croissants, berries, fresh orange juice and a newspaper. The ideal cup of coffee creates pure hedonism but at what stage does it become art? It may be during the process of creation- regardless of the taste of the outcome it takes a lot of work to make a good cup of coffee. It may be within the finished product- Oscar Wilde said that the artist was the creator of beautiful things, which does imply that it is the final product that must be examined to see whether or not it is art. But it does not necessarily follow that in order for something to be art it must be beautiful, especially not in a modern context where people’s conceptions of beauty and art have changed. Beauty is of course as much in the eye of the beholder today as it ever was and like with any other art form, people differ in their opinions. I know of many people who feel modern art to be abhorrent, an offence to the talent shown by the Pre-Raphaelites or the Impressionists, and yet Damien Hirst is a multi-millionaire. This might however suggest a greater question concerning whether the label ‘art’ has merely led to a pretentious and intellectually arrogant monopolising culture; pick something ugly and call it art and if you say it often enough, people will begin to believe it.
Surely therefore, if art is viewed in the context of the creation and embodiment of an idea, an artist can create ugly things. It is arguably still art even if it is visually, orally, or sensually repulsive. A large umbrella term for art is what keeps it inclusive and applicable, evolving with the movement of society who after all are those that determine cultural ‘fevers.’ A shark in a tank 200 years ago would have raised many eyebrows and yet now, thousands will flock to see it. Maybe they don’t know what they’re looking at, but do they even have to know? A friend and I recently contemplated the consequences of art galleries charging extortionate entrance fees. The impact in his view would be that only those with sufficient intellectual appreciation and interest will go and not those who just want to say that they have seen that exhibition, that painting. That would to me, distort the entire concept of art and the enrichment that it can provide people with. It is organic, how many things can now be considered ‘art’ or part of the ‘arts’ than previously; food, drink, fashion, comedy; they can all involve the creation of beautiful things if our conception of beauty is inclusive and flexible enough. But, even if in our opinion that dress is hideous, that joke isn’t funny, that coffee doesn’t taste right, we can still look at the process; the talent, the creativity, the idea behind it can justify it as art as much as the merits of the finished product. I appreciate a Leonardo as much for the intricate work and effort that went into producing it as the final piece. Art should encompass everything- the inception, the creation, the experience. I do not think it is a bad thing to make the definition this broad; it allows for all tastes, interests and talents to have a chance at leaping into the new heights of culture regardless of what is the ‘right thing to be interested in.’ We are no longer so restricted by censorship, social norms or thoughts and can embrace all aspects of creativity if merely for the daisy sized spark of an idea that came into the artist’s head, regardless of whether it ever fully bloomed. Modern art antagonists often cite Rothko- ‘IT’S JUST A RED SQUARE, I COULD DO THAT’. But you didn’t, did you? Regardless of whether you think a big red square is nowhere near as impressive as the roof of the Sistine chapel, Rothko has made it art through the employment of creativity. To some people at least he is an artist and that is all that matters.
To bring this back to coffee, that shop is right. There can be an art to coffee- in the making, the finished cup and the experience of drinking it. It is creativity that defines art and even if that creativity manifests itself as a crazy splash of paint, an eighty page long poem or the moonwalk, it can still be called art. Everyone has the potential to be an artist if they just cultivate their creativity, painters, authors, dancers and baristas included.