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Food and the Art of Commerce

Mises Daily: Tuesday, August 02, 2011 by

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One of my favorite downtime activities is to browse the web gallery of art, which provides beautiful copies of "old master" art from the 11th to the 19th centuries. I'm not an art critic, but I do like what this art says about the times and the society in which it appeared. The paintings featured at this site are of saints, sinners, nobles, and peasants — and plenty of scenes from ancient mythology and the Bible.

Paintings in the past were luxury goods, so it is no surprise that most paintings feature scenes that have nothing to do with life for 80 to 90 percent of the population. Only in the rare case do we see scenes that characterized the life of everyone else. Among them are the several dozen that feature commercial settings, such as the one used in the header of Libertarian Papers.

There are several general types of commercial scenes: ships bringing fish into dock, the still life of goods being traded, the large market scene, and the pantry. They offer a special thrill to any lover of commerce. This is life itself. This is the means of sustenance. This — and not the luxury of kings and privileged aristocrats — is how the common person made his or her way through life.

The main subject is of course food. It is the first-level concern of every society in all times and places. Then comes clothing and shelter. Then comes food again.

Mises, in Liberty and Property, correctly described the state of the common person of the precapitalist age:

The number of people for whom there were jobs even in agriculture or in the arts and crafts was limited. Under these conditions, many a man, to use the words of Malthus, had to discover that "at nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him" and that "she tells him to be gone." But some of these outcasts nevertheless managed to survive, begot children, and made the number of destitute grow hopelessly more and more.

And as Nathan Rosenberg points out in How the West Grew Rich, medieval life was not actually organized in castles, cathedrals, and cities; it was organized in the rural areas in huts and in places with reliable access to food. This is why most of the population was to some extent involved in agriculture and its related occupations of transporting produce from place to place.

Fernand Braudel's monumental three-volume set on Civilization and Capitalism describes the progress of food from the beginning of time to the advent of capitalism and after as the gradual displacement of grains (which represented progress over hunting and gathering) with meat of any and all sorts. Meat was expensive and an "inefficient" way to use land; its commercial availability was a luxury that was possible only after all other needs were met.

It was access to meat as an added variety that defined progress itself, delineated the social classes, and gave rise to manners as we know them. A meatless diet was the reality of all of life before the 16th and 17th centuries for nearly everyone but the rich and well connected: mushy gruel, every day, forever.

So with capitalism came the notable thing: a variety of food for everyone. Food was the symbol and reality of prosperity. Food meant the good life. Food meant security, health, and happiness. Food was the main reason people worked. Most of what was sold and bought was direct from food producer to final food consumer. Food was anything but a given. A bad crop could mean hardship, famine, starvation, and death. This was the reason for what Rosenberg calls the "fundamental precariousness of medieval life."

As society became more wealthy in the 15th century, this problem began to go away. Material progress meant ready and reliable access to food, above all else. An entrepreneur who was able to cause food to be made available to everyone at a local market had every reason to be proud. He did the work to round up the hunters, farmers, and other producers, buy their goods, and get them to market.

The rise of prosperity in Europe from the late Middle Ages to full-scale industrialization in the 18th century did more than give workers and peasants a glimmer of hope. It began the long process of universalizing access to food, and not just food that was hunted or gathered in the range of where you lived, but a wide array of choice. This was new and fantastic.

It was the result of the rise of trade, the persistence of peace, security in property rights, and the gradual development of capital over time. This was the period in which the whole civilization of Europe began to crawl away from insecurity and the precariousness of life into what we take for granted in the modern world.

Nowhere in the early 17th century was food more abundant than Flanders in the northern part of Belgium. Thus did Flemish painter Frans Snyders (1579–1657) thrill to offer vivid scenes of traders and their food for sale.

Frans Snyders (1579–1657), "Still-Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market" (1614)
Frans Snyders (1579–1657), Still-Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market (1614)

We look at these paintings today with the experience of Walmart and many other grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, and convenience stores that are minutes from wherever we happen to be, not to mention the electrically powered refrigerators and freezers in all our homes and even in dorm rooms. We miss, then, the essential message, which was all about the great surprise of the Renaissance: the emergence of an economic system that offered to all people what was once only available to kings and the aristocracy. These paintings pictured unthinkable prosperity, heavenly plenty, unimagined wealth.

Today, in an age of packaged and processed everything (which is how we want things), these paintings rather alarm us with their evocative detail of things we mostly don't like to think about!

It is especially alarming to consider that none of the food pictured in them could be held for long. It had to be eaten immediately, perhaps frozen underground in a manor estate, boiled into soups, or salted. It is easy to forget that the transport of meat over long distances only became reliably possible in the late 19th century and common for everyone in the 20th century. Indeed, the canning and preservation of meat in a manner that was pleasing made a breakthrough with Spam, invented by Hormel Foods in 1937.

Again, it is all taken for granted today. If we want food — meat, grains, vegetables, or whatever — we just go to the store and buy it. This is the culmination of centuries of capitalist progress. But in the 16th century, such access was completely new and notable — and worth advertising as the pride of a nation. And thus was this entrepreneur very proud to display his catch, for sale in the open market.

The same painter's "Fishmonger's" is probably disturbing to our eyes — but not back then. Here was the very embodiment of the new civilization opening up before their eyes. It came from boats that could stay long at sea and share the proceeds with the common people at public markets in this port city, which understandably experienced vast immigration from Germany and England.

This stuff must have been great in the morning after a long night's fishing trip, but imagine what it smelled like by 4 p.m.!

Frans Snyders (1579–1657), "Fishmonger's"  (c. 1616)
Frans Snyders (1579–1657), Fishmonger's (c. 1616)

It was also true of exotic fruits that could now be brought from great distances. In the "Fruit Stall," we see images that were previously unimaginable in Europe. This painting in particular was commissioned by Jacques van Ophem, powerful representative of the administration of Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella — the Spanish viceroys in the southern Netherlands. Think of it as a form of bragging or marketing, a way of saying "our prosperity is very cool."

Frans Snyders (1579–1657), "Fruit Stall" (1618–1621)
Frans Snyders (1579–1657), Fruit Stall (1618–1621)

And of course the purpose of the market was to provide for final consumption, so also common in this period of painting were images of pantries. Here was capitalist opulence — wholly notable in the history of the world, the very image of civilization on the rise.

Every manner of interpretative schemata has been employed to understand the allusions of the items and colors in "The Pantry," but the plain explanation is actually the most compelling. It says: we've got lots of food!

Frans Snyders (1579–1657), "The Pantry" (c. 1620)
Frans Snyders (1579–1657), The Pantry (c. 1620)

The availability of food meant more than health and a rising population. It also changed the way we behave and think. Ariès's History of Private Life documents how eating manners as we know them only came about in the 17th century, when we went from eating communally with our hands to eating individual servings with forks, knives, and spoons. Along with this change came the development of an elaborate ritual of what to do and what not to do.

A hilarious section of this book documents a controversy all over Europe about the best way to eat bread. Should it be cut with a knife or broken with our hands? Opinions and fashions swayed from one direction to another for more than 100 years.

Finally, it came to be settled in the 19th century: in France (and most of Europe) and in the United States, bread should be broken with our hands. And why? This was the homage that the aristocracy would pay to the peasants, an attempt of the highborn to affect a kind of simplicity of spirit. And so it remains today. However, in the Netherlands, bread is still commonly cut with a knife and eaten with a fork — maybe because this was probably the first region where access to food blurred the distinctions between the classes.

Modern people are preposterously picky about eating. Everyone has a theory and a special diet. From the advent of the individual plate to the advent of the individual diet made from anything and everything, no matter how specific, all in the course of four centuries.

Even more incredibly, when we pray to "give us this day our daily bread," we don't really believe it can be denied to us. Quite the opposite. The most common complaint today is that we have way too much food: we eat entirely too much; food can be preserved for far too long; and everything we eat is so processed and clean that we wonder if we should get back to nature in a fundamental way.

In contrast to the paintings above, we are embarrassed and self-loathing about our food.

It's a nice problem to have. We owe it all to capitalism.