Latte Art and Coffee Kitsch: On Third-Wave Coffee Culture (2/3)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that as coffee taste has shifted increasingly to single-cup methods and slow-brewing (cold brews, “Kyoto-style”), espresso culture has moved from the artisanal practices of Second Wave coffee to kitsch in Third Wave. After the corporatization of Second Wave culture (Starbucks, Peet’s) led to the mechanization of the labor of espresso (epitomized in the push-button home espresso machine and McCafé), Third Wave culture had no way to express the laborer in an unalienated manner. (More to be considered here: The transition from espresso as expression in the form of pull times, pressure, heat, etc. to the infinite customizability of the Starbucks menu, that is, the transition from artisan craft to post-Fordist consumer commodity.) This labor is therefore sublimated into the expansion of a new sense for coffee: Sight. No longer are the products of the barista judged by taste, smell, or even touch, but by their ability to make visual art of an edible good. Certainly, the role of crema in earlier espresso cultures had a visual component, but crema’s function in the estimation of a barista was more judged by the sense of touch, seeking out texture and thickness. With automated espresso, crema is now standardized and its value in the eyes of the consumer has plummeted, even for those pulling shots by hand, who are a victim of the broader trend.

What has replaced it is “foam art,” the rendering of visual images in the play of foamed milk and espresso crema. Local, national, and international competitions are now held to judge a barista’s visual art. Representational art is widely admired, populating Instagram feeds and Flickr collections , though abstract art has a dedicated following among an elite. Coffee culture has thus invented a new category of experience in the enjoyment of caffeine: Its similarity to other arts, namely painting.

By expanding the possibilities of the medium beyond its cohesion as a medium (that is, by adding sight to the taste, smell, and touch of food), and specifically by trying to invoke other arts through the artistic medium of espresso, the labor of the barista is no longer exclusive to the position of barista. The labor becomes undifferentiated, and the medium comes to seem a judgment on itself. Espresso thus becomes kitsch, as it presages the audience’s judgment of (lingual) taste and smell and diffuses it by focusing attention on a more established repertoire of signs, namely those in the realm of the visual. Since visual signs can be viewed by many while the espresso drink normally has only one consumer, the visual performs better as a means of establishing an objective standard. Objective here is derived from the Kantian notion of that property of an object which is trans-personal and intersubjective. This sensorial sleight-of-hand renders all judgment ironic, distanced, and absurd, as well as conforming it to other objectives, namely those of verisimilitude.

Foam art competitions are the most obvious way in which Third-Wave coffee culture expresses its kitsch sensibilities, but there are other ways in which the entire culture is saturated with this sense. In addition to foam art, there are competitions for roasting, brewing, and cupping. The arena of competition makes kitsch of its subjects, as the purpose of their labor is no longer the judgment of the product, but the judgment of the labor itself. The perfectly roasted bean doesn’t win the medal; the roaster does. The beautifully floral cup of coffee doesn’t receive the ribbon, the cupper does. These competitions therefore also diffuse all judgment of the product, removing it from the realm of art and placing it in the territory of kitsch, cultural productions that are meant to be judged for their conformity to criteria established by previous art. (This is Clement Greenberg’s early formulation of kitsch in his famous if uncomfortably strident and pedantic 1939 essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch.”)

In its transition from artisanal craft to standardized commodity to kitsch, the cup of coffee seems to parallel smoking tobacco. In the nineteenth century, tobacco was smoked primarily in the form of cigars, hand-cut and hand-rolled, with particular rollers achieving quite decent pay and notoriety. Cigarettes, each identical and anonymous, developed with the advent of mechanized cutters and rollers, expanding the consumer base while alienating the labor and undercutting laborer rights and protections. The cigarette is increasingly being replaced with the vaporizer, where tobacco has been removed from the experience of its enjoyment, distilled, purified, and blended with other flavors. Smoking now resembles most closely the medical inhaler, the model for vaporizing technology. Though it therefore shares with coffee a turn towards kitsch, the denaturalization of smoking embodied in its distillation and blending has run the opposite direction from coffee.

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