On Food and Art
By Lydia on August 14, 2009 10:13 PM| | Comments (10)
I remember a conversation with my then-therapist about 4 years ago. The topic was art and my tragic (I thought) fate as One Who Cannot Make Art. I have always been a fairly artistic person. I am creative to a point, and I have some skills in a number of disciplines. I told my therapist that I could make my own dresses, I could act, I could sing, I could cook, I could craft any number of sundries, but as long as I had no Original View of the World I would never make Art. She argued that even just living, as long as it was done "artistically," could be called art. I think that was the point when I stopped listening to her.

My older sister, during her existential crisis/art historian phase, told my mother that art was anything that made people angry. In this case the art was my sister's outfit of a hot pink turtleneck under a bedazzled, airbrushed lion cub sweatshirt. (Why it made my mother angry I do not know. It made me a little angry too, for reasons I am not entirely comfortable exploring, even at this remove.) While sort of absurd, I know what my sister meant. Art shouldn't be pretty, necessarily, but it should invoke a response.

Can food be art? The question is a little tricky given the contextual role of food in modern human life. Clearly, food is mostly about sustenance, but even examining the subset of food as entertainment begs the same questions.

A. Is the food art?
B. Is the person who made the food an artist?
C. Is the person who created the dish an artist?

Even typing this I pause, because I used the word "dish" in the third question. Perhaps that betrays my prejudices. There is a great difference between art and craft, and I think there is such a difference between making something new and wonderful, and flawlessly recreating someone else's "new and wonderful." This certainly can be applied to the line cook who makes the chef's creations perfectly night after night, but can it also be applied to the mezzo-soprano who sings "Carmen?" Is her's a craft, and not an art? I confess I do not know.

When the term "art" is given to food, I must wonder if the term refers to audacity, or fine flavor, or chemical ingenuity. I wonder if we should apply my sister's test to it, and assess merit based on an emotional response by the eater. This concept necessitates a thorough shift on the part of the consumer. Before judging a particularly confusing plate of pork with durian, must we consider not just the interplay of flavors or textures, but how it makes us feel? Does that make it art? Humanity has a great tradition of art which invokes the futility of human existence, the frailty of being, and the sadness and anger of people. Somewhat unfortunately I know that no one will compare a conflicted entree to Dostoyevsky, and a fast-food nugget may never convey what Sinclair made us feel in our guts, but I rather wish it would. 

For that reason alone I despair of food ever attaining the status of art. As long as we expect everything we eat to be something we consider delicious, it is nothing more than a consumer product. For those of us who sigh discontentedly at that notion, I suggest confronting our most hated culinary prejudices. Search them out, try them in so many forms that you know exactly how they make you feel and why. If we can get past what our mouths are telling us, maybe we can figure out what art really means.

Are you saying that if I eat meatloaf, I am having an artistic experience, because I hate it?
I usually think that if it is useful, it is a craft, even if it is wonderful.

I tend to agree with you, but that raises more questions for me. What about architecture, furniture, clothing? Is a hat artistic if it is useless? What do we mean (meeeeean) by that?

oh i definitely think food can be art.

food can have everything that makes pieces everyone agrees are art, art.

i don't think that the fact that people want food to taste good negates its artistic value. there are many "palatable" artistic masterpieces - anything from the renaissance, really - that don't elicit strong negative emotions, but are still widely considered art.

that said, though there is the idea of "developing a taste" for something. like more challenging visual art pieces, a really peaty Scotch takes serious perception, reflection, and ongoing engagement. also, arugula.

even by more contemporary standards of aesthetic judgement, say, how much does a work inspire participation and connection?, i think food totally makes the cut. probably even more than wanky pieces that involve everyone touching the same blanket or some shite.

maybe food is the ultimate art. our human experience with food translates well into metaphor, helping understand things other arts and emotions ("if music be the food of love, play on" etc... )--i'm rusty on my greek aesthetics, but i think they'd appreciate it's ability to point us toward transcendence. Food fulfills bauhausian ideals of form following function--it's nearly always plated in a way that you can actually eat it. It often provokes some emotion, and you can even have the debate about reader-response and author (chef) intent with it. even formalists would probably be contented, if not actually nourished, by food with interesting shapes, patterns, and textures--food for food's sake. you can even examine food as a cultural artifact.

for me personally, the best art is a magical combination of technique, proportion, originality, and reference to Something Beyond. on a really great day, what i eat is art.

and because my life is a cosmic farce, i just made an awful, soggy-yet-burnt, vegetarian pizza. and burned myself on the skillet. fuck. me.

Thanks for the input Sally. These are very good points. In terms of food being about love, like that Twelfth Night line, Lidia Bastianich once said, "...what else do you put in someone else's body?"

interesting post. food can be art, but im not sure if taste will help it fit the criteria. if we are talking about "presentation" it really enters the realm of spatial arts or sculpture and its pleasant form really has nothing to do with taste at all. maybe it's irrelevant if food is art or not or maybe because food fills a biological requirement it is exempt from being classified as art just as clean air or water wouldnt be considered art. but then what of architecture? i dont know where i am going w this

So one thing you are saying is that originality may be a necessary factor for something to be called 'art.' Music performed, then, could be art if performer takes the elements - instrument and piece - and creates sound that transcends the elements. Just as a visual artist takes paint, cloth and thread, whatever the medium may be, and creates a piece. And so too with food. We take familiar ingredients but the combinations and methods can produce something original, inspiring. No doubt about it.
Regarding art v. craft:
Kind of sad if a criterion for art is uselessness. That hat is art, I say. just as with some other fashion objects. But we do tend to attribute more of the balance to art and away from craft. As an example, think of a series of clay vases which the artist builds. As the vase becomes less and less ordinary and less and less useful it finally becomes a work of art which resembles a vase, but which one might call art. In her clay vases there may be several which are art, not just the final one. I think Julio's point about architecture is well taken - surely there are many buildings I would call works of art, and the buildings are of use.

Hey Nan! Thanks for commenting. I almost have more respect for beautifully designed functionality, but I clearly have some problems with "art." Mostly I hate it. Its nice to have the discussion. I think that the important part is thinking about it. Love, Lydia

and i must say re: architecture, one of my favorite artists ever was Gaudi, and if you've ever seen the Sagrada Familia you'll know why. that shit is ART!

yea Jason! welcome to scary dinner! thank you for your professional philosophical (excepting only the "Dr.") expertise!
-also, nice to see you around town again!

i suppose my point is that the addition of taste into the equation necessarily muddies up the conversation. i think taste (and smell) make emotions more intense, if anything, and i think it is so interesting how that affects our perception of the product at hand. whatevs. i love the conversation.