Food for thought

The liaison between Food and Art

8 FEBRUARY 2015,
Food for Art
Food for Art

There has long been an association between art and food. “Food is very much a presence in the artworld” collector and food lover Valeria Napoleone once said. Art and food go hand in hand. Boundaries between galleries and restaurants are increasingly blurred - these once clearly separated locations fuse. Food and Art of food in its artistic extension need a differentiated approach, as there are several distinct categories of the liaison between food and art: Art in Food, Food in Art and Food as Art.

One category is Art in Food. In this case, the alimentary object itself is the artwork. Artistically carved vegetables and fruits are only the most common and most well known examples. Food is the material in which art is carried out. Another category is Food in Art. Ever since, food has been used as an element in representing art. Ancient Egyptians left evidence of their love for food on the walls of tombs and temples, alimentary items have been central elements of still life paintings and contemporary artists often make use of food in their works and installations. In all these cases, we talk about Food in Art. Food is part of the works but it is not the crucial element. That these artworks are considered art is not because they contain food but mainly because of the formalism, expressivity and message. Food serves the artistic language to express social, political or other existential issues.

The probably most discussed category in this regard is Food as Art. It asks whether food – or rather cuisine – can be art. I have had dining experiences that I would definitely define as art. Be it in a simple, cosy trattoria in Italy with a tasty pasta dish - or be it at a bistronomy place in Paris where plates seem simple but in reality reveal themselves as small masterpieces, essential in their idea but complex in the execution, essential in their form but absolutely complete, accessible and intelligible.

There are arguments for and against the position that a meal can be considered art. One of the most powerful counterarguments against food as art is the so-called consumption exclusion thesis (CTE). It advocates the theory that genuine art is timeless and persistent. A meal does not fulfil these qualities and can consequently not be considered art. However, there are also convincing and strong points denying this position. Culinary art can and does persist in a limited sense beyond its consumption. To see cuisine as art, one must widen up the ideas and try to see what is behind a plate and not only what is served in that moment on the plate. The whole artistic process, the idea, the artistic act of developing a dish, sourcing the ingredients and the way in which a dish was made have to be considered. Also, during consumption a meal can create emotions and feelings that persist, depending on the ambience, the company and the feelings during the dinner.

Just as music, theatre or dance (all performance arts) do, performances differ temporally, spatially and constitutionally. Like the recipe for a meal, they do all have at their base a formal structure. Also regarding these arguments - there is a counterargument. Genuine art objects must have only an intrinsic value; they should not be useful for anything and not have an instrumental value. Dance, music or theatre fulfil these criteria, since one can survive without these performance arts. Food however has an instrumental value, first and foremost, it is nutrition while the enjoyment of its flavour and other intrinsic values are secondary. Considering this, one must admit that also crafts can be considered artistic objects. However they are, like food, created primarily for their use while the generation of aesthetic experiences comes only in second place. Consequently, having an intrinsic value does not exclude the possibility of instrumental value; the two concepts are logically distinct.

The crucial point is how a person engages with an object: a person can eat for the purpose of the tastiness of food and approach eating from an already aesthetically minded standpoint or one can eat just because he or she feels hungry. In the latter case, food has only instrumental value. But it is important to underline that it is possible to have disinterested experiences of objects that have instrumental use. Consequently, a plate can doubtlessly be art. In painting, there are works that are considered beautiful by a vast public, that can be understood easily. On the other hand there are pieces (mainly modern art) that one has to interact with more to understand the intentions and thoughts of the artist. For me - an art amateur who enjoys museums visits – an impressionist painting by Monet, Cézanne or Renoir is beautiful while a modern piece by Lucio Fontanta is not beautiful at first sight. I have to read about the artist’s thoughts and intentions that are supposed to be expressed through those art pieces in order to understand the art for what it is. Obviously, at their times, Monet, Manet and Co. were revolutionary and socially critical but are nowadays loved by a vast public. I would like to draw parallels between art paintings and the gastronomy.

A hearty lasagne, beouf bourgignon or sheperd’s pie is more likely to be enjoyed by a vaster public than, let’s say, veal brain in tempura with raspberry powder or monkfish liver with white currants by Inaki Aziptarte at Le Chateaubriand in Paris. However, they both may generate an artistic experience. Whether a dish can be considered art is not only about a pretty, artistic visual representation of the food on the plate. It depends on two main factors: who prepared it and who enjoys it. From the side of the chef, what matters is a thoughtful sourcing of ingredients, the development of a recipe considering flavours, tastes, textures and colours, the attention and intention behind the cooking.

On the side of the diner, knowledge and background is required to understand certain creations and appreciate what is served. However, in any style of cuisine, to get an aesthetic experience that can show that food is art, one must emotionally be attentive and sensitive enough to embrace the experience. It can be just one factor or it can be the combination of food, ambience, emotional state that make cuisine become art.