Every year, the holiday season is stuffed with "Food Network Challenge" TV shows featuring pastry- and sugar-sculpture battles. Right on cue, the Network launched this Halloween what will inevitably be a cascade of confectionary monument competitions revolving around holiday themes. Because these shows mostly annoy me, I find them aesthetically clarifying. They remind me where I stand in judgments of the good and bad in art.
Consistently, the pastry and sugar monuments are judged, and therefore produced, according to criteria that, when worshipped for their own sake, I believe are alien to good art: difficulty of technique and adherence to rules that have no artistic relevance outside of the artificial world of the contest. While difficulty of technique can make me swoon, it does so only when the craftsmanship has a worthy end. I would go further. To move me, the worthy end has to seem greater than the difficulty of technique used to get there. Good art, I believe, involves economy of means relative to ends. Some ends require labor-intensive and precise, hard-to-master, technique. Some do not.
But Food TV's confectionary sculpture competitions distort the purpose of artistic means. The criteria of difficulty and observance of arbitrary rules hold the one other criterion in these competitions, the one legitimate one--interpretation of theme--hostage. In a different scenario, calls to interpret a theme might encourage imaginative solutions. But, in these contests, they are a beacon to technical virtuoso for its own sake and clever fulfillments of game artifice. Often, the contests require height minimums and specify, among other things, how many parts can be made before the day of the contest. Such rules exist not because they make any aesthetic or conceptual sense, but because they help television drama. They create suspense when contestants have to carry barely finished, structurally questionable monuments to the display tables--gasp!--without shattering shards of sugar.
The contest criteria favor a narrow spectrum of labor-intensive naturalism, rather than aesthetically economical yet conceptually sound works. Examples of the former usually win.
Enter Elizabeth Falkner, the renowned pastry chef and founder of Citizen Cake in San Francisco. I am convinced that she came to the Halloween Food Network Challenge featuring "Haunted Gingerbread Houses" with entirely different goals from those of the other equally renowned contestants. Without her explicitly saying so, it became clear from her gingerbread anti-monument that her challenge was not to the other contestants but to the Food Network Challenge itself, to its artistically fallacious criteria.
Her creation (a detail of which is pictured above) was, in every sense, punk. It wasn't just punky in style, though it was. It did what punk perennially does. It challenged the contest's fetish for technique for its own sake. It offered something that looked sloppy and awkward by the others' standards--but for valid conceptual reasons. Her haunted gingerbread house really was the scariest--and not in the faux Halloweeny sense. Creating a series of barricaded spaces that resembled homeless shelters required the viewer to get up close to the spaces. Metaphorically, they had to cross a "scary" class barrier that I have never seen addressed in the bourgeois context of Food Network shows. You had to get up close also to reap the rewards of color and interest inside the various crevices. This structure reversed and therefore challenged the contest sculptures' norms of point of view and viewer-to-work relationships. To glimpse inside the crevices were cornucopically colorful "stalactites" and "stalagmites" and other intriguing post-apocalyptic goodies. Falkner's work displayed conceptually purposeful use of aesthetics. Her piece showed wit and innovation.
From start to finish, the judges didn't know what to do with it. They kept circling her work station and making snide comments. They were only occasionally honest about their confusion. Where was the skill displayed in her punky pastry smears, her gang-graffiti-esque signs, her irregular stalactites? Falkner must have known the judges couldn't evaluate her work using their criteria. Surely, she was making a statement about the creative limitations of their pastry game.
What is fascinating is that it never occurred to the judges--or couldn't have, given the pressures of television shows--that she was challenging them. But how could a pastry chef as accomplished as she not have been purposefully stomping on the grounds of their judgment? The consistency with which she deployed techniques that had conceptual rigor--and aesthetic economy--but would not be considered technically difficult was a dead giveaway!
Perhaps for many people watching this episode, it was just a blip on the TV screen, a slight disturbance to the otherwise undisturbed Food Network Challenge criteria, which march on in sweet oblivion. For me, Falkner's intervention represents the kind of epic moment that often gets swept aside in order to continue business as usual. Whatever cognitive dissonance it offered to the judges and viewers was quickly denied in the distraction of celebrating the marvel of realism that actually won first prize.
Students of the historical avant-garde in art, however, are familiar with such interventions, and know that, if more artists begin to disturb the same rules, the whole irrelevant gingerbread establishment might finally come crumbling down. And that is why people like Elizabeth Falkner may be said to do "bad" work in the very best way.
Copyright 2009 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.