01 February 2013


Baco "el toron" at Baco Mercat in Los Angeles. Photo by author, December 2012.
In recent years, critics of food and art alike have been asking, can food be art? As a historian of contemporary art who regularly gets--and deeply dreads--questions from students, friends, and relatives about whether or not this or that contemporary practice is really "art," I consider the question a tired beast. The beast keeps getting fed, however, so now I have to respond.

My problem with the question, can food be art, is not just that I'm a culture snob impatient with uninitiated folks who can't see what's obvious to me--namely, that food, or, rather, cuisine, can be art. It's that the arguments inspired by the question rarely get past a certain stalemate.

A recent example of the logjam is the dialogue between Jacquelyn Strycker, in "From Palate to Palette: Can Food Be Art?" (createquity.com, 1-7-13), and William Deresiewicz, in "A Matter of Taste" (nytimes.com, 10-26-12). Deresiewicz sparked the dialogue by claiming that food--while similar to art in the sociological sense that it offers foodies a means of social competition through knowledge, connoisseurship, and conspicuous consumption--can't be art because it doesn't possess art's essential traits. These include, he says, the capacity for narrative or representation, for tapping into emotions precisely, and for rich symbolism.

Challenging this argument, Strycker insists that food indeed is art. Food, after all, does what all of the arts do. It creates sensory experience--if anything, even more richly than the other arts owing to food's engagement of all the senses--and cuisine can be creative, it can express philosophies, evoke narratives, and allude to complex ideas. What's more, food can inspire multiple interpretations.

I'll admit that I'm partial to Strycker's essay. Her criteria really do apply to both food and art, as we know them historically. I am flummoxed by Deresiewicz's claim that food doesn't evoke specific emotions or narratives. Don't we regularly speak of "taste memories" a la James Beard, and hasn't smell, which is approximately 90 percent of taste, been long understood as having memory-evoking (that is, narrative and emotional) powers? The idea that food doesn't have a rich symbolism misses the fact that cuisine, like any human manipulation of materials, has a communicative dimension or that foodstuffs and cooking methods and culinary genres, not to mention the rituals surrounding meals, don't themselves come loaded with symbolism.

But to fixate on the criteria is to get stuck on the very impasse that is the problem with the debate.

Both arguments stake their claims on what aestheticians call "honorific" definitions of art. These classify objects as art based on a fixed set of attributes. They also imply that giving something the title "art" bestows judgment that it is good art.

Honorific definitions won't lead us to much understanding of either food or art. I say this based on my background as an art historian. Artworks testing the limits of prevailing notions of art have driven the story line of art history for nearly a century and a half. It's axiomatic among art historians that the definition of "art" is ever evolving. Honorific definitions don't hold up over time.

Also, they yield little insight into the things that really matter, even to those making honorific definitions. Arguments based on them tend to get passionate. That's because they aren't really motivated, as they pretend to be, by academic concerns about taxonomy. At stake instead is whether or not something deserves to be valued and, therefore, to enjoy all of the recognitions and resources accrued to things so classified. Honorific arguments hide social agendas.

What do we or should we value in food, whether or not we call it "art"? This is the real question.