I have been thinking a lot about art lately — what makes something art, and what people accept as art. It’s probably because last month Tilda Swinton was periodically sleeping in a box at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Given the sheer volume of ludicrous happenings that appear on the list of legitimate art, it occurred to me that food is hardly, if ever, on that list. I think it should be. And I am going to start a campaign.
The subject is also on my mind because I recently read a New York Times opinion piece by William Deresiewicz on the subject of food as art, which concluded that food cannot be art, even though this recent wave of food appreciation has, in his estimation, replaced the fine arts in our culture.
Cooking should, of course, be considered one of the fine arts. It should be included in college art-history survey classes and referred to in all lessons on the humanities. Why? Because it is as much an art form as painting, sculpture, music, dance, photography, ceramics, fashion, literature and sleeping in a box.
To be clear, I am not talking about artistic renderings of food, which are numerous and awesome. Arcimboldo’s Renaissance faces composed of food, Dutch still lifes, Cézanne’s baskets of apples and Wayne Thiebaud’s cakes are all super, but we already know they’re art. Nor am I talking about random food. Anyone can dig a carrot out of the dirt for nourishment, but it is only the culinary artist who can glaze the same carrot to perfection — not too soft, not too firm, not bitterly caramelized, but beautifully, butterfully golden amber. This is a skill, a craft and, in the right hands, an art.
But not according to Deresiewicz, who uses all of his favorite hipster foodie lingo to do two things: make sure we understand that he is a foodie, and preach to us about how our passion for food, or what he labels “foodism,” is not art. His first argument denies food the right to be art because it is not narrative and not representational. He is doubly wrong. First, we can all agree that art is not solely defined as representational. Far from it: Think of Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, Jackson Pollack, Ad Reinhardt or Barnett Newman. Second, yes, food is too narrative, stupid! The aforementioned perfectly glazed carrots tell the story of agriculture, of Escoffier, of the chef who prepared it, of the evening you are enjoying it and the company you are keeping. It is also reminding you of several carrot experiences you’ve had in the past, perhaps a dish that was much worse, cooked by a person you loved (or hated). Each plate is a story, both internal and external. There’s the story the artist (chef) wants you to know, and the one you are having in your own head. This internal/external narrative is the same way we experience any art, including works by Mondrian, Malevich, Pollack, Reinhardt and Newman.
Deresiewicz also claims a good meal cannot give you insight into other people, or help you take inventory of your soul. Again, very little of what we call art does this now, and the work that does so affects only a few people in such a manner. On any given day people shuffle through art museums. Do they all take inventory of their souls? Of course not. It is a ridiculous definition of art. Sure, some people may have a soulful epiphany watching Tilda sleep. But so, too, will some find revelation in that dish of carottes Vichy.
One may not consider an apple a story. But neither is a painting of an apple. Sometimes an apple is just an apple. Then again, sometimes the cool crisp bite of an autumnal apple is a reminder of Johnny Appleseed, or William Tell, or New York City, or Snow White. What story do Cézanne’s apples tell? A guy left an apple on the table. Whoop de doo. Yes, Cézanne talks more about vision, perception, angle and the picture plane. But how is that any more important than the physical nuances of biting into the apple — the temperature, the texture, the acid-sugar balance, the way it makes your tongue feel, your throat, your tummy? And your heart — are you eating it after a long day of hiking? Is it in your lunch box at middle school? Did you get it from the soup kitchen? All of this is a narrative. A story. A meaning that is beautiful, or tragic, or boring.
The assertion that food cannot be art because art must be symbolic sent me straight into a culinary nerd rage, listing all the symbolic foods we eat — wedding cake, birthday cake, every Christmas bread ever made, the entire Passover seder, spring lamb, Thanksgiving turkey, pomegranates, oysters and on and on and on. Plus, every composed plate ever created by a thoughtful chef symbolizes something — the seasons, the culture, the skill, the artistic vision. Food is very symbolic. In fact, I would go so far as to say that food is the most symbolic form of art there is. Food has a code that everyone can crack — and we don’t need Sister Wendy to decipher it for us.
Finally, Deresiewicz insists that Proust talking about a madeleine is art, but the madeleine itself is not art. To that, I say again, baloney. This exquisite cookie has an extensive history, a temperamental procedure, an expected caliber of execution, a perceived outcome and myriad variations that change as frequently as fashion. There are great chefs who execute the madeleine flawlessly, and others who mutilate it. It is a talent that takes finesse, skill, education and experience. Just like all great art. I feel confident in stating that there is more culture in that tiny cookie than you will ever find watching Tilda sleeping.
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author, can be found in the kitchen of Heirloom Bakery in South Pasadena. She teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.