From the Director’s Desk: Is Food Art, A National Inquiry



 The 2013 Culinaria Queries will culminate in New Orleans with the annual Contemporary Issues in Food & Drink Lecture Series presented by Domino Foods, Inc.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

7 PM

The Old U.S. Mint 400 Esplanade Ave, New Orleans, LA 

Free and Open to the Public

  Ken Albala, Professor of History at University of the Pacific and Editor of Big City Food Biographies, a series published by AltaMira Press, will be this year’s speaker. This lecture will be hosted by the The Louisiana State Museum and the Friends of the Cabildo.

About 11 months ago, William Deresiewicz did SoFAB a big favor. He wrote an op ed piece for the New York Times entitled “A Matter of Taste” in which he rather boldly asserted that food was not and could not be art. He lamented the fact that food had replaced high culture in the hearts and minds of young people. Upon reading this short piece I almost reflexively began to refute many of the points made. But I was speaking to the air. He asserted, for example, that a peach could not be art – not even the perfect peach. I agreed that simply what is found in nature, unmanipulated by human hands was not art. But the peach, cooked, seasoned, wrapped with heat or cold and transformed, could be art.

Obviously this was a matter worthy of serious exploration and should not be dismissed in the 800 words of a New York Times op ed piece. The French Enlightenment, the artistic orders of Japan, the food of China, and even the considerations of Indian art made a simple statement about food and art impossible. And the people of the country deserved to have this discussion in person with real debate, and not just within the confines of a blog, a Twitter feed, or a Facebook comment chain. Given the current place of food in the national culture, the topic is not only timely, but perhaps transformative. And thus we had a reason to move forward with a plan to have a series of panels around the country. We would explore the question. And in traveling around the country – exploring a common question – SoFAB would be becoming a national provocateur. I moderated the panels in Durham, NC and in New York.  SoFAB Vice President and Director of SoFAB Media, Philip Dobard, moderated the panel in Los Angeles.

But exactly what was the question?  We needed a pithy presentation of a question that would spark debate, galvanize opinion, and maybe even engender a few sneers. So we came up with a formal name for the series – Culinaria Query.  And we would ask the question around the country. Is food art? It is a broadly worded, yet direct question. And with the help of friends around the country we have held three queries.

The series began in Durham at Duke University. At Duke we considered the question from a somewhat cultural perspective. We tried to define what art is in the American society. Panelists examined the religious attitudes toward pleasure based on the senses, for example, and how that might make Puritans purposefully not seek pleasure in food and thus not find food art. The gender and racial issues of who prepares the food and how that colors how we see food as art were also considered. And the ever practical restaurateur discussed the craft of preparing the same dishes every day as opposed to the art of a particular dish. It was the audience at Duke which kept the panel from becoming too involved in the anthropology of the question and kept insisting, “But is it art?”  The audience wanted a literal answer.

The L.A. edition of the Culinaria Query & Lecture Series took place August 10 in the Mark Taper Auditorium of the Los Angeles Central Library. SoFAB Institute Vice President Philip M. Dobard moderated a panel featuring star chefs and noted food journalists. Betty Fussell, James Beard Award-winning author, set the tone early, arguing that food, as is the case with any cultural artifact, is by definition art. Chef Brandon Boudet, a recent champion of the Food Network’s “Chopped”, stated that while he’d be the last person to refer to himself as an artist, he’d admit that his work in building and refining a recipe is certainly an artistic process. His work in the kitchen, however, is pure craft, not unlike that of someone laboring in the studio of a Renaissance master, endeavoring to execute the master’s plan. According to Dobard, “While they began with a healthy measure of disagreement on the subject, the panelists, a diverse group drawn from across several disciplines, including the visual arts, in the end discovered the dissonance between their views was not nearly so great as they might have believed. In fact, they left the session more or less in accord that while food is not in and of itself art, its preparation and consumption certainly can constitute a creative process that emotionally and otherwise engages both creator and consumer.”

And there was a third panel in New York City.  In New York at The New School we had a terrific panel of artists, brewers, and chefs. The artists, who reflected a decidedly post-modern position on the definition of art, clearly did not think of food as art. Thinking of food as art would mean that tasting good would not be its primary goal. For example, a true artistic exploration of food might include poison or vile things presented as food. And here the question of food as a medium to create art – such as being the subject of photographs or the medium of sculpture – was also a serious one. The question of elitism and the cost of eating food that might rise to the level of art was a major aspect of the exploration, as was the role of the critic in all of this. Frankly the discussion had to come to a close, but the audience and the panelists seemed unready for it to end.

There is a final lecture scheduled in New Orleans on October 10.  Ken Albala, erudite and entertaining culinary historian and scholar will hold forth on the topic. A lively as that discussion is likely to be, it is unlikely that we will resolve anything. And in honor of the question the Old US Mint has pulled an Arcimboldo, a painting filled with food and trompe l’oeil, from storage for the occasion. Next year we will prepare an exhibit about the issues raised by the 2013 inquiry. The lecture is sponsored by Domino Foods, Inc.

Of course, now we have to look ahead to 2014. The series ends with Ken’s talk and we will be ready to begin anew. Fortunately there will be no end to the questions that we can pose. For 2014 we are going to add a few extra stops on our journey around the country.  We will be exploring a totally different question. The 2014 question is “What Is the Skinny on Obesity?”  That will allow us to explore many aspects of the question – the scientific, nutritional, cultural, legal and human sides of the issue.

Join us when our panel is presented in your area.  And we are open to a question for 2015.  Send us your suggestions.  All of this has sprung from the random reading of a New York Times piece coupled with SoFAB’s desire to look at food and drink with some intellectual rigor. With a little input from the audience we may work together to create more interesting questions without answers.


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