feast ur eyes: the art of food
We know food can be pretty, but can it be metaphysical? Alvin Tan examines the overlap between food and art
* * * * * *
Since the beginning of civilisation, food has been intricately linked with art, providing artists with materials, inspiration, and sustenance. Its imprint is ubiquitous in art, from early dyes made from plants, to still lifes of fruit bowls, Arcimboldo’s food portraits, Warhol’s soup cans, and more recently installations, sculptures, and performance art involving food. The tradition of food as art is thus long-standing and important as a narrative of changing societal attitudes towards food and foodstuffs. However, the other side of the narrative—the art of food—is less often considered, even though the artistry of the culinary arts is not lesser in value—and is wholly deserving of exploration and appreciation.
Perhaps the main reason why food is often overlooked is the fact that it is such a common-place item, even being taken for granted, almost, as a norm and an expectation. Additionally, its primary motivation is for nutrition, rather than being an end in itself—as such, function often supersedes form, as can be attested by students who have had to endure less-than- palatable school lunches. However, food also has a “high-prestige” variety: the kind consumed initially only by royalty or nobility, and then by the upper-class, and now by anyone willing to put in slightly more money. Food is no longer merely for sustenance; it instead has become a symbol of status (whether social or economic), and yet it is one that is somewhat more available and more accessible, which has led to the proliferation of restaurateurs, patissiers, and other cuisiniers who create food of ever-increasing quality.
In that light, food has several unique characteristics as an art form. Firstly, it is very heavily contextually embedded. Every cuisine betrays its origins in its ingredients, combinations, techniques, and presentations; even in our contemporary globalised world, the fusion food that arises from intercultural contact still has roots in certain places and times. Food then serves as a commentary on the society from which it originates. One example of this phenomenon is how some seafood such as lobsters have vacillated between being in the domain of the upper class or the lower class. This reflection of perceptions harks back to conversations about so-called “high art” and “low art”, distinguished by their emphases on aesthetics and function respectively, or to the concept of anti-art, embodied in pieces like Duchamp’s readymades.
Another distinctive feature of food is the necessity to produce it consistently in fairly large quantities. In most cases—even for food at higher price points—food must be produced for large groups at once, resulting in a juxtaposition of bespokeness and efficiency. Rather than drive culinary art to mediocrity, however, this increased pressure has resulted in new methods such as process specialisation, in which each step is carried out by a different sous chef who is particularly adept at that process, as well as new technologies like sous-vide cooking and molecular gastronomy, which can reliably produce food with consistent qualities. As such, the construction of food can remain thoughtful but not overthought. This is similar in some ways to the “separation of invention and production”(1) in art, with the creator (i.e. conceptualiser) of a piece of art not necessarily also being its executor (i.e. implementer)—in particular, this does not reduce the artistry of the process or of the artwork, but points strongly to the notion that multiple people can exhibit co-ownership over a piece of art. The designer may be critical to the naissance of any art, but the craftspeople are also essential in ensuring that the art is executed with finesse.
When it comes to evaluating this finesse, then, the hallmark of good food is three-dimensional: it must be pleasing to the visual, olfactory, and gustatory senses. These are surprisingly stringent aesthetic demands, because they are not independent, but rather are interconnected and interdependent. The skill of a chef is thus displayed in their ability to find the precarious balance that satisfies all three facets simultaneously. Recently, a fourth dimension has entered the picture, which is that of nutrition—food must not only be tasty, but also be healthy and nourishing. And yet, with these constraints, cuisiniers continue to be innovative with their gastronomic creations. This speaks volumes about the notion of creative limitation—the idea that restrictions may sometimes counterintuitively produce solutions that are more creative(2).
Fig. 1: The ideal contemporary dish has to be good for the eyes, nose, mouth, and body;
here, chef Jenny Dorsey displays her spin on the classic surf-and- turf
The world of dining, also, has continued to change and morph in many ways. The performative aspect of cuisine has become increasingly important as a component of culinary art, and is displayed in open kitchens, in which the act of preparing dishes also becomes part of the art, consumed by the restaurant-goer as a sort of visual appetiser. This is perhaps epitomised in the Japanese concept of omakase, which translates to “I leave it up to you”—the patron relinquishes their freedom to choose the dishes, leaving the decision-making to the chef. Then, the whole process of dining—preparation, selection, and service—becomes an intimate performance of the chef for the sole audience of the customer, showcasing not only the chef’s culinary skill, but also their ability to create a coherent palette, and to engage the patron with the sequence of dishes. To be a chef is thus to be an artist.
Fig. 2: Open kitchens emphasise the performative nature of cooking
Dining is also heavily influenced by the media, and the rise of social media such as Instagram has proliferated the embedding of food into the form of images. This is somewhat interesting, because this mediated representation would omit all the dimensions of food other than its visual presentation. A plausible explanation comes from the idea that food is a status symbol, such that experiencing food contributes more to prestige than merely visually appreciating it. Another related phenomenon is that of double depersonalisation: firstly, when the dish is abstracted from the chef who prepared it, and secondly, when the image is made available for reposting, and can thus be abstracted from the person who photographed it. These peculiarities of food make it a unique cultural phenomenon in the digital era, and it will be interesting to see how the consumption of food continues to be modulated by advancements in technology and the dynamics of media.
Given the evolution of food as a social item, it remains an open question how food and art are interrelated—should food be considered a subset of art, or should it intersect with art in certain ways? Perhaps it is more useful to think of the food-art interface as less clearly defined. This ethos was heralded by a group of artists led by Gordon Matta-Clark who ran the FOOD restaurant in SoHo; food was prepared by whichever artists were cooking on that day, and the dishes were left up to the artists’ choice, such that there was no distinction between the entities of ‘food’ and ‘art’—for example, one meal that was offered at the restaurant was live brine shrimp swimming in egg whites(3) , which was simultaneously an art piece considering the nature of life, and also meant to be consumed as an actual dish.
Indeed, the concurrence of food and art suggest that they may not be clearly delineatable; instead, they are inextricably linked and intertwined. Art and food both permeate human lives in many ways, and thinking about food as art, food like art, or food being art can help us better appreciate how modern culture has shaped and is shaped by both forces. Food is not merely a routine necessity of daily life then; rather, its content, culture, and creation, are all fingerprints of the artistry that makes us human.
(1) Looking Behind the Curtains: The Mass Production of Art. Retrieved from https://www.widewalls.ch/contemporary-art-production/
(2) Embrace the Shake. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/phil_hansen_embrace_the_shake
(3) When Artists Lived in SoHo: A Look Back at the Restaurant FOOD by Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden. Retrieved from https://untappedcities.com/2013/12/12/when-artists-lived-in-soho-a-look-back-at-the-restaurant-food-by-gordon-matta-clark-and-carol-goodden/