Arts & Culture

Is food art? As chefs dazzle our senses, a new definition of art is needed

Should chefs and gustatory works have their own wing at the MoMA? Why is the institutional definition of art limited to creations we can see, hear, and touch but food remains impossibly pegged as craft? Does a perfectly formed quiche have any less place in a gallery than an exquisite painting does on a diner wall?

I faced this perception head-on when I sat on an arts council jury in 2014. The council’s strict guidelines ultimately forced us to disqualify an event that claimed food as an artistic discipline. Despite a smorgasbord of acceptable mediums, practices, and styles, mainstream grants leave meal preparation off the table. Rhiannon Vogl, a curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada, says that “to allow food into a gallery space is quite precarious. Funding-wise, that’s a tough call. To say that a festival of food isn’t an ‘arts festival’ seems problematic. Are we talking food trucks or gastronomy? Where’s the line?”

It’s a nagging question.

Vogl and I looked at the parallels: the last bites of dessert compared with a song fading as the needle reaches the run-out groove; a hair-thin fillet versus a ballet dancer defying the laws of Newton; contrast a prospective lover wooing their date over a sumptuous dish with Nan Goldin snapping a pre-coital nude.

And then there’s intention. Has your grandmother’s inimitable beef stroganoff ever failed to elicit togetherness or a sense of cultural identity? Whether to dazzle, confound, calm, or transport, food preparers have an agenda. Often, keeping your gullet from rumbling isn’t their priority.

So shouldn’t intention, rather than the medium or level of training, define creative output as art? Maybe a perfect Chicago deep-dish pizza doesn’t belong on a plinth, but it feels as though our centuries-old definition of “fine art” may be a leftover that needs to be tossed. It’s this perception of meal preparation as a quotidian craft that Ken Albala, a professor of history and director of food studies at the University of the Pacific, tackled in his 2015 public lecture given in Texas: “Is Food Art?”

“… we eat on the go, we eat while doing something else … people think of food as fuel … above all else, it’s this mindless grazing, especially of industrial, mass-produced [food], that makes [it] seem like anything but an art form …”

In that respect, food should be slotted alongside flip-flops and Ikea cabinets. One could argue that meals, unlike music or paintings, have one role: to keep us fed. They simply do not have the power to elicit extremes of emotion.

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Courtesy of Atelier

Albala goes on to declare that food not only has the potential to evoke the sublime but also it is the only art that “becomes us” as we consume it and, in that respect, should be considered the highest form of art there is. Think of the infinite times you have been struck dumb by a meal or how a dish has led you down a path of cultural discovery. I remember having my taste buds reborn by a congee food truck in Vancouver. I wormhole back to that moment every time I eat the stuff and would never hesitate to rank it as a moving cultural experience.

Indeed, there have been a number of notable examples in which food is the medium demanding the art tag: Jana Sterbak’s notorious meat dress, say, or Allen Ginsberg’s posthumous fish chowder. But is it up to our galleries and arts councils to define how we classify art? Not necessarily so. To this point, Vogl summed it up by de-sanctifying the weight of our national institutions a little. “Institutions of spiritual experience, big or small, are just as important [as national institutions] … whether going to an art gallery and being moved by a beautiful object or going to a restaurant and having an extraordinary meal.”

It was a bit of a revelation. Does meal preparation deserve its own gallery wing? Probably not, as the art of food has more temples dedicated to it than all our exhibition spaces combined. Our kitchens and restaurants are our studios and stages; they are purpose-built workshops to cultivate our creativity and curiosity.

Armed with a new definition of art in my back pocket, I’ll be experiencing my next restaurant meal a little differently. I’ll leaf through the menu as I might an exhibition catalogue. I will ready myself, fork in hand, to soak in the details. And I’ll begin the process of consuming another’s creativity: an edible work of art.

Rolf Klausener is a creative director, musician, and writer working in Ottawa