Imagine yourself as a child, frolicking through your parents’ backyard and digging up worms. Your mother calls you in from the kitchen for dinner and you bound in through the back door, smelling the roast she’s been tending to for the past few hours. At the table your father sits reading the newspaper, your sister fidgeting with a bow in her hair. Before you is the same familiar spread: off-white plates, clear glasses, spotless silverware, uniform serving utensils, and of course, the butter dish. You think nothing of the materials off of which you shovel food into your mouth, moving as quickly as possible to resume your outdoor activities. For hours your mother slaved over the stove to prepare your meal, but that won’t cross your mind until present day when, as an adult, you prepare meals for yourself and maybe even your own children. Now is a time when you’ve come to understand the worth of quality Tupperware, the importance of a sturdy teakettle.
On display this summer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is an exhibition which allows you to take your newfound appreciation for kitchenware to another level. “The Main Dish” is composed of display cases plainly contrived so as to draw focus on the objects within them, like original Tupperware or decades old decanters. The arrangements evoke a strange feeling of appreciation for kitchenware as art, as many of the items are expertly crafted yet have obvious functionality. The show centers around the notion that the gadgets, cutlery, and dishware in today’s kitchens mirror the qualities of ideal homemakers: “polished, efficient, organized/contained, decorative/entertaining, and clean/tidy.” MORE
If the Marx brothers had ever taken to food writing, they might have produced something very like F.T. Marinetti’s marvelously slapstick work, The Futurist Cookbook. The provocative (and regrettably Mussolini-approved) Italian artist Marinetti was infatuated by all things sleek, sharp, electronic, and shiny, but he was also an avowed enemy of pasta, which he denounced as a pathetic Italian addiction to nostalgia and tradition. Instead, he preferred his Futurist meals to combine the radical use of color, shape, music, lighting, and ideas, leaving taste and nutrition off the list entirely. In fact, the modern vitamin supplement industry should make Marinetti a patron saint: He argued that all sustenance should come from pills, freeing up food to be the raw material of art, preferably to be consumed while listening to the soothing hum of an airplane engine.
His oddball cuisine debuted in the first (and only) Futurist restaurant, in 1929 Turin — an angular, alumina-plated interior called La Taverna del Santopalato, or Tavern of the Holy Palate. It was an event Marinetti considered on a par with the discovery of America and the fall of the Bastille (“the first human way of eating is born!”) His cuisine was then replicated at various Futurist events across Europe, to the horror of many pasta-lovers, and his 1932 cookbook has both delighted and mystified gastronomists ever since.
In the 16th and 17th century, when the renowned painters of other European countries largely painted religious scenes and royal portraiture, the Netherlands developed genres of painting that reflected the mercantilist, increasingly secular culture that produced them. Wealthy merchants and other upper-class landowners had buying power to rival the Catholic church, and their patronage encouraged guilds to practice highly technical, sumptuous paintings of things: seashells and flowers, musical instruments, fine silver, and of course food — all improbably arranged onto an overflowing table and rendered in luminous layers of oil. MORE
You probably did not have to think about your answer for more than a moment: Whether yes or no, you likely responded to a gut feeling (if you’ll excuse the phrase). On the ground, most of us identify works of art with our own variations of the famous Supreme Court stance on obscenity—I know it when I see it. But try to expand your instinctive response into an argument, as William Deresiewicz did in American Scholar last week, and you’ll find yourself on shakier ground. For good reason: That tiny word, art, has launched a thousand volumes theorizing what can or should go by its name. To mine a few treatises on the subject: Should art teach and guide, or exist without purpose and for its own sake? Should looking at art feel violently awakening or pleasantly contemplative? Does the finest art refer to larger stories and ideas or nothing beyond its own composition? Deresiewicz makes his case that food is not art on the premise that art must be narrative or at least symbolic—which would also designate Imagist poetry, abstract expressionism, and numerous musical compositions as mere craftmanship. It’s a good illustration that without a solid defense of what art is, any judgment about what art isn’t will be unsound.
But integrity of argument aside: “Is food art?” is the wrong question to ask.
Back in June, McSweeney’s ran “An Open Letter to People Who Take Pictures Of Food With Instagram.” The letter was not a supportive one. It echoed the sentiments of many an internet rant zone, where folks often complain about their friends (or “Friends”) who can’t go five minutes without tweeting what they’re eating.
Similarly, BuzzFeed’s “Why Instagram is Easily the Most Annoying App” is nothing more than slide after slide of DIY food shots with pissed-off commentary like “Thanks for making pizza look like herpes.”
“What happened to everyone complaining about how much they have to do today? Or the posting of emotionally ambiguous song lyrics?” reads the Open Letter. And later on: “. . . I really, truly, absolutely, do not care about you or your food.”