Art and Artification: The Case of Gastronomy

by Dwight Furrow

Atelier crenn

In grasping the role of art in contemporary life, one noteworthy theme is the process of artification. “Artification” occurs when something not traditionally regarded as art is transformed into art or at least something art-like. As far as I know, the term was first used in a Finnish publication by Levanto, Naukkarinen, and Vihma in 2005 but has found its way into the wider discussion of aesthetics. It is a useful concept for addressing the boundaries between art and non-art that are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated in contemporary society.

The general issue I want to address is whether artification is a confused and superficial misappropriation of art, a kind of “making pretty” of ordinary objects which we normally associate with kitsch. Or should we welcome artification as an enhancement of both art and life?

Since at least the 18th Century we have had a fine arts tradition that included painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, classical music, and the performing arts of dance and theatre. But over the last century cultural phenomena from architecture, film, jazz, rock music, and hip-hop to graffiti, video games, and even some natural objects have aspired to, and to some degree succeeded in, being included in the extension of the concept of art. The world in which “art” refers to a specific kind of object is long past

Furthermore, many cultural practices including advertising, science, and education are being mixed with art in order to introduce creativity, imagination, and emotional engagement. Among this group of artified objects and practices, many people would include gastronomy, which I want to use in this essay to test assumptions about art and artification. What does this process of artification mean in the context of gastronomy?

In their sociological survey of the social processes of artification, Shapiro and Heinich include gastronomy in the category of practices that are artified but have not become full blown arts. To the contrary, I think today some food preparations are candidates for genuine works of art. This is especially true of the fantastic concoctions of molecular gastronomy (aka modernist cuisine) but I think not exclusively so, as more traditional ways of cooking can sometimes deliver the cognitive and emotional impact typical of art. I've argued elsewhere that food can have the depth of meaning and emotional resonance we associate with art, and thus there are no conceptual difficulties in viewing some food preparations as works of art. But part of the question has to do, not with conceptual matters, but with the social practices of food production and consumption and how they are related to art history and the role of art in society. Whether we view gastronomy as an emerging new art form or as a kitschy appropriation of art-like features tacked on to something ordinary depends, in part, on how we tell the story of art history.

It has become canonical to explain that, in the transition from modernism to postmodernism, art collapses into ordinary life. On this view, the modern period of art (roughly the 18th through mid-20th centuries) involved the progressive separation of art from life with the fine arts being valued in themselves, not because they performed a function, instructed the audience or served some larger social purpose. In the process, art gradually discards the techniques of representation toward increasing abstraction. “Art for art's sake” was the slogan invented to describe the autonomous status of art as it shed its connection to representation, distanced itself from the rest of culture, and became concerned solely with the logic of its own development. The result is the high modernism of abstract painting, Schoenberg's 12-tone row, and novels that dispense with most elements of narrative structure.

However, this approach to art runs aground in the mid-20th Century. With modernist art having devolved into an arid, academic exercise and its pretensions to progress unmasked, in the contemporary, postmodern world this separation of art from life has collapsed. Art has been fully absorbed into the world of commodity production and entertainment. There is no longer a distinction between high culture and pop culture. Kitsch and camp are artistic styles to be thrown into the pluralist mix with other styles from art history, and postmodern artists use collage and fragmentation to disrupt genres and display attitudes of irony and parody toward anything that takes a stand. Art lacks deep meaning, all value commitments are unstable and insincere, and the artist as genius gives way to art as a democratized mash-up of superficial images and sounds.

According to this story of emerging postmodernism, food is just the latest in a series of profane objects to be gussied up and presented as art in order to serve the commercial market. For unreconstructed modernists, this constitutes the further degradation of art but, in any case, there is nothing profound going on in mixing food and art. For under postmodern conditions, art is just entertainment like anything else. To artify is simply to mix features of art production or consumption with some other sphere in order to enhance market value, food being the latest candidate.

But certain features of the food revolution belie this analysis.

Of course we eat to satisfy hunger and gain nutrition. However, food no longer serves a purely utilitarian function as it did throughout much of our history. As the food revolution in the U.S. blossoms, “foodies” eat for pure enjoyment and to experience a variety of meanings that food has as a symbol of home, cultural traditions, and moral identities. Furthermore, as our lives are increasingly dominated by the values of the workplace—competition, speed-up, disruption, the pursuit of profit and efficiency—the culture of the table is that place in our lives where an alternative way of life can take root if only in our imaginations. The culture of the table values slow, patient savoring, authenticity, personal creativity and a sense of community in contrast to the corporate world that respects none of these. In short, food has acquired intrinsic (i.e. non-instrumental) value. It is the dimension of life in which we put care before commerce and pleasure before production.

Obviously there are aspects of the food revolution that depend on media saturation, celebrity, and consumerism. The culture of the table is hardly autonomous from the rest of culture. Yet, its commitment to an alternative value system is real and explains the emergence of food as a modern art form.

But this commitment to an alternative system of values suggests that the modernism/postmodernism frame cannot explain this cultural shift, since our preoccupation with food does not appear to be fully absorbed into commodity production and superficial entertainment. Instead, the artification of food offers a profound shift in fundamental meanings, a shift that is best explained not by the modernism/postmodernism story but by the alternative narrative offered by French philosopher Jacques Rancière.

According to Rancière, much art throughout history followed a structured system of norms specifying what could be the proper subject of art, the techniques that allowed for its skillful production, and how these art objects were to be appreciated. However, in the 19th Century traditional art is largely, although not completely, replaced by what he calls the “aesthetic regime of art”. The “aesthetic regime” is a set of beliefs about the nature of art, what it can do and how it is related to society, the “conditions that make it possible for words, shapes, movements and rhythms to be felt and thought as art.” (From Rancière, Aisthesis: Themes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art) In other words, art was about a kind of experience, not a kind of object.

As a result, inexorably throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the norms governing the nature of art and its proper subject matter are swept away, the boundaries between genres are increasingly fragile, and aesthetics as a distinct kind of experience and subject matter is born. Modernism far from being the advent of the autonomy of art is rather a kind of sensibility, a way of looking at everyday objects as art-like. Ordinary objects acquired depth of meaning through their artistic presentation but at the same time these presentations raised questions about how art is related to or different from life, in the absence of rules for distinguishing in advance the objects of art from the products of everyday life. That difference now has to be negotiated rather than taken for granted. The aesthetic regime enables us to see art and life as continually overlapping, while remaining distinctly different. Art is not autonomous from everyday life as the modernist would have it. Neither is it fully absorbed into culture as the postmodernists would argue. Art's autonomy and heteronomy are inextricably linked and in constant tension.

Thus the chaos of the contemporary art world, where anything can be a potential art object, is not an exhausted reaction to the overweening radical pretensions and abstractions of modernism but is an extension of a change in sensibility that occurred long ago in the emergence of aesthetic experience. Art hasn't lost its autonomy from culture as the modernism/postmodernism story would have it but continues the process of continually renegotiating this territory by recasting the stage on which things appear.

This ability to reorder our patterns of sensory experience gives art political potential. For Rancière, aesthetic art induces political change, not because it takes politics as its theme but because it alters what can be seen, heard or said—it redistributes voices, practices, and objects by revising the meaning of what appears to our senses. And this ability to assign multiple meanings to objects is a result of the ambiguous, complex relationship between art and life. Art is dependent on everyday objects and practices, and nevertheless distinct from the everyday, placing the objects on a pedestal and highlighting features that in everyday experience we pass over.

In Rancière's telling, the key conceptual innovation that makes possible the aesthetic regime is Schiller's interpretation of Kant in Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind. Kant argued that aesthetic judgments do not conform to the categories that made the understanding of ordinary objects possible. Aesthetic judgment involves the “free play” of the imagination and understanding—art forces us to imaginatively restructure objects without recourse to rules. Schiller, following up on Kant's appeal to imaginative play, thought of aesthetics as a “heterogeneous” sensibility that unravels the hierarchies and divisions of reason, including the structures of society that regulate relations between the ruler and the ruled. Schiller argues that aesthetics carries “the promise of equality, the promise of a new way of sharing the common world”.

The concept of “play” is central because, through play, the beautiful and life are linked. Schiller writes:”Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly Man when he is playing.” And thus, Rancière defines play as “any activity that has no end other than itself, that does not intend to gain any effective power over things or persons.”(from Aesthetics and its Discontents) Play re-distributes the sensible and makes possible new forms of sensory experience that transform the background assumptions through which we judge what can be seen and heard but has no purpose other than enjoyment.

Which brings us back to food as a form of contemporary art form. Food is something we require everyday and its production and consumption play a central role in providing structure to everyday life. Yet in contemporary society it occupies that borderland between art and the everyday which, in Rancière's view, it is the role of the aesthetic regime of art to negotiate. As noted above, the culture of the table introduces an alternative set of values in contrast to those that are dominant in our lives today. Through limiting its instrumental value and acquiring intrinsic value our relationship with food fits the Schiller/ Rancière conception of play. And as we develop aesthetic forms of cooking and eating our conception of time is reordered. Whereas time compression and speed-up order our lives to conform to the demands of more production, the imperative to slow down and taste the tomatoes is a key feature of the food revolution. As I argue more thoroughly in American Foodie, the culture of the table is about the recovery of contemplation and stillness that enable us to bring new sensory experiences to consciousness. This reordering of the sensible is precisely the function of art as Rancière understands it.

Thus the example of gastronomy shows that artification need not be a superficial importation of features of art to everyday life that devalues art. If artification provides a richer more contemplative approach to food, and makes us more attentive to the deeper meanings that food has, then artification enhances both art and life, and makes food a candidate for a genuine art.

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution