The Big Debate: Can Food Be Serious Art?

Can radical food be a form of radical art? Art critic Blake Gopnik and chef Jose Andres spend an afternoon at minibar to taste and explore. Video by Jennifer Carpenter for The Washington PostVideo by Jennifer Carpenter/The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Can't: There's no object left over when a meal is finished.
Can So: Music doesn't last, either. Each time a dish is prepared, it's a "performance" of a recipe that will survive over time. At elBulli, the artistic experience is ultra-intense, concentrated into the few seconds it takes to taste, chew and swallow.

Can't: It can't go beyond immediate sensory pleasures.
Can So: It can talk about history, culture, ethnicity, politics, the body. In fact, it almost always does. Eating an elBulli rabbit ear is not about flavor and mouth feel.

Can't: It can be experienced by only a tiny number of people.
Can So: You don't measure an art form by the size of its audience. Way fewer than 8,000 of their contemporaries ever heard most of what Bach or Mozart wrote; almost no one looked at Vermeer in his own day.

Can't: Its goal is to feed people, so it's too functional to count as serious art.
Can So: Paintings, photos and videos have their "functional" versions, too. The function is just the scaffold that food-art is built around. ElBulli's "art" goes way beyond the calories it delivers.

Can't: Restaurants are businesses, and the bottom line always rules.
Can So: All art has issues around the money that's required to make it. A great chef like Adrià finds ways to subsidize the needs of his artmaking. As ultra-deluxe meals go, elBulli's 200-Euro prix-fixe is cheaper than most. And it's way cheaper than most original visual art, even by near-total unknowns.

Can't: Fancy restaurants are about status and money, not art.
Can So: Some, maybe, but elBulli feels more friendly than fancy. The decor is banal, waiters are young and cheerful, service is never obsequious. And it's clear that, while you're consuming it, Adria's art matters far more than any big-shot guest. Few ties or gems are seen among diners, who seem more cultured than crass. As we down our rabbit brains, there's a spirit that says "we're all in this together." And, since reservations are said to be first-come, first served, all but the poorest art lover could save and scrimp for a visit.

Can't: A meal is just one thing after another.
Can So: Yes, and at elBulli, you're gripped for five hours, without any plot or narrative to keep you in your seat. It succeeds where non-narrative film or theater or literature has had a much harder time. Even most music calls on a tonal "plot" to keep us involved. The polyphony served up at elBulli makes Bach's seem like a jingle.

Can't: Food never manages to be disruptive or critical.
Can So: Does any other art form threaten its audience quite as cooking does? People may turn away in disgust from a dance or a painting, but they'll retch and weep at certain elBulli dishes. (Waiters warn you about the most challenging ones and let you opt out.) An elBulli meal is about a tense balance of enjoyment and disgust, satiation and excess. Along with a bit of fear.

Can't: Contemporary art is way more complex and conceptual than food could ever be.
Can So: An elBulli meal is "site-specific" -- it wouldn't be the same eaten anywhere else. It's "relational" -- it's about the social experience of eating it. It's "performative" -- there's theater in the cooking, the serving, the eating. It's "political" -- it's about the coercion of a dictator-chef and our willingness or not to go along. It's "anti-market" -- there's no collectible left over to make a profit on. It's "anti-material" -- it's as much about the labor that goes into inventing, making and serving the food as about the material objects consumed.

Can't: Food never manages to be profound.
Can So: So far, maybe not as much as it could be. But let's see where Adriànism heads next.

-- Blake Gopnik

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