The art critic and the food critic, separated by a low cubicle wall, began a conversation weeks before the Dalí Museum's "Ferran Adria: The Invention of Food" exhibition debuted. Considered perhaps the greatest living chef, Adria was at the helm of the Spanish avant-garde restaurant elBulli until it closed in 2011. He transmogrified food, introduced new technology to cooking and boldly and spectacularly defied diners' expectations. Neither critic ever had the good fortune to eat at elBulli (hey, journalists' salaries), but Adria's work, as well as the work of his proteges and acolytes, prompted each critic to ponder one main question: Can food be art?
Can food be considered art?
Laura, Times food critic: People have an art face. They stand in front of a canvas or a sculpture, appraising, head tilted slightly, sometimes arms crossed seriously across chest. They are at the museum to be amused, amazed, edified and transported. I have lots of opportunities to see people's faces at restaurants, and those faces are not art faces. We dine out first and foremost to be fed, preferably something delicious; to be with our friends and loved ones; to not have to do the dishes.
I'm going to venture that 60 percent of what we put in our pie holes is straight-up sustenance. Aimed at preserving life, it is calories, fat, salt, protein, sugar and sometimes nacho cheese dust. Then, if you're lucky, another 38 percent of the time what we eat is craft: somebody's skilled and practiced enterprise aimed at delighting and nurturing. Whether Grandma or a line cook at a top steakhouse, this is the work of someone who has refined technique over time, or maybe someone who seems to have an innate talent for the juxtapositions of flavors, textures, etc.
And that other 2 percent? Maybe it's art.
It's about intention. And also about expectations. Not as in, "Did this dish meet or exceed my expectations? Was it delicious?" I mean it more in the sense of a chef subverting or confounding diner expectations in such a way that we end up learning something profound. We walk away changed.
Lennie, Times art critic: It's a difficult question because there is no definitive answer to what art is. For centuries we had consensus on that definition. People may have disagreed on the wording of this or that definition but the validity of an art work was generally conferred by critics and experts. There was also an academic hierarchy that mandated a painting with a historical or religious theme was automatically more important than a still life.
Those assumptions began to shift during the mid-19th century when iconoclastic artists (now beloved "institutions" such as Claude Monet) pushed back against those rigid formulas. They cracked the frescoed ceiling and the art world has never been the same. Over time, it has become more inclusive. Craft, for example, always a secondary, utilitarian category, has become valued for its intrinsic aesthetic qualities. As has fashion. Who would have thought 100 years ago that the great Metropolitan Museum of Art would promote couture exhibitions as it would one of Dutch Masters?
So it seems a natural progression to include cooking, a craft, in the discussion of artistic endeavor.
I agree with you that the discussion includes intent. Art, good or bad (a subjective discussion for another day), is something made with an intention to create. Cooking is intention. So is walking. But I don't consider the act of walking art. It's potentially a sport. The level of execution of any intent is crucial to giving it elevated status.
Can food be a vehicle for meaning the way art can?
Laura: There are some flies in this particular soup. First off, personal tastes in food are so much more cemented, idiosyncratic and knee-jerk than our tastes in, say, plays or music. A revelatory dish, artfully served, that focuses on the allures of cilantro, for instance, will actively repel a fair percentage of the dining public. We all have foods we hate and foods we love, and our ability to describe precisely why is limited. "I hate cilantro because it's gross and tastes like soap" is about as elaborate as it gets. So if art is defined by our shared ability to discern value, food is tough.
Lennie: You talk about the differences in experiencing food and art. Yet I see them both as acts of consumption. Yes, a work of art usually continues to exist but the experience of consuming (seeing) it is as ephemeral as eating a fine meal. It is a memory. We can revisit the experience at both a museum and a restaurant and create another memory.
Taste, literally and figuratively, is an important element in how we define good and bad. Just as some chefs deliberately want to provoke, test limits, so do artists. We judge their efforts. I believe it's more helpful and illuminating to turn from the good-versus-bad argument and toward a discussion that acknowledges our dislike or enjoyment of something (cilantro, Jackson Pollock's drip paintings) that is accompanied by an understanding of why we feel as we do. We may then value something as meaningful or important even if we don't like it. I believe that one of the critic's roles is to help people come to understand their preferences more deeply.
Why has the discussion of food as art gained so much momentum in recent years?
Laura: Surely the rise of the "celebrity chef" has enabled us to think about auteurship in the kitchen; that our role as consumers is to understand the vision of the genius in the back room. But could it also be that critics have been instrumental in reframing chefs as artists? Sure, I could just be trying to take some of the credit, but perhaps the people who are paid to talk about food have helped to shape the idea that food at its apotheosis has the power to be moving and transformative.
Of course, it has only been recently that there is what amounts to the avant-garde in food. Nouvelle cuisine, with its stark white plates and painstaking presentations, refuted what had come before. And molecular gastronomy went one step further, transforming food altogether and flouting what diners believed to be true. (This thing that looks like an olive is in fact a reverse spherification of green olive juice.)
This all leads one to ask whether food we consider an art form can only come out of a haute cuisine kitchen, and thus whether it is only accessible to the affluent. Money is actually a tricky thing to consider. For a $10 or $20 museum admission price, anyone can see some of the greatest works of art ever produced. But a $300 meal at one of the world's top restaurants is far cheaper than attempting to own a great work of art. That $300 meal is comparable to ticket prices to a great opera or ballet.
Lennie: You're right on the accessibility point today. Remember, though, that taste makers in art, once the concept of "art" was born in the Middle Ages, made the calls. They were people with the most influence and money: those in the Catholic church, royalty, wealthy merchants. And public access to art only began in earnest in the 18th century with museums, many of which were formed from those earlier collections.
Regarding the avant-garde — or whatever we call it — it has always been a part of human development. It moves us forward. Diversifying depictions of the Virgin Mary in the Renaissance was a progressive development. Is referencing Thomas Jefferson's introduction of macaroni and cheese to America a lame example of an avant-garde culinary action for its time? Maybe the "food as art" discussion is similar to that concerning older art forms but just later to the table? (Pardon the pun.)
Since food has been a frequent subject of art for centuries, why isn't beauty the only criterion that would separate Art Food from Not Art Food?
Lennie: Laura, I'm going to make you groan with two cliches:
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
We eat first with our eyes.
The "beauty" standard has been a point of contention in art for a long time. It's probably easier to say with conviction that some food is just visually unappealing. It's still difficult, I think, to say with the same conviction that food is beautiful rather than just appealing. "Interesting" is a more democratic word if it's used with sincerity. It goes back to my point that we can intellectually understand why something has merit even if we don't find it beautiful. Lucien Freud made a point of making the subjects of his 20th century portraits look as untraditionally beautiful as possible. Even Queen Elizabeth. Yet we can't look away from them. They are compelling and powerful.
Laura: Food has always been a subject for visual artists because it is lovely and because we have emotional connections to it. A still life of fruit orients us in culture at the same time it says something about the ephemeral nature of life. But I wonder if innovation and creativity in food is fundamentally different because it is aimed at pleasing an audience. Might the imperative to please the customer trump profundity?
When I met Adria at the opening of the Dalí exhibition, he spoke through a translator.
"Creativity is pushing the limits. It is not just pleasure. I will give you something I know you don't like because I am going to provoke you. It is something to shock."
Um, check please.