|"On the Loss of a Three-Letter Word," by Bill Arning in Food Culture: Tasting Identities and Geographies in Art, Ed. by Barbara Fischer, Toronto: YYZ Books, 1999, pp. 81-87.|
The art world has seemed to be on a nearly century-long path of self-obliteration through relentlessly de-defining its own borders. Of course, not every artist, critic, curator or institution has followed suit. There arestill plenty of folks happily working day in and day out on projectw which, by anyone's definition, from a museum cruator to the donut seller at Krispy Kreme, are safely within the land of "art" as it has been defined since the Renaissance. But enough has gone on in this century, and at a massively accelerated pace in the nineties, whose art-ness cannot be taken for granted that whether there are any unbreached borders remaining at the limits of our realm is today an open question, and possibly amoot point. Raves, parties, gardens, funiture design, Ikebana, zines, TV commercials, radio stations, rock videos, social work, house-cleaning, sanitation work, bodybuilding, marriages, sex, animal breeding and training, security systems, fashion shows, dare-devil stunts, and plastic surgery have all occured as art. The above list is by no means exhaustive of all the activities that resonably educated and cultured people may encounter in a gallery or museum and whose validity as art on is requried to weigh if one is to take these works as the serious propositions they art inteded to be.
When we discuss these issues ther is a self-protective urge that causes us to stifle and censor ourselvs, because none of us wants to have to define art. Every definition offered fails the test of whether it can reasonably contain all the items that are placed within it, adn debates over the term tend to immediately become annoying semantic games that make aesthetic theories more taxing thatn enlightneing. Instead we debate the limits of the term by proxy. We look at one show, one provocation, and assess its success or failure. In so doing we subtestually argue our definitions without ever stating them. We are here to discuss recent art that has used food and cooking as its modus operandi. In each case that I will consider, the viewer has had the option to ingest something in the course of the piece, and I will be discussing them not only as art, but in each case as successful art. Therefore I must offer my working definition of the "A-word" here, though it pains me and will probably one day embarrass me for some obviously flawed aspect that I am, as I write today, overlooking.
Nevertheless I must attempt it here. Artis (be brave — just keep typing — the words will come) "the effect of either an object or other phenomena that serves as a catalyst for thought, framed within the context of an art-discourse by either its author, creator or some other contextualizer." I think I can safely say that this definition can cover both a painting by Rembrandt and a pirate radio station by Lincoln Tobier. In the postwar period a sensibility emerged that made the transgressing of established boundaries in itself heroic, and I might add fun. While we have early examples of food work, such as The Futurist Cookbook or Meret Oppenheim's Spring Banquet, it was really with the beginnings of the a lternative space movement that the systems for supporting and distributing information about such works became effective.
Food, I propose, has been a particularly appropriate fringe art activity because the growing, preparing, offering, eating of and the cleaning up after food have always operated under the same rules, the same dynamic, as the exchange between artist and viewer that characterize contemporary art. By merging the two we simply overlay one language on top of another revealing to ourselves hidden synonyms and symmetries. In so doing we nearly double our employable language for understanding each operation, gaining new ways to speak of and therefor understand food and art.
Take the simple invitation, "Come to my house for dinner tonight; I'll cook." Do we really consider the complex promises and power dynamics of the phrase until it is recontextualized in a gallery space, and thereby denatrualized and made available for inspection? First off, the niceness and gernerosity of the gesture, assuming that this is a person you in fact either desire to get to know better, or know well already and truly enjoy seeing, are multiplied by the intimacy of the act.
All the hidden promises — "You let me into your home; I'll ingest what you put before me"; "You trust me not to do anything bad in your home; steal or break things, insult or abuse you, exhibit anti-social behaviour i.e. piss on the rug, kick the cat." "I trust you to do your best in the kitchen, to make something you think I will enjoy, to not poison me or make me ill."
I became aware of this after including Ben Kinmont's piece Waffles for an Opening in a show i curated called Casual Ceremony at White Columns Alternative Space in New York. The portion of his piece on view in the gallery was three table tops of no special charm. On each, handwritten in marker, were the word "I Trust You." Next to them sat a stack of ordinary paper plates with an invitation to call the artist at his home, arrange a time and go over for some waffles and conversation.
This was not a performance piece. There was no set time for breakfast to commence; as in life, that had to be negotiated and the visitor was therefore not relegated to the audience role. Rather you had to have a conversation to find a mutually agreeable time to nosh. Just as in real life, you could discuss whatever you wanted while eating. Other than providing the space and the waffles, Kinmont controlled no other aspecto fo what transpired. He did make guests aware of the mutual trust element of inviting someon into one's home for food, and how different that is from the typical artist/viewer relationship. In so doing, he pointed a way towards better possibilities.
There are two models currently at play for the artist/veiwer relationship. In one the artist is the performing monkey, trying to figure out what to do to please the collectors, critics and curators whose Caligula-like arbitrary and unpredictable desires and abbreviated attention span make the artist caste tremble with fear as they hastily conjure next year's model.
In the other the artist is the shaman, the medicine mand and the pope. They as in Nauman's ruthless but fickle parody (fickle because we were never sure whether he or we were the putatuve believers of his neo-myth, and we are not sure we do not, in our heart of hearts, believe it), are the dispensers of mystic truths. These truths can be of the metaphysical/spiritual variety, or just as often they can derive form the politcal/social area. We are meant to believe that artists are special people who "know better," and we are blessed to be in on their world. (The word "we" is problematic — since I can neither assume nor preclude the possibilty that you, dear reader, are a visual arts practitioner. If you are, you will need to read the above few lines with a better artist than youself, the role model you emulate, in mind. Every artist has, or should have, at least one.)
Both the seemingly contradictory models limit and sour the art experience. Kinmont suggests that replacing them with one of the back-and-forth of the cook and the cooked-for is better. In fact, a level playing field between artist and viewer is imaginable but requires a bit of translation. I f the cook and cooked-for models are level it is because they can change. The one cooked for one week is under a desired and sought-after social obligation to be the cook next week. It is apromis of an ongoing relationship, an amiable future. The artist/viewer is not as interchangeable until you notice that Kinmont, the artist, while suffering through waffles everyday for a month, is also a reciver of pleasure. He gets to enjoy his visitor's company. If in the gallery/museum experience we surface the pleasure the artist receives from having work seen and responded to, and thereby made whole and complete by the viewer, we can overlay the two experiences quite neatly, even when the artist is not physically present except in the surrogate form of the work.
Let us consider a Felix Gonzlez-Torres candy sculpture (lollypops, Baci chocolates, etc.) and its surfacing of mutuality as a defining cncept in su work. The experience of art most often takes place in memory. The percentage of time one is actually infront of a traditional artwork is dwarfed by the amount of time the piece exists only in memory, whether or not one has a reproduction. Felix Gonzalez-Torres made clear that reality economiically and exquisitely in his candy spills. One saw such works in his Guggenheim Museum retrospective, and even in this institution one could still take a piece of candy. One had the choice of course of opening the paper and popping it in one's mouth, or squirreling it away for later. While the sign siad to take only one, many did cheat and tkae a few (I know I did). As one sucked or lightly chewed the candy, one moved one's body in front of one of the artist's strings of lights or a puzzle, but the candy taste was till active in the warm, moist and sesate cavity of the mouth. In any show the efforts of one piece are still active in the mind when one has moved on to the next peice, so the candy must be understood as making manifest the art effects. The location in the head has merely shifted slightly lower.
After taste is gone, one has only memory. But one can go back and revisit the piece/taste for, in most case, a finite period of time. The show ends, the piece returns to its collector's house. This is true of all artowrks. Even those in public collections go off view from time to time. But the active taking with the hand and mouth, and the choice of candy, already a loaded trigger for desublimated desire, make even the most jaded experience art a type of memory/experience to be jealopusly guarded and cherished. To me the most telling experience occurs a week or so later when, thinking about something unrelated, one finds the crumpled, shiny wrapping paper in the jacket pocket and momentarily remembers the taste.
Now much has been written about what is sold when one buys a work by Gonzalez-Torres and takes on the responsibility of maintaining it at its ideal ehight or weight or refabricating it. The artist was always clear about wanting his works to function within the circulatory system that is the art-market. Now it would be a perverse, mean-spirited artist that would want a purchaser, be it a human being or an art institution, to pay for somehting that would cause them tribulations and undue hardship. While such artists exist, Gonzalez-Torres is not one of them. To give someone candy is a pleasant act. Offering a stranger a lifesaver on a long plane trip makes one feel like a cornershop philanthropist. Look at one of Gonzalez-Torres' fifteen candy spills, piles and carpets and think that among the many thing the artist has transferred ownership of is thepleasure of giving ananymous strangers a sweet lingering taste in the mouth, a kiss of sorts.
Not all food art is free for the consuming. Elaine Tin Nyo's Bake Sale made this all-American fundraisng ritual function as mirror of the art-world, a protrait of the culture game that was both affectionate and biting. Artists made the sweets and savouries. Critics and curators, myself, Dan Cameron of the New Museum, and writer on art Kirby Gookin were dressed in bake sale shirts, and stood outside Deitch projects selling them. Most bake sales benefit something, usually an non-controversial cause such as school libraries, but direct politcal action groups such as ACT-UP and WAC have also used the technique. The art-workld is an artificial economy and holders of MBA's who enter it risk their sanity trying to use what they have learned to understand its machinations. Galleries take 50 percent of the selling price of a work even when they do not actively sell it, but rather allow someone to buy it. The artist/bakers in this piece were solely responsible for the quality, taste and visual presentation, and therefor the desirability of the goods. Tin Nyo, true to her artworld model, gave have the profits to the galleries the artists worked with, letting only unaffiliated artists keep all their money. For the sake of realism, critics and curators worked hard and received no remuneration other than the occasional free taste of a cookie. But also like the art world, we, the critics, got to spend more quality time witht he goods, and bought the tastiest treats for ourselves, our lovers and allies.
Joseph Beuys' most radical pronouncement was " every human is an artist." Not that they hav ethe potential to be artists but that they already are, it simply takes a certain awareness to perceive it. This concept gives rise to many problems. I know it does for my students, who are often paying healthy sums to become artists. Food works makes this awareness a bit mor comprehensible.
Let us try the phrase, "Every human is a cook" on for size. While it is patently false that everyone can cook well, it is indisputably true that everyone cooks something, sometime, and that for many it is one of the few parts of daily amintenance in which their artfulness and creativity are given expression. In Beuys' phrase the hierarchy between the hallowed creativity that takes place in the artist's studio and the creativity that someon employs in the process of living is dismantled. Picking a colour to paint your walls, getting dressed, scheduling one's day — these are just as worthy of respect as deciding to paint a picture or write a song. Unseen, Every human is doing all the necessary things to live and enjoy life. The monument to life is life itself.
The self-obliteration I spoke of at the beginning of this essay is in fact one of the conquest rather than surrender. Art ceases to exist as a category because every activity, human or natural, cna in our era be considered art, if we have the awareness to see them that way. In choosing to see one meal, one gift of candy, one bake sale through this lens of art allows us the possiblity of seeing the entire catalogue of creative choices, the art of everything in the same manner.
The only thing we have to lose is one of the three-letter work whose meaingfulness would be swithced from the top of the cutural hierarchy to on that transcends and dismantles that hierarchy. What we have to gain is new appreciation of life itself.