Letter of the Week – Can Food Ever Be Art?


Dear ELV,

I am a smart person and by smart person I mean I’m a Yelper because I am full of opinions about things but I know what I like and I like to share them with people. Nonetheless because I am adamant generally about things I like and believe and do not care if these thoughts make sense to others but why I hold them is due to honesty that I love about telling people about things that everyone might like and respect.

So my question is this: Can food ever be art because I think definitely it is art?


Dr. Science

p.s.  I have a doctorate in Science. Please do not forget this when you are talking to me.

ELV responds:

Dear Dr. Science,

The short answer is “no.” Food is not art. Food is a craft. A craft built upon technical expertise, dedication, precision and repetition.

Craft is functional and disposable; art is original, emotional and thought provoking. Great art makes you think; great craftsmanship makes you want to use something. Nay, it demands you use it to give it value.

Art is transcendent. A work of art stands for something beyond itself. Anyone can paint a picture, but only Vermeer could paint a Vermeer. (Look him up, they probably didn’t talk too much about Dutch masters in science class.)

To quote another: The only time craft has been elevated to art is when it has acquired additional value beyond its function or purpose. Charles and Ray Eames (you’ll have to look them up too, no doubt) did not design their furniture to be art, but art it became.

http://8020.photos.jpgmag.com/2761547_126219_d898cd68dc_p.jpg(not art)

Food is food. It is a manufactured product, made on assembly lines, meant to be consumed. In that sense, and in the sense that it gives us life, it is the ultimate craft. No matter how pretty or ingenious the plate, it is always a creation (and craft) of the most temporal and visceral kind.

What you and other, semi-educated folks do is confuse artistry and artisan talent with something original and profound. The paintings of Arcimboldo:


…are art.



…is not art:

There is nothing abstruse about whatever Ferran Adrià did. He simply deconstructed food and re-imagined it as something else — much like General Mills did when they invented the first fruit roll-up.  He just did it on a much smaller scale and much prettier plates.

Nothing chefs do qualifies as art. They will tell you this. Thomas Keller and Joël Robuchon have told me this. Everything they do is born of repetition and respect for time-honored techniques. They don’t invent anything, anymore than Grant Achatz invented de-constructed dessert.

What you do, Dr. Science, is confuse beauty and cleverness with art. Just because something looks pretty doesn’t make it art. True art — be it in music, literature or the visual arts — is greater than itself. Nothing you chew on is ever greater than itself.

End of lesson

11 thoughts on “Letter of the Week – Can Food Ever Be Art?

  1. Certainly not a doctorate in English.

    Wow. I’m out of breath just reading that sentence, I mean letter. Lesson #2 – The Importance of Punctuation.

  2. ELV responds: I shouldn’t pick on Dr. Science so much, but he is proud of his ignorance (and lack of grammatical skills), so his unreadable prose is fair game for satire.

  3. “The only time craft has been elevated to art is when it has acquired additional value beyond its function or purpose.” That’s a pretty interesting definition of art, IMHO. I don’t know if it’s correct, but it’s intriguing at any rate.

    However, if it’s a true definition of art, then isn’t that exactly (in part) what I’m playing extra for in fancy restaurants (such as Robuchon) who spend time on presentation? If it hasn’t acquired additional value beyond its function or purpose, then why am I paying more for it? And, if it does have value but isn’t art, then how does this reconcile with your definition?

    You say, “No matter how pretty or ingenious the plate, it is always a creation (and craft) of the most temporal and visceral kind.” This doesn’t make any sense to me. If by “temporal” you mean “existing in time”, then everything we experience is temporal. If by “temporal” you mean temporary, then all art is temporary, some more so that others, some more so by design. Also, some art is more visceral than others, and some meals are more visceral than others, but both are capable of affecting all of us at very primal levels. The sentence is well-written, but essentially tautological.

    The only characteristic you mention about food that does not (IMHO) apply to art is that the difference between art and craft is that art is unique, craft is intended to be reproducible (but not necessarily reproduced). While talent and imagination should not be dismissed, this is actually the primary difference between what Pablo Picasso and Bob Ross have done, and why one is art and the other craft.

    So, it seems to me, that if, say, Adria is churning out dozens or hundreds of plates a night which are intentionally as similar as they can make them, then that has to be craft. But what if a great chef does the same thing on one plate for one meal never intending it to be reproduced? Even if it’s transitory and has a function, that doesn’t mean it’s not art, does it? In this case, what prevents one from calling it art?

    It seems to me that you’ve emphasized unimportant aspects of art vs. craft and de-emphasized what is important in this case.

    Oh, and they also probably didn’t talk much about Dutch masters in law school, but that hasn’t precluded you from knowing something about the subject. Needless to say, I don’t subscribe to your insinuation.

  4. ELV responds: npc makes many a fine point . I could’ve gone on and on about the reproducibility of craft, but I thought I had bloviated enough. Plus, too many people don’t understand these arguments anyway, preferring to hide behind the I-think-it’s-wonderful-therefore-it-is-art way of making their own reality. The subject goes much deeper than most can process, but methinks @npc “gets it” even if we disagree.

  5. A certain part of being a chef is being an artist. The food we produce is something that is created with imagination and creative skill and that is beautiful. We have to revisualize somthing that is already appealing on its own. Our purpose is not to to diminish the qualities but to enhance them,to let them shine. Our job as chefs is to stimulate the senses with food that sizzles, has texture and color and should be appreciated by its beauty.The experience of eating should hold an emotional power over the consumer,. While the culinary arts might be ephemere, it still qualifies as art. Just look at the definition in the dictionary!

  6. ELV responds: There has been a wild and woolly discussion about this on my Facebook page (thank you Gary LaMorte!) where I’ve gone back and forth with a number of people. (It’s the sort of discussion I wish happened on these pages, but FB seems to be where these things are played out these days.) The following is my last word on the subject, but, as always, I encourage your rebuttals and value your insights:

    I’ve learned one lesson from this: Never argue with stupid people; they take you down to their level and then beat you with experience. (Not that I’m calling all of you stupid; it’s just that to have this discussion, it helps to know what true, fine art is. It also helps to have a certain level of abstract thinking beyond your opinions. Most of these comments are of the “I think it’s art; therefore it is.” Or, “It has artistic (i.e. creative) elements to it, therefore it must be “art.” What I was going for in my web site piece was to stimulate a level of awareness beyond this junior high school level of argument, but, with a few exceptions, most commenters revert to simplistic opinions, rather than thinking about it in any sort of recondite way. Sorry David Geis (and many others) chefs do not produce art. They make something to be consumed and destroyed. The fact that it looks intriguing or pretty on a plate for about 5-10 minutes does not elevate it into any the realm of performance art. All of the commenters who so vigorously defend the “food as art” generally do so entirely out of self-interest – either of a chef wanting to think they’re doing something important/profound (they’re not), or the customer wanting to rationalize their good taste and expenditures Saying “If what Banksy does is art, then what chefs do is art,” is a statement beneath absurdity, but as with music, people have their tastes and opinions, and woe be anyone who disagrees. Some of you are self-aware enough to say “Gee, I really like Kanye West, but I realize he’s no Miles Davis (or Mozart or Duke Ellington),” but most of you just want to argue about how great Kanye is. “Beyonce is a recording artist, Miles Davis was a recording artist, therefore they must both be “artists,” right? Wrong. It’s not that simple, unless that’s what you want to make it.

  7. So the food at Robuchon or Alinea isn’t art, but putting a crucifix in a jar of pee is?

  8. I understand what you’re saying, but there’s a time and place for the “dumb” yelper, even Dr. Dunderhead.

    Firstly, Yelpers aren’t bound by reputation. They don’t have to appear intellectual. They’re allowed to say such phrases as, “two bites cost $20, wtf?” “uni tastes like slimy testerone pus” or “a dinner here is bound to make the panties drop.”
    And sometimes, that’s what the reader wants to read, because most likely, the reader is some schlep looking for an anniversary date, so he can get laid.

    Besides, (some) Yelpers take good photos, they are not completely useless.

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