After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Describe some of the ways that food art has provoked debate, discussion, and criticism about both art and food, as well as other themes.
- Use ideas about place, time, material, and space to investigate the relationship between art and food.
- Critically reflect on conceptions of art, food, and food art.
Food as Art, Art as Food
Lady Gaga wore a meat dress to the 2010 MTV Awards. She was criticized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and lauded by celebrity chef Fergus Henderson. Was the dress art? Was it food? Was it protest, or was it waste? The answer might be yes to all of these questions. Regardless of where you land, the question of how, and even if art can be made from food and food from art deserves attention.
Another meat dress appeared in the art world in Canada in 1987. Jana Sterback’s sculpture, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, consisted in a dress fashioned from 20kg of raw skirt steak and hung for display in a gallery or, in photographs, modeled on the body of a live, female model. “The material becomes part of the idea,” Sterbak said. Taken as a whole, wrote Jennifer McLerran, Vanitas parodies the expectation that women provide sustenance for others at the expense of their own self-nurturing; “Sterbak’s work thus becomes a form of viable resistance to patriarchal oppression”.
When Vanitas was mounted at the National Gallery of Canada in 1991, it was met with patriarchal resistance in the form of Felix Holtmann, a pig-farmer-turned-Conservative-Party-MP who sat as chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing funding for the Arts in Canada. Holtmann was offended on behalf of “people who hold food sacred in this land,” suggesting that the rotting of food was “an insult to the poor in tough economic times”. Curator Diana Nemiroff fired back, suggesting that people were upset “not because meat is food but because meat is flesh”.
But steak, unlike the human flesh to which Nemiroff alludes metaphorically, is also food, even within the powerful confines of the National Gallery. Johanne Lamoureux points out that Hoffmann, though known for his “ridiculous” attacks on the arts in general, made arguments against Vanitas that should not be lightly dismissed, given his expertise in meat production and distribution. Neither disgusted by the meat, nor concerned that its use in art robbed local food banks of needed supply, he instead focused his displeasure on meat’s normal use and place: it should be on a butcher’s counter, not in a museum.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett suggests that food can only become art when it is “dissociated from eating and eating from nourishment”. But if we think about a marble sculpture, would we argue that marble can only be art when it is dissociated from being a floor? Avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp famously mounted a urinal in an art gallery, with the defense that because it was an object chosen by the artist and mounted in a gallery, it was indeed art. But it also raised the question: what is art, anyhow?
Some might imagine that art should exist outside the realm of moral, political, financial, or even practical value: Art for Art’s Sake, in other words. But the cultural forces that define one thing as art and another as urinal shift over time and place. Many contemporary Western art forms invite contact—touching, smelling, tasting, hearing, and moving in and through the artwork. The centre of the art experience is now less the object of our attention, and more our bodies and selves as we engage in the aesthetic experience.
Food is always an aesthetic experience, whether it is eaten in a museum or at a sidewalk stand. In many ways, food has less become like art than art has become more like food. The debate over the meat dress brought these questions to the forefront. Where does food become art, and where does art become food? Yael Raviv describes food art as a creation that “gives the diner pause and makes her think”. If the value of bringing food into the museum lies in helping us think differently about our relationship to it, perhaps, then, it also helps us question our relationship to art and, ultimately, to each other and to how and where we live together.
Epilogue: What happened to the meat dress?
The power struggle to declare the meat either art or food came to a head when a City of Ottawa medical officer, on the order of a local councillor, closed the gallery for a health inspection. “The inspection revealed no health hazard at this time,” Dr. Edward Ellis declared—dramatically, one hopes. Finding that meat on display was safe as long as it was neither touched nor eaten, the exhibit was reopened, and the dress was thus declared by competing institutional powers as both meat and art. It remains preserved to this day in the collection of the Minneapolis Museum of Fine Arts.
- How does the museum help make food into art? (Think about the ways the museum supports and creates the experience of art, such as lighting, display, programs with descriptions of the work.)
- How does the “butcher’s counter” or food store support or create the experience of food? (Again, think about the concrete things stores do: signage, display, lighting, descriptions.) What are the similarities to a museum? What are the differences?
What is art when it is made with food and what is food when it is turned into art? The exercises below are designed to prompt debate and discussion.
Working with a partner or a group, tackle one of these frameworks. You can collaborate on a mind map, Google Slides, a virtual white board, or sticky notes on a wall. When each group is done, present the findings and discuss as a class.
Framework #1: The idea of “Art”
The word “art” often leads us to the word “museum.” Perhaps we think of objects like paintings, photos, and sculptures. Perhaps we think of events like performance art, or immersive installations that engulf us as we move through them. Regardless of where your experience takes you, you might recognize some differences between objects and events. Here are four areas to frame your research and discussion:
- Place: Does art only happen in a museum? Where else might you find it? What are the differences between places you find art? Here, you can think about things like admission fees, architecture, outdoors vs. indoors.
- Time: How is time part of an art experience? Has the ‘art’ already happened somewhere else? Is it happening now? Will the art be there tomorrow, or will it be gone? Is it being preserved or is it going to disappear over time? Can the ‘art’ happen again?
- Material: Is there an object? Does the ‘object’ change? Does it stay the same? Is it art if there is no object at all?
- Space: Does the ‘art’ ask you to move through space to experience it? Can you touch, smell, taste, or hear the art? Do you have to stay at a distance?
Framework #2: The idea of food
Ask the same questions about food.
- Place: Restaurants? Farmer’s markets? Museums? How do different places create different ideas of food? Is there a difference between eating ‘art’ in a museum exhibit and eating ‘food’ in the same museum’s restaurant?
- Time: What kinds of times are involved in food? Growing, harvesting, cooking, serving, eating, wasting (don’t we waste time too?). Are all these times the same? What about preserved food? ‘When’ is a pickle?
- Material: Food is a material. But what about food that you see on television? Are you consuming it the same way as you might at home? What happens to food when you cook it? Does it stay the same, or does it transform?
- Space: You eat food, serve food, buy food, and make food for yourself and others. How is space used in a restaurant? A cafeteria? A supermarket? A farmer’s market? How does space create different ideas of food?
Framework #3: Food as art
Use the internet to find examples of food art. Download pictures and use them on your discussion board.
- Place: Where is the art happening? Museum, gallery, restaurant, an open field? What does the place tell us about the art?
- Time: What is the timeframe for the art to happen? What happens to the art over time? Does it end? Does it stay around? Is the art related to harvest? To consumption? To waste?
- Material: Is the food in the room? Can you touch it? Eat it? Smell it? Is it just being watched? What happens to it? Does it change? How?
- Space: Where is the food in the space: on a table, a wall, a podium? Do people have to move through the space? Are they seated? Close to the food, far from it, or both?
“Flesh dress not a health threat.” 1991. The Globe and Mail. Toronto, ON. April 3.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. 1999.“Playing to the Senses: Food as a Performance Medium.” In Performance Research: On Cooking 4.1, Richard Gough, Ed.: 1–30.
Lamoureux, J. 2000. “Vanitas : Robe de Chair Pour Une Albinos Anorexique / Vanitas : Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic.” Espace Art Actuel 51 (Spring). Le Centre de diffusion 3D: 14–17.
Mann, J. 2017. “How Duchamp’s Urinal Changed Art Forever.” Artsy.net, May 9.
McLerran, J. 1998. Disciplined Subjects and Docile Bodies in the Work of Contemporary Artist Jana Sterbak. Feminist Studies 24 (3): 535–552. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178578
Raviv, Y. 2010. “Eating My Words: Talking About Food in Performance.” Invisible Culture 14: 8-31.
Rowley, S. H. 1991. “A Raw Meat Dress Stakes Its Claim As An Object of Art.” The Chicago Tribune, April 14.
Winterman, D., and J. Kelly. 2010. “Five Interpretations of Lady Gaga’s Meat Dress.” BBC News, September 14.