Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Artsy Wednesday: From Altar to Easel to Oven

About 10 or 15 years ago, my brother picked up this book on a remainder shelf someplace. It was called The Eighties: A Reader - just a collection of essays written during the '80s that sort of summed up the decade.

There was one essay he was always after me to read. It was called "The Worship of Art," and written by Tom Wolfe in 1983. The first time I read it I was probably just out of college, fresh off all of my art history classes and full of important thoughts about the Role of Art in Society.

To sum it up simply, the essay's thesis is that, by the '80s, art had replaced religion in the lives of the chattering classes. Wolfe makes a good argument, giving concrete examples of how art usurped religion in the home and in business, and how curators picked up what priests left behind. He's somewhat scornful, but not entirely - it's not exactly a judgmental essay, more observational.

Because I'm a pretentious art criticism snob, the essay stuck in my mind. Sometime last year, I started thinking even more about it...and thinking that it was outdated (it is, after all, over 25 years old). Because now, isn't food the new art?

The core of Wolfe's thesis is that traditional religion was, originally, a signifier of cultural pedigree - it was the shorthand society used to understand where people belonged. Eventually, art relieved religion of this role. If you appreciated the "right" art, collected, understood, etc - that signified that you were of the "right" class.

I think that still exists, to some degree, but not on the same grand societal scale that it used to. Art has shrunk back down into it's own community. Food, on the other hand, has blown up.

Reservations at French Laundry, or at Alinea. Trips to San Sebastian. Knowledge of where to find the best, most barely legal raw milk cheeses. These are the things those chattering classes brag about today. Ability to speak the foodie language is the cost of entry into a certain segment of society - the signifier that the speaker "belongs."

And isn't it annoying? I'll answer my own question: Yes, yes it is. But I wonder, is it annoying to chefs? Was it annoying to artists in the '80s?

I also can't help but wonder, what's next? How long does the light shine on the food world before shifting to something newer and more exciting? And what happens to food when it's back in the dark?

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