Wednesday, 7 November 2012

FCC: Food and Art

Continuing our focus on intersections between food and the liberal arts, today's Food and Culture Colloquium session took a look at food from the angle of well, the arts. And as if this wasn't liberal artsy enough, our presenter crossed food and art with environmental studies, as Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Abram Kaplan shared his personal journey through ten years of art and his lens of our food system through art culture.

Unlike one of this week's readings which suggests that food is art, Abram's pov suggests that food can be art and that art can be made of and/or about food, while food can be emblematic within art. Abram first began with works of art that had an evident relationship with food, including Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper (1495), Johannes Vermeer's The Milkmaid (1658) and the first photograph of food Joseph Niepce's Table Servie (1829), and juxtaposed these to food represented off the canvas, in the form of engraved artwork on farms and rice fields. More recently, the contemporary food art scene, it seems, has added to possible definitions of what it means to make art with food, and asks the question at what point does food itself become (or can be considered) art (versus an informative display, or perhaps both)?

Take for example Michael Mercil's installation The Virtual Pasture which ended its run last year at OSU's Wexner Center for the Arts. Or Sue Spaid's Green Acres: Artists Farming Fields, Greenhouses and Abandoned Lots on display at the Contermporary Arts Center in Cincinnati until mid-ish January 2013. From Rembrandt van Rijn's 1650's landscapes to Vincent van Gogh's The Harvest (1888) to Claude Monet's Haystacks (1891), there's no denying that food--though more specifically agriculture--has been a focus of many an artsit's rendering. Indeed, throughout time and across diverse lands, agriculture at the forefront of such imagery projects an inherent importance (or normalcy) of agriculture in the lives of people.

By the early 20th century, food-related conditions (from abundant resources to little/none) were captured in a documentary, photojournalistic style. As we think about life in the States, works by Lewis Hine (powerpoint from The Mill Museum) reflected a different kind of reality in regard to the American food system and way of life. I find there's something quite interesting to consider when different media convey very different relationships with food: pre-20th century Europe allowed for time to sit, paint and perfect, whereas 20th century America (at least as evidenced in the aformentioned works) shows vulnerability and insecurity, and makes good use of the speed of photography to convey emotion and movement (or lack of either/both). And what does one make of this relationship when it comes to works like Grant Wood's American Gothic (1930)? As we transition to the age of the American Dust Bowl and migration, images of hardships and tell-tale proof of life beyond the farm abound during the mid-20th century, as evidenced in Dorothy Lange's Migrant Mother (1936), Ansel Adams's Farm, Farm Workers, Mount Williamson in Background (1943) and Andrew Wycoth's Public Sale (1943). Again, one might ask what is it about these images that makes them "art" (as opposed to something else)?

And so, we've arrived to the turn of another century, and a capitalistic society built on consumerism. In considering the aformentioned images, what seems to be missing (if anything) in the works of Doug Johnson (Old Gold, 2009), Andreas Gursley (99 cents, 1999) and Edward Burtynsky (Manufacturing #11, 2005)? What is present in these images that isn't the case for the others? I should hope, as it seemed to me to be conveyed, that these images underscore and give is due pause to ask what are culture is and has become. What goes into "culture"?

In the context of defining culture, we consider the cultivation of land and crops as much as we focus on improving ourselves and aspiring to ideals and values shared by said culture. We are talking about enhancing the ability to assemble our ideas and values in such a way that we progress. Having said this, this session asked whether or not we have become and defined our culture as one that "sees nothing" when we look at our food and agricultural system. Is our culture one that doesn't see? or one that can't? Maybe we could see more, better or deeper. Or perhaps we could look around rather than blindly stare at what's right in front of us. Such questions are those that are invoked as we looked at the art Abram himself has produced and shared with those in attendance. As we drive by farms at 70 mph, it's likely that you'd miss images of the respite (considering for once the lives of animals) and the aerator (is it piercing the ground or allowing for life--air--to circulate? or both?). We would most likely miss the aesthetics of the food chain which in itself deserves to be noticed.

Following Abram's sharing of his photos, he suggested that many times we approach art and agriculture and claim "what you see is what you get." Especially so as not to lose the agri of agriculture, we should shift our points of reference to consider instead that "what you get is what you see." To do so, we must slow down and observe the art that is (should we conceive it to be considered as art) around us; indeed, everything--including food--has the capacity to be art, and this art of which we are a part has so much to tell us. We just need to see more to get more.

Suggested readings for this session:
"How Can Food Be Art?" (Glenn Kuehn, 2005)
"A Bridge-Building, Cross-Cultural Art Project That’s Also Delicious" (Victoria Burnett, 2012)

Last week, Abram was a guest speaker as part of Ohio Wesleyan University's Sagan National Colloquium, "Bite!" Click on the video above to check out his lecture, "What You See is What You Get: Getting the Picture of Food and Art". For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the album of photos from our November colloquium sessions, click here.  

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