April 25, 2019 | Arts and Culture
good enough to tweet
on the increasing aestheticization of food
The aestheticization of food is an inescapable reality. Every dish is an opportunity for photography, and many places cater to Instagram tastes before gastronomic ones. Twenty-somethings on their phones line up around cold city blocks for trendy no-reservation restaurants—the dings of Buzzfeed “Tasty” videos echoing out from their accumulated Facebook feeds.
Food has a long history of transcending the gastronomic and becoming artistic. Across cultures and time periods, the upper class has turned what is meant for consumption into an object of presentation. Think of Renaissance paintings that depict glorious cornucopias of artfully arranged fare. Contrary to popular belief, a whole boiled calf wearing a helmet first appeared in Ancient Rome, not on the Granoff menu.
But the current ubiquity of food’s aesthetic status is unparalleled in history, and it is not just a matter of rising wealth diffusing the privilege to view food as art to more people. Food is attaining an aesthetic primacy that rivals, and maybe even threatens, the rest of the art world.
Other art forms are caught in turmoil over loss of interest in aesthetic matters. It is not hard to find articles lamenting the decline of poetry and fiction reading, decreasing attendance of art museums, or the narrowing of aesthetic criticism by millenials ready to “cancel” whoever thinks about gazing out the Overton window. Much of the “crisis in the humanities” is blamed on art’s primary value being transfigured from aesthetics to politics.
Food’s aesthetic revolution surges upwards against this prevailing trend. It’s rare, for example, that you’ll hear leftists making claims about the oppositional potential of Fukuoka-style ramen. Indeed, culinary creations are uniquely democratic. Uniting our shared tastebuds, food welcomes the kind of low-risk, high-participation appreciation that the stuffier arts never could. Articles with titles like “Fluffy Japanese Soufflé Pancakes Have American Fans Waiting in Line” make their way into the New York Times “Most Popular” rankings, while “The Breakout Star of the Met Opera’s ‘Ring’” lags behind.
The digital age has shifted the way aesthetic material is accessed, and it’s possible food has benefited the most from this change. Netflix shows like Chef ’s Table and Ugly Delicious necessarily fetishize the visual aspects of food, and the promotion of restaurants by social media “influencers” bleeds into non-digital behavior. A 2017 Atlantic article mentioned that, for the first time, Americans are spending more money dining out than at grocery stores.
Food’s increased role as an aesthetic good has turned it into cultural capital, online and in the real world. When building a brand, where you eat now supplants the poetry you read and the art you collect. Is there any better way to signal one’s coolness and strike up a conversation with other young and urban types than to call oneself a “foodie” and start expounding on the local restaurant scene?
Confession time: I am as guilty of this as anyone and I don’t know how to feel about it. I have asserted my “foodie” status at many a meet-and-greet and devoured the aforesaid Netflix shows. And part of me brims with self-condemnation.
Isn’t taking aesthetic pleasure in food, rather than more traditional art forms, the ultimate form of millenial frivolity? It is fueled by the desire for heedless consumption, and sustained attention and contemplation are far from required. Food replacing more complex art is commensurate with the way “low-culture” items—short attention span garbage like superhero movies or Fifty Shades of Gray— will always reach peak popularity within their forms. What are critics to do but rage in ignored columns?
Furthermore, the desire to convert food aestheticization to status recognition can easily turn into the fetishization of distant cultures. It is one thing when David Chang or Anthony Bourdain travels the world and actually interacts with local communities, but there is something a little off about the love for “authentic Sichuan Chinese food” or “real Mexican food.” It tends to be more of an expression of “in-the-club” superiority than palate preference, and in doing so establishes a relation between the speaker and the foreign locale that only goes one way. There is a touch of early 20th-century artistic “primitivism” in the way the foodie collects cuisines of other nationalities—their ability to curate given by their “superior” cultural understanding.
Yet, I’m ambivalent. All these critiques strike me as an older generation’s typical cultural conservatism and inability to accept change. Movies, TV, photography, and even novels were all once decried as pulp before they ascended to their current status as high art.
And if food is stealing aesthetic attention from other art mediums, isn’t that a democratization of sorts? After all, food is universal and non-elitist in a way the Western literary canon or artistic masters can never hope to be. Food appreciation is still often used as a means of class elitism in that many of the “hottest” spots are still only accessible to a select income bracket, but it has democratic roots which other art forms lack.
The increasing embrace and appreciation of non-European culinary traditions can also be construed as a change for the better. Rather than assimilating or appropriating foreign food cultures, the millennial food obsession has created an avenue for increased cultural understanding and delivered job opportunities for immigrants looking to preserve their heritage.
It is time to start recognizing and coming to terms with food’s new aesthetic primacy. Many are participating in the transition of power from the mediums of the past to the medium of the plate without even realizing it’s occurring. Our literal taste in food now signifies as much as our taste in opera or baroque architecture once did. As someone interested in the food scene and the place of the arts in American cultural life, my feelings are still torn about this change. I’m not planning to stop wasting days away browsing Eater and lining up for Providence pop-ups, but maybe I’ll do it with a little more reflection. After all, what is modernity if not making oneself unsure about easy pleasures?