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Eat Art, Busch-Reisinger Museum Harvard University
Anna Winestein loathed the Eat Art exhibition at Harvard.
I have to admit I prefer chocolate to elephant dung, even if solely viewed as works of art. Consequently, I found the exhibition Eat Art, at Harvard University’s Busch-Reisinger Museum, a step forward comparatively speaking from the notorious Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Yet apart from this minor matter of taste, I found Eat Art as aesthetically repulsive and philosophically bankrupt as Sensation. According to its press release, the show, whose full title is Eat Art: Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Sonja Alhäuser, was “a major exhibition featuring food as artistic material in German art created from the mid- 1960s to the present day.” Since the art of this exhibition made no attempt to be aesthetically (i.e. visually) pleasing, yet claimed to have great social meaning, its message derived solely from its philosophical concept. However, the philosophy behind this art is based on false assumptions and faulty logic, which does not bear fruitful conclusions.
According to the curatorial comments, “Interested in erasing the boundary between the audience and the artwork via the interaction of eating, Alhäuser encourages the visitor to actually consume her work.” Both Alhäuser and the curator seem to believe that the boundary between audience and artwork is the viewer’s inability to physically possess the artwork, and that to completely experience art, the viewer must have the power to destroy it. Yet the very wonder of art is that it can be consumed endlessly without destroying the artwork itself! Alhäuser also presumes that there is a barrier separating an artwork from its viewers, which must be broken down, but she offers no proof of this barrier’s existence – it is a figment of her imagination. Not only is the artist offering a solution to a non-existent problem, her creation is valueless. No rational art consumer would prefer low quality art made from the same ingredients as high quality food prepared by a chef. The philosophical dilemma whether man lives to eat or eats to live has already been solved. In any case, people should come to a museum seeking food for the mind and soul, not the stomach; nor should art fall sacrificial victim to the primitive philosophy of voodoo artists.
Although the curator asserts that “the norms of museum-going are turned upside down” by Eat Art, she takes care to link this art to tradition: “Throughout the 20th century, food has been used as an artistic medium in sculpture, painting, collage, and performance.” However, this emphasis on the modernity implied by the use of organic materials in art is mistaken; there is no remarkable innovation in that. Renaissance artists used egg tempera, Leonardo Da Vinci experimented with honey and wax for fresco painting, and as one critic, who defended Chris Offili’s signature use of elephant dung, noted, the old masters used the powder of ground up Egyptian mummies as a brown pigment. The critic blundered, however, in his conclusion that the elephant dung should be no less offensive than the use of mummy powder, since the old masters did not inform their viewers of the chemical contents of the paintings and so weren’t intending to make any philosophical point by it.
Nevertheless, let us not concentrate on the question of who first used food products to cook up a work of art. After all, the artists of the exhibition “used food as a medium to address concerns of social change, satire, or pleasure.” This flight to new materials and tenuous implications is typical of late 20th and 21st century art, which places a very high premium on distinctiveness. Yet, after viewing the products of 50 years of modernist, postmodernist, and contemporary art, I find this emphasis on eccentricity, to use the culinary references of the show, stale. What these artists define as social satire looks more like mockery of art to me; their analogy between decomposing food and social changes merely stinks; and their idea of pleasure in nibbling on a dessert of questionable quality makes me nauseous. I am glad that at the end of the exhibition, nothing is left of these works of ‘art’, so that they will be easily forgotten.
Postmodern and conceptual art makes its point by superceding aesthetic qualities of art with pseudo-philosophical ideas. Art critics and curators of contemporary art, like Robert Storr of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, go so far as to proclaim that “the nature of really serious art is that you don’t know what you are looking at. You’re impressed by some quality or bothered by some quality. You don’t know why it’s the way it is or how it came to be that way.” Following this logic to its ultimately absurd conclusion, the less one understands an artwork, the greater the artwork is. This is remarkably convenient for art ‘experts’; since their extensive and muddled philosophy of art theory and judgment is impossible for the rest of us to follow, they are the only ones who presumably know what is the ‘serious art’, and we are forced to rely on their judgment. Consequently, the ‘experts’ have enormous market power, and by separating art creators from art consumers,benefit tremendously in the simplest financial sense. There is an obvious conflict of interest here. Common sense would suggest that the intermediaries cannot be objective since they stand to gain so much from confusion and a subjectivity they dictate. While literary critics and scholars have significant influence, they stand no chance of convincing the reading public that gibberish is worth attention. No one will call the writing of a third-grader, or the studied incoherence of an idiot or madman, literature. Plagiarism in writing is universally abhorred, but the aforementioned ‘experts’ readily assign creative credit to Duchamp for Fountain, a manufactured urinal he signed and passed off as an artwork. Why is it, then, that in art, anything goes? The only possible explanation is lack of education. We must admit that art education (how to view and appreciate art) in our schools is inferior to any other subject. It is time for philosophers to take an active role in educating the general public about art philosophy and not to delegate the task to aestheticists, who are too busy trying to understand why artists do not read their books. It is time for educated viewers to have the courage and knowledge to say that the King is naked when he does not have any clothes.
Sacrificing sense and taste for the sake of superficial sophistication and amusement is cruel derision of Art and the Humanities. True art is not contemporary, it is timeless. Thus, originality for the sake of originality is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for any great work of art. In his essay, ‘The Pursuit of the Ideal’, Isaiah Berlin wrote that if men worship trees only because they made of wood and not because they are divine or symbols of fertility, “they are not beings with whom I can communicate – there is a real barrier.” Likewise, I can understand new forms of expression, but not when they are brought to a senseless extreme. Which brings me back to the starting point of using chocolate or elephant dung as a means of making a point. Here, I side with Salvador Dali, who responded to Marcel Duchamp’s artistic exploration into the preparation and packaging of artist’s feces, that he prefers “genuine shit from the navel of Raphael” to de luxe editions of modern artists’ excrements presented in “very sophisticated packaging”. If the chic art crowd persists in worshipping dung, they should be allowed the freedom of their opinions, but if we do not set up alternate, rational artistic ideals, then we will never escape the smell.
© Anna Winestein 2002
Anna Winestein is an artist and Trustee Scholar at Boston University, interested in the socio-economic aspects of art.