An artist was overheard complaining not long ago about the local restaurant scene. It wasn't that he was unhappy with the quality of what some of our better eateries offer.
What stuck in this artist's craw was what he perceived as competition.
He pointed out that many artists in Indianapolis have a difficult time selling their works. While more people than ever turn out for First Friday gallery hops, and the quality of work on offer gets more interesting all the time, this has not translated into actual sales, even though many works of art can be purchased for a few hundred dollars or less.
What was getting the artist was his suspicion that a lot of the people who have been telling him they can't afford to buy his art were going to our ever-growing number of independent restaurants and spending their money on top-shelf cocktails, grass-fed beef, and free-range pork.
Local food, in other words, is trumping local art.
Or, put another way, local food is becoming our newest art form — and it's taking the town by storm.
Questions about whether or not food qualifies as art and, if so, what kind of art it is (visual? performance? conceptual?) have become an entertaining diversion in cyberspace. Author William Deresiewicz got the ball rolling with an essay in The American Scholar in which he argued that, "food has replaced art as the object, among the educated class, of aspiration, competition, conversation, veneration." But food, asserted Deresiewicz, is not art. That's because it "is not narrative or representational, does not express ideas or organize emotions, cannot do what art does and must not be confused with it."
It wasn't long before another writer, Sara Davis, responded via Drexel University's Table Matters website. She said that asking whether food was art was the wrong question. After launching into a mini humanities seminar about what art is and how we experience it, she concluded by asking some questions of her own, all of which she answered in the affirmative: Can food be crafted with artistry? Can it convey meaning? Can food be a vehicle for inspiration for some of humanity's better qualities? And should it be taken seriously as a subject of study, a medium of expression, or a form of cultural exchange?
I am inclined to think that a meal, in the right hands or the right circumstances, can certainly provide an experience akin to what we're used to calling art. This is partly due to what's been happening in the food scene of late — and partly because of how we have come to think about art.
Over the course of the past year and a half I worked on a book about Indiana food called Food For Thought: An Indiana Harvest. The project allowed me the opportunity to talk to farmers and food artisans, master chefs and grill cooks all over the state. I found that very few of these individuals would describe themselves as artists. But, as they told me their stories, I also found the temptation to draw comparisons between them and the artists I know irresistible.
Like artists, people in the food movement — and a movement is what the burgeoning demand for what's fresh, local and creatively prepared amounts to — tend to be individualists who marry hard-earned skill with a genuine love for what they do. Most of them see themselves as being part of a long tradition going back generations. They routinely risk material comforts and security to do something they find personally compelling. And that compulsion often has its roots in a desire to connect with something — call it a spirit — bigger than they are.
At the same time, more and more of us are becoming increasingly discerning about the food we eat and how it is presented, our relationship to what used to be called "the fine arts" seems increasingly tenuous. Art, in the early 21st century, seems to be whatever anyone says it is. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, has dedicated a gallery to an installation by Martha Rosler called "The Meta-Monumental Garage Sale," which the museum describes as "a large-scale version of the classic American garage sale, in which Museum visitors can browse and buy second-hand goods organized, displayed, and sold by the artist." What makes it "meta" or "monumental" seems to be the works' existence in a renowned museum, as opposed to, well, an actual garage.
It seems we want our art to be less about aesthetic artifacts and more about experience itself, with an emphasis on the social. In this formulation, cities where art happens are coming to resemble nothing so much as oversized summer camps. The artists play camp counselors, coming up with lots of activities to help us pass the time.
If this is true, then surely our best local chefs are artists who bring us together and illuminate, among other things, our sense of place through their use of locally sourced goods. In their hands, a meal becomes a kind of performance. And the restaurant where it takes place is, at once, a gallery and stage. A place where every work exists in three dimensions, plus one: you can actually taste it.