It costs $8.50 plus tip, and it sure as hell isn’t art:
Food as Art

© 2002 Dan Reetz

Philosophy and the Arts

Friday, November 22, 2002

After reading Nora Ephron’s brief about the Langer’s Delicatessen Pastrami-on-Rye being a work of art, I was intrigued. Indeed, it seemed, food could be art. Determined to find out more, I headed over to the nearest Subway (which happened to be the closest “delicatessen”). Upon entering, I chose my favorite bread from the generous selection of not less than seven breads, (freshly baked parmesan-oregano, of course). This is not unlike Ephron’s bread, shipped in with great difficulty and baked fresh. The pimple-faced employee who took my order had a name tag which read:


      Sandwich Artist

Indeed! My sandwich might very well be art. After all, it already has the marvelous property of being made by an artist. But I digress. Ephron saw as further criteria the preparation of the meat as part of the effort- and indeed the pepperoni and salami on my Spicy Italian had been carefully hand stacked, no doubt at great expense to Subway, who is in the business of employing artists. Surely, as with the bread, it had arrived frozen but unusable, much like Norm Langer gets his pastrami -- “hard as a rock.” It’s only after laborious preparation that the meats are deemed worthy to cross the bread of my sandwich. After carefully selecting toppings, with Jeremy’s assistance, it was time to pay for my sandwich. At a mere $5.50, with a drink, this could be art on a budget indeed.

After sipping my Mountain Dew to cleanse my palate, I bit into the masterpiece Jeremy had made for me. Just as with Ephron’s sandwich, it was contrast of “peppery and sour,” “tender but chewy,” an “exquisite combination of textures and tastes.” The funny thing was, it didn’t seem like art to me. The marvelous symphony of tastes seemed rather devoid of meaning. Formally, it was a fine piece, but intellectually, it was weak. Even the historical and entertaining Subway wallpaper failed to inform my “tastes” as to why the sandwich was significant.  In fact, it was much like every other Subway Spicy Italian I’d ever eaten. Ephron claimed her sandwich was art- and it wasn’t even made by an artist. What gives?

Carolyn Korsmeyer makes a pretty good stab at this problem in her essay “The meaning of taste and the taste of meaning”. She systematically argues that food is worthy of consideration as fine art, and that taste, with the proper context, can convey deeper meaning. She begins her essay by denouncing Elizabeth Telfer’s theory that food is a minor, or a decorative art. Telfer suggested that food’s only mode of expression is exemplification -- it can only be about what it is. Korsmeyer quickly refutes this approach with simple examples -- she explains the symbolic shape of the pretzel and the croissant, along with sugar skulls for the Mexican Day of the Dead. Indeed, Korsmer gives many convincing examples, including the Host of the Christian mass (which to believers represents the actual body and blood of Jesus). She also doles out some interesting theory on the expressive possibilities of food art, beyond the representational. She is recognizes that all of the expressive modes are informed by a context: “because of the particular context of a story” or “because of the traditional or routine circumstances of their preparation.” She tells us a story about a father, a daughter, salt, meat, and love (which I will leave to the reader to read) to confirm her position, concluding that the expressive power of food lies in “apprehending one’s whole being – mind and body – what was before recognized only intellectually.”  Here she fleshes out a cognitive theory of art- that the Kantian free play of the imagination, or at least some considerable cognitive effort is necessary for an object to be classified as a work of art. Indeed, “…certain symbolic functions seem to be enacted by foods in much the same way that they are by works of art.” Here’s where Korsmeyer gets herself into trouble. She goes on to say that “foods seem heavily dependent on either ceremonial context or personal or cultural narrative to attain their cognitive and aesthetic significance.” Furthermore, they “seem to require a place in some cultural practice in order to come into being……without placement on the appropriate Thursday in November, for instance, Thanksgiving is just another heavy meal; the food alone does not express the festival.”

Why is this problematic? It’s not, in-and-of-itself problematic to require food a cultural context to be understood as art. Furthermore, I posit that a full (and possibly even a minimal) understanding of an object or type of art is inseparable from a ceremonial context or personal cultural/historical narrative. What is problematic is Korsmeyer’s failure to recognize existing fine art in this light- she contradicts herself, calling food a “minor art” on these grounds.

When she says “art is asessed for all symbolic functions” as opposed to food being asessed for only a limited range of exemplified properties, the real problem is fully exposed. Korsmeyer has evaluated food on the basis that, removed from context, it has no expressive quality- when indeed art functions in exactly the same way. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, out of context, is merely a urinal -- indeed, out of it context, I piss on Duchamp’s art every day. What is Andy Warhol’s Brillo box outside a gallery? Not much more than a Brillo box. Perhaps these works are too extreme -- how about a Renaissance triptych altarpiece? When put in a gallery space, it is recontextualized. Outside of a Church, and its own history, it loses all original meaning and purpose and becomes an object of purely formal consideration, which Korsmeyer clearly devalues. She says “To try to compare a single meal or individual food with any given work of art is to yank that item from its context (emphasis added) and impoverish its aesthetic import.” And that the qualities that “remain to be relished free from ceremonial practices are just those sensuous exemplified qualities”. What is clear is that Korsmeyer has set up a double standard, and is contradicting herself.

Furthermore, under her approach, Ephron’s pastrami-on-rye doesn’t hold up as art. Ephron seems to be appreciating the work on a merely formal level -- Kandinsky-like, she goes so far as to relate the combinations of tastes as a “symphony.” Ephron also removes the cultural context of the sandwich. She mentions the Jewish background of the rye and pastrami only to explain why the bread is crispy. She also informs us that the bread now comes from a secular baker, further removing any cultural text from which a deeper significance could have been derived (despite her emphasis on process). Indeed, her Pastrami is as cold and dead culturally as my Spicy Italian (and for this I weep). This (of course) doesn’t destroy the taste, but it does destroy the meaning, just as an empty Warhol Brillo box would quickly hit the garbage in any janitor closet. Art, and in particular fine Art, depends on context for understanding. To devalue food art in the way that she does is silly.

As a final note, Korsmeyer at the end of her essay attempts to place food as a “minor art” because of its temporal nature (“we can taste only by destroying”). Once again, this is an invalid way to devalue something. Music, as well as food, has a temporal aspect- pieces not only consist of certain length of time, but what we are hearing is the dissipation of sonic energy. Additionally, music and food can be reproduced from notation-- whether it is from a recipe or a sheet of music. What then of theater, or performance art? When the performance is over, it is over. This should not make us think of it as a lesser art, it is intrinsic to the nature of the art! Although “romantic ideas of art” suggest that art has to be timeless, even paintings are subject to decay. In viewing paintings, we subject them to light, which inevitably will harm them -- we can see “only by destroying” as any museum registrar will tell you. Until somebody refutes the concept of entropy, it seems childish to classify an object or performance according to the duration of its existence, and until we can create significance without historicity or narrative it seems ridiculous to devalue something outside of its context.

Works cited

Nora Ephron, “A Sandwich,” The New Yorker (August 19 & 26, 2002), posted at <>  Posted 2002-08-12.

Carolyn Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Ithaca, New York and London: Cornell University Press, 1999.


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