Food, broadly defined, is a necessary sustenance that may also incorporate artistic practice — cooking, cuisine, and presentation. The Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) in Marseilles is currently hosting Food: Produce, Eat, Consume, an exhibition funded by ART for The World, an NGO associated with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations, that encompasses a three-year, transcontinental project. The exhibition, which I’m curious about but haven’t seen in person, seeks to use its stated subject as an entry point into, as the press release explains, “the values linked to food in our contemporary society.” The topic has varied political implications — the release lists “themes directly or indirectly linked to food, such as the consequences of climatic change, poisoning of agricultural produce, unequal distribution of food, but also the preservation of our nourishing Mother Earth, the choice of foods, different cuisines, the rituals and ceremonies around food … ”
The notion that a particular category of human life may be analyzed to understand a society likely has its roots in anthropology — for example, studying a culture’s types of housing as a window onto its organization of family life. This method has been applied to the study of history in recent books like Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, both of which take one small element of human life and use it as a thread to unravel the course of human civilization. The trend also exists in exhibitions: Tools: Extending Our Reach, currently on view at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art’s online Design and Violence project search for deeper meanings by examining objects that blend function and aesthetics. And, obviously, an anthropological lens is a longstanding trend in exhibitions dedicated to ancient cultures.
From browsing the artworks included and reviewing the exhibition materials, Food: Produce, Eat, Consume does not seem to have precisely the same type of anthropological lens; rather, it’s focused on art that incorporates food, not on food-as-art. Examples can help illuminate this distinction. “The Onion” (1995), a 10-minute video by Marina Abramović, shows the artist eating an onion while a voice expresses various dissatisfactions: “I’m tired of career decisions, the openings in museums and galleries, endless dinners … ” The onion in this video does not need to be an onion. It could be any unpleasant edible. Mircea Cantor’s “Underestimated Consequences” (2011) features a square bin (100 cm³) of garlic. Viewers may understand the work to be a comment on overabundance or on the industrialization of food production, but it also has aesthetic references, suggesting a hybridity of Minimalism and Arte Povera.
Grouping works of art under the banner of a functional category to which they may or may not primarily refer makes for easy socio-politicization, especially when they’re joined by pieces that do use food in an explicitly politicized way. General Idea’s “Nazi Milk” (1979–90) portrays a young, blonde boy with a glass of milk in his hand. The boy’s carefully parted hair and white turtleneck suggest military rigidity, and he has a milk mustache in the shape of Hitler’s mustache. The message that milk is good for children takes on a sinister tone here, as does advertising that uses health concerns to promote a mass-produced product. “Nazi Milk” doesn’t reflect a set of actual historical or contemporary concerns regarding fascism and milk, however; it creates a general mood of unease. This seems to be the crux of the problem with Food — its pieces often suggest sociopolitical issues, yet they are art, functioning outside of factual, thematically unified references. Food appears to operate in opposition to its stated goal; rather than reflecting on “issues directly or indirectly related to food,” it offers those as lenses through which to view and understand particular works of art.