EAT YOUR IDYLLS!
“The Art of Food” at the Carnegie through March 21, 2013.
by Regan Brown
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
―William Blake from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”
“Let them eat cake!”
―a quote erroneously attributed to Marie Antoinette.
“The fury and cruelty of the French mob were strangely mixed with laughter — as when the severed head of Marie Antoinette’s friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, was spruced up by a hairdresser and waved on a pike outside the royal family’s window. These are the grisly surprises that now greet us every day through our own windows — the glass monitors of TV’s and PC’s. The return of Marie Antoinette suggests that there are political forces at work in the world that Western humanism does not fully understand and that it may not be able to control.”
―Camille Paglia from “Why Marie Antoinette…?”
Food and Art, always-longtime staples of any self-respecting opening, are being increasingly conflated, even hard-spliced together in a veritable hotbed of recent exhibitions and “social practice” shows . Most people go to the big openings to eat hors d’oeuvres, commune with friends and drink the wine anyhow, maybe even impress a hot date, not meditate on the art so much. So why not make all this progeny of the visual and culinary aesthetes the central essence, the object d’ art, or even “objet (petit) a”, the ever more discreet and singular object of desire as well? Carmel Miranda Mélange anyone?
In some ways this makes perfect synesthetic sense: the eye as an organ searches out a palette of color that excites the rods and cones in a similarly enticing spectrum to when the somewhat analogous ingredients of sugar, salt and fat cross the rubicund roof of our taste-buds’ bliss point . Both palettes though, when subjected to increasingly refined additives by the ad and food industry, can become easily addicted: obese gluttons of consumption in fact, out cruisin’ for a fix all night in the Media and Manna saturated Hall of Mirrors of this: Our Virtually Infinite All-American Drive Thru Versailles. Jeff Koons choosing the real and fetid (at least by way of Metro) Temple of Conspicuous Opulence for a retrospective was nothing short of genius , although his art most certainly is not, in and of itself. This is really beside the point of much such work anyway, as it seems to be geared toward engaging issues beyond the Gallery, or increasingly even meant to harpoon “The Great White Cube”, an institution sometimes weighed down by a tradition as long in the tooth as the Eucharist, or even the Prehistoric Cave, struggling to stay relevant and nutritious while surviving a near Saturn-like devouring by the centrifugal and almost congenital maelstrom of visual distracters that is the Little Big Screen. The Fabled Age of the messianic aesthete won’t save the museum from its current conflagration either: that myth of the hard-living Guru-like ascetic, grinding out a handsome autonomous object, like an ergonomically whittled yet self-crucifying cross, just barely hand finished before Le Artiste flops face first into a prefab pauper’s grave, dead of some madness or addiction…only later to ascend upon clouds of swarming, even smarmy millions, a glitzy constellation in the Forever After of that Great Vaulted Auction House High in the Starry Night. Yes, the casket-lid long open on that iconic age has mostly slammed shut, (to an ironic good riddance), while the astute and market savvy of say the Saatchi stable fly high, navigating and pocketing the big sales at Christie’s while still living a life high on the fatted and vivisected golden calf. And why not? Anyway, as Banksy has noted : Advertising, in a somewhat farcically Faustian fashion, attracts most of the rest of the bright, creative and ambitious young “visual communicators” with its promise of regular paychecks in exchange for some soda pop logos on plein air billboards, leaving the Contemporary Artworld a veritable wasteland, (or is it a food dessert?), except for the parts colonized by a mostly palatable and marketable Dead Impressionist, sometimes Modernist or living Post-Pop Provocateur, guaranteed to put asses in seats and assets in the pockets of the Big Venues Stakeholders who peddle their stables’ overly reproduced imagery again and again and again like a never ending “Munchian” Scream glazed onto a skateboard or an eco-friendly and locally sourced cookie, conveniently picked up and munched on as you exit through the expensive gift shop. Step right on up Folks, and get your MOMA’s Munch’s Munchies!
What’s left for the rest of us movers and shakers marooned out here in the Galleries of Middle Art? Some would say, not a whole lot, starved as we are for a little enrichment at the end of a long work week, huddled up together against the Winter’s Wail, sheltering with a cup of grog inside the sanitary walls of the clean White Cube. Unless we do hereby consider the attendance alone to Opening Night at the recent and 7th annual “Art of Food” show at the Carnegie as any indication of a groundswell: this recombinant A-R-T confected from the suggestive DNA of the ubiquitous vino and vittles was a howling success. The “après moi, le déluge“ of the Artwork itself, as that’s what I’m tasked with imbibing here, is more a hodge-podge of the middling to mild kind, with a few noted exceptions.
The most exceptional exception that spoke to me, I found not in the gallery, but online (see Fig 1.), a similar image of which (rightly so) graced the covers of CityBeat leading up to the Carnegie show: it depicts a really fine confection from Pam Kravetz and crews “Let Them Eat Cake (on the Cakewalk),” a fashion show of “11 delectable looks from 15 artists working with several layers of DAAP students, beauty experts, bakers and others.” . Unpacking just one such an image, notably shot by excellent local photographer Jesse Fox, is plenty to chew on: a Marie Antoinette-like figure dressed up as an ornamental and literal Rococo Coquette Cake is just too delectable to pass up, and one of the few works, if it had appeared in the post opening exhibition as a framed photograph for sale, I certainly wouldn’t have passed up. But it wasn’t there and unfortunately, and in the sake of full disclosure, I myself was also conversely absent from the opening, thinking I would catch the “après” and not the “déluge”, in order to better focus on the work. Possibly a mistake, but in a way this elegiac distance in terms of the work at hand all seems to resonate better because of le miss.
II. AN AESTHETIC INDULGENCE.
“Sade has barely made a dent on American academic consciousness. It is his violence far more than his sex which is so hard for liberals to accept. For Sade, sex is violence. Violence is the authentic spirit of mother nature.”
―Camille Paglia, from “Sexual Personae”
“The fact is, that what de Sade was trying to bring to the surface of the conscious mind was precisely the thing that revolted that mind . . . From the very first he set before the consciousness things which it could not tolerate.”
― Georges Bataille, Author of “Death and Sensuality”
It would be interesting to imagine a sort of Metaphysical Ménage a Trois between de Sade, Antoinette and George Bataille. It wouldn’t be all that hard after pondering just a few synchronicities. The Marquis de Sade (2 June 1740 – 2 December 1814) and Marie Antoinette (2 November 1755 – 16 October 1793), in a not so subtle irony of history, were to some degree contemporaries, though there is no record of them ever meeting. Georges Bataille (10 September 1897 – 9 July 1962) carried on much of de Sade’s project into the 20th Century. His mother, who on several occasions attempted suicide, was known as “Marie Antoinette” Bataille. We often associate any or all of these icons of French Culture and Philosophy with at least the height of sexual if not an immoral excess, even transgression, a sort of unrestrained indulgence in short. Marie Antoinette’s life, much like her contemporary Pop paramour Marilyn Monroe, almost reads like a Grimm Fairy Tale de Sade or Bataille would have written if either of them had ever ventured into children’s literature. Fortunately they never went there, but in another, and more obtuse way, Pam Kravetz “and crew” did, by pulling together what seems on the surface an obvious concoction.
Marie Antoinette AS a cake on the “cake” walk, when the layers are slowly stripped bare by her or her bachelor’s even, works on so many different and resonant levels, it’s damn near irreverent and deserves a long interpretative listing: the sickeningly sweet and seemingly ubiquitous Fairy Tale princess myth promoted at every turn by Disney et al. turned on its (soon to be decapitated?) head; the bachelor party ingénue popping out of the cake to the delight of the randy frat boy frenetic; issues of the ever widening whirlpool of certain eating disorders hyped by an industry full of hyper thin Models parading exhaustedly up and down the catwalk bearing the weight of the googly-eyed male gaze like so many licks to the center of cherry pop cross; the mix of desire, feeding and sexuality packed on like so many Freudian Fondant edible (or is it oedipal?) red and white virginal roses to be plucked in what seems an almost flirtatious, even provocative, invitation to the euphemistic yet Eucharistic ingestion inherent in Art and Intercourse; the conspicuous consumption of “excessiveness is next to godliness” inherent in the rebranding of immense wealth as a right to the righteous granted by His Grace; the kinky soccer mom coterie of corseted bondage floating out there on the Bookstand Ether in more than Fifty Shades of Grey; Gender rich Performance Art to the point where I wish there had been a Yoko Ono-esque “Cut (Cake) Piece” as part of the Finale of Opening Night (or was there one and I just wasn’t invited?). This is obviously to me a very fertile, even pregnant Icon we have here, one I could go on and on about except for the fact that I’m facing a deadline a bit less severe than the Guillotine. Suffice it to say that whatever work Kravetz and crew pursue in the future, I’ll be sure NOT to miss a Live Perusal again.
Although there was no documentation (photo/ video/ cake) of the above in the current Carnegie exhibition itself, an unfortunate omission that is often the only record and commodity of such Performance Art, much of the work actually hung in the gallery at the moment has trouble competing with even Antoinette’s abstention. In fact much of the rest of the work looked as if it could just as well have been hanging on a restaurant wall, with again a few other notable exceptions. In particular a couple of paintings by Eric Brass, (“Blood” and “Help”) and one mixed media piece by Trinidad Mac-Aulifee entitled “Fortune Cookie”. Also the “Pop Memories” of Timothy J. Gold that grace the main entrance stairwell are fine works and made an unfulfilled promise of excellent work to come. Maybe the opening night with its multiple restaurants catering to the part of the public that could pay the $50 entry fee, (not too many starving artists among them I’m guessing), is the real spectacle now anyhow. Overall the lack of anything truly spectacular, challenging or “New Media” (video, etc.) in the day to day exhibition, especially documentation of the residue of Opening Night Proclivities, seemed a real miss, and made the main rotunda gallery, where the Performance had taken place, seem practically empty when I visited, consumed more by Space than Art, somehow conservatively cavernous, interspersed with those awfully, or just awful, practical fold-out display boards that I think everyone could agree would be better if they went the way of the cave-painting and disappeared from Contemporary Curatorial Praxis, all together now…
III. AN ASETIC INDULGENCE
“Directly we enter the Lascaux cave…we are gripped by a strong feeling we never have when standing in a museum, before the glassed cases displaying the oldest petrified remains of men or neat rows of their stone instruments. In underground Lascaux, we are assailed by that same feeling of presence—of clear and burning presence—which works of art from no matter what period have always excited in us.”
― Georges Bataille, from Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art
“This perversion of the truth, familiar to the artist though it was, always unnerved him afresh and proved too much for him. What was a consequence of the premature ending of his fast was here presented as the cause of it! To fight against this lack of understanding, against a whole world of nonunderstanding, was impossible.”
― Franz Kafka, from “A Hunger Artist”.
It seems that our oldest experiences of art, just those very Cave Paintings I mentioned earlier, are born from deprivation: imagine crawling deep through a narrow tunnel with little food, water or light in tow, just to find an open womb-like space to inscribe your shamanic hallucinations on. The temple and church chapel refined and continued the tradition mostly enjoyed by the elite few of a priesthood or monarchy through till the Revolutions that rocked Marie Antoinette’s world and gave rise to a growing commerce among the middle class, who often turned around and attempted to mimic, or at least envy, in portraiture and endless gallery filling symbolic and fruitful Still Lives, the Robber Barons of a New World Elite, fantasizing that we could all somehow catch that Rags to Riches Express to those Pearly Gated Communities in the Burbs. BUT, as the Communists used to say, and you might even catch a few US Congress members intoning this today: “Sorry, BUB, some people are just created more equal than others.”
Quite a few 20th and even 21st Century artists (Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramović, et al.), in the name of communing more with the people, have in fact tried to reach back, at least in spirit, to those earliest of shamanistic acts. It’s no secret that Picasso was fascinated by pre-historic art as well. BUT, it seems that the Arch Irony of Pop and the raw materialism of the marketplace have mostly won out. There are still a few works that manage to be Trojan Horses, or Trojan Cakes in this case, and parry the language of the overwrought marketplace with the language of inherent critique, without being too heavy-handed, and are thereby able to occasionally rise up and flourish in the Art Hothouse without throwing the stones that would smash its safety glass.
Though still, a Marie Antoinette figure dressed up as a cake seems to me, even in Today’s World, or maybe especially in Today’s World, to absolutely scream “EAT THE RICH!”. Or is it “BE THE RICH!” (?). Pop and Post Pop Art, much like Commercial Art, often tries too often to have it both ways. With this type of work I often find myself too busy eating the menu and therein I miss the meal.
. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/95077-the-thing-i-hate-the-most-about- advertising-is-that