From da Vinci’s late-15th-century “Last Supper” to Dana Sherwood’s contemporary videos of cakes being devoured by baboons, to The Food Network’s Cake Wars, food and art have always been inseparable. No single generalization can blanket our engagement with food across the broad range of media, from oil on canvas to fermented cabbage, or the variety of actions undertaken, but we can explore universal whys behind our food. At its simplest level, food looks, tastes, and smells good. It is fundamental to our existence.
But beyond that we interact with food intimately, consume it, ingest it, digest it—and internalize it in multiple senses—and with multiple senses. Food defines ordinary life and special occasions alike. It can create pleasure and provoke shame. A vehicle for stories, it prompts nostalgia and inspires utopian dreams. It embodies generosity, community, culture. It causes pollution and contributes to climate change. It’s in the kitchen, at the drive-through, on TV, filling up Instagram. It is fast and slow, super and junk, street and Michelin-starred. As long as art has been made, artists have found in food an endlessly elastic metaphor, and today’s artists use it for varied investigations of the body, identity, gender, community, the domestic, the sacramental, economics, politics, and the environment.
Food is a basic human necessity. Art exists far down the continuum of biological need. Yet both serve to define Homo sapiens as a species. Humans are the only animals that cook and the only ones to create symbolic representations of reality. These two acts—the essential and the essentializing—have repeatedly converged in human history. From the beginning, in fact.
Since the creation of the cave paintings at Lascaux, food’s visual form has presented a challenge to virtuosity, inviting artists to imitate reality or redefine it. Food brings to the table the enduring themes of desire and transience. Food is an important aspect of how we document ourselves and our lives, even though it is very mundane. It isn’t just something we consume, it’s something we do. It’s not just a critique of other people but an introspective act.
Food is a medium with which to create emotion and, through emotion, to convey ideas. Caravaggio’s painted figs and apples expressed a poignant truth about time’s corrosive effect on beauty. Perhaps the same can be said about how we create advertisements for hamburgers, coffee, or tofu. Perhaps the same should be said. The outcomes of food-based advertising are irreconcilably different and dependent on its cultural role; the starting point is not.