“When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time.”
—Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (1913)
By MIKE MAIZELS, January 2021
The unfolding COVID-19 catastrophe continues to confine artists to their isolated studios (and screens) the world over, but present pandemic cannot be blamed for a preexisting “plague” of artistic homogenization. In the before times of physical proximity, a pressing critical concern had been a broad flattening of visual arts practice. A scaling curve of MFA programs, international fairs, contemporary spaces and brand collab opportunities, knitted together through the clotting tissue of Instagram, deluging over the art world in real time. The great convergence of the “perpetual present” —a world that, critics anxiously worried, was starting to resemble itself all over (1). And though the coronavirus outbreak has catalyzed a profound rupture, the art of the “New Normal” is, if anything, even more tightly bound to the same set of transglobal factors: the sociological break wrought by the virus, the searing response to racial injustice, the climate emergency, the precarity of a creative life in a time of international uncertainty. Quarantine journals, protest work, intimate process pieces. A universe awakening every day to endless images of homemade sourdough.
The midst of this slow motion disaster perhaps seems a strange time to offer a new theorization of aesthetic originality (and its relationship to interest, joy, pleasure or success.) But maybe this is an essential moment to do so. Within the visual arts, a welter of think-pieces has poured forth, advocating for the necessity of art and artmaking in response to crisis. So too in the world of cuisine, as people all over the world have rediscovered the necessity of both extra-ordinary meals and culinary self-sufficiency. But very little attention has been paid to the relationship that this emergent body of practice will have to itself. An art world that had been marked by its global similitude, responding to a nest of crises pouring over the world all at once. Cooking for survival, and for sanity.
How to be original at a time like this?
In the visual arts, the contemporary crisis of the copy reached a pithy apotheosis several seasons ago. We will not mire ourselves in murky questions of lexical etiology, but the au courant reading held that contemporary painting had become something of an undead monster. Abstract paintings produced with fire extinguisher blasts, oxidizing agents or (a personal favorite) pigment force-fed to fly larvae surged through art fairs, galleries, and MFA programs alike during the previous decade. Though the techniques were expansive in scope, the effects often retread over a path first broken during the 1950s. Oscar Murillo or Willem de Kooning brushing on their thick impasto. Tauba Auerbach or Mark Rothko hazing endless color. Nir Hod’s pair of mirrored surfaces, intercut with bits of the ready-to-hand scumbling abstraction. Canvases that had ostensibly left their living bodies far behind.
Contemporary arbiters of the of the avant-garde looked askance at this latest return of high modernism. The supposedly unreflexively nature of the above reprises was a particular point of derision, especially in reference to the similarly derivative “simulation painting” of the 1980s. Though it was also widely panned by its own mainstream critical press, simulation painting enjoyed an articulate set of apologists. Building on the ideas of Craig Owens, Douglas Crimp and the October set, simulationistas argued that this work made an important contribution to the history of painting by pointing at the vexed contradictions at the heart of notions such as “contributions” and “history" (2). This implicitly teleological view of aesthetic development had come to be regarded as intellectually suspect, if not morally bankrupt. As such, anti-developmental strategies such as pastiche, irony and direct reduplication could offer a reflexive wrench to throw into the instrumental machine of ever-fresh novelty.
The postmodern would not, could not, must not, all be “original.”
One of the more subtle extensions of this argument was put forward by my dissertation advisor, Howard Singerman, whose own thinking was informed by the aesthetic philosopher Nelson Goodman (3). For Goodman, artistic creation may be productively divided into autographic media (e.g. painting or sculpture), in which the artistic essence or identity inheres in an object, and allographic media (e.g. theater or live music), in which a work must be continually re-staged in order to maintain its existence. Thus, re-painting canonical examples could be said to be re-staging paint on canvas in the allographic mode. Paintings that would have to continually refashioned (4).
Painting as (re)performance is a compelling notion, but one that would seem to be in need of its own contemporary reconsideration. Since the 1980s, the art world has exploded in scale, scope and speed, and where there once was a call and response between antecedent and (self-conscious) imitator, there is now an erstwhile cacophony of riffing, reposting and remixing. The celebrated end of linear history has seemingly arrived: a worldwide community of makers is now much more engaged with each other—and the algorithms through which their work is communicated and compared—than with the thoroughly problematized canon of art history. Painting as reperformance provides little in the way of attending to the proliferation of digital copies and lasers shows now positioning themselves in the form of the museum (5). Or the salient, pre-CoVID idiom of art distilled down to disposable “experience.” Or what I have elsewhere referred to as the “Weekend at Bernie’s Rothko’s" (6).
A new theory of the interpenetration of imitation and creation is needed for the next roaring 20s. If the core idea had previously been to adapt the tenets of performance theory, I here propose borrowing from the philosophy of food.
High cuisine has its own complex intellectual history regarding the notion of originality, one that is nevertheless marked by an inter-relationship with that of art. If, as TJ Clark has famously argued, the germ of pictorial modernism can be first detected in the ethereal blankness of David’s Death of Marat (1793), something parallel was afoot in the contemporaneous cuisine of Marie-Antointe Carême (7). A bit abstract perhaps, but painter and chef nevertheless united in elaborating post-Revolutionary models of the New. Carême, for his part, figured as part of a pervasive Enlightenment attempt to rationalize previously esoteric domains of knowledge into hierarchal families of units—biological specie, chemical elements, universal sauces. Another similarity: mass printing made it possible for these new schematizations to reach mass audiences and thereby affect new cultural paradigms, dissemination channels, and training systems. What David is to paint, or Diderot is to epistemology, Carême is to cuisine (8).
As a cornerstone of modern cooking, it is important to note that Carême’s thought was itself marked by contradictions in the role of de novo originality in the kitchen. “Mine will be the honor and the merit,” he wrote in 1828, “of having been the first to treat our great cuisine in the grand manner, and to have borrowed nothing from anyone" (9). Perhaps. But even for Carême, such total reimagination mattered only as a vector of standardization, which in turn mattered primarily as a pathway to scale. Writing in the same Le Cuisiner parisien, Carême insisted that “my book is not written for great houses alone. On the contrary, I want it to have a general utility. ...I would like every citizen in our beautiful France to be able to eat delicious food.” In this sense, originality is bound up with the distribution possible only through repetition and versioning. The originary creativity of the chef brings forth a newly systematized culinary regimen, one worth its salt only as a pillar for endless repetition.
What Carême in the early 19th century referred to as “nouvelle cuisine” was brough into the 20th by Auguste Escoffier, another original chef who has been likened to “the Henry Ford of the professional kitchen” (10). Escoffier’s impact is fundamental to contemporary ideas of culinary achievement, and anyone with a crude caricature of the demanding, temperamental chef (a role played with relish by the televised Gordon Ramsay) has, perhaps without awareness, been imprinted by Escoffier’s larger than life persona. Indeed, as the first “celebrity chef,” Escoffier’s cooking wound through the same emergent spectacle of consumption and desire that drew in, inspired, and repulsed the modernist avant-gardes.
But while Escoffier’s critics might have dismissed him as merely “Carême for cruise ships,” his real time ascendance as both a creative and entrepreneurial luminary casts a light back on coeval developments in the art world (11). Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, along with Leger, Braque, and numerous others, were synchronously breaking the precedent of artistic visionaries doomed to die in impecunious obscurity. Indeed, these figures carved fame and fortune from the rock of their own moments by playing off demands that their art be both unprecedented and highly predictable. Beyond the demands of patron-clientele for an identifiable style, these artists wrestled with Romantic and systematic impulses of unfolding art history. The former prized singularity above all else; the latter insisted upon a schematized visual knowledge akin to a scientific study of chemistry. Or cooking. What the eminent TJ Clark has called the two great wishes of modernism: to destroy the necessity of Tradition, and to build necessity again out of the rubble of freedom (12).
Two world wars later, and the capital of creative culture had been firmly relocated from Paris to New York. The Romantic strain had won out amongst theorists of the visual—ur critic Clement Greenberg heaping praise of Pollock, Newman and Rothko for distilling the history of painting into a singular, tautological essence: referent-less cascades of pure color and form, denoting nothing but themselves and the originary gestures of the Last Names that had laid them onto a canvas. A work of difficulty, and of singularity.
It is then with a note of piquant irony that we might return to an (in)famous anecdote concerning the painter Mark Rothko. At the suggestion of founding MoMA director Alfred Barr, architect Philip Johnson tapped Rothko to create a mural cycle for the dining room of the new Seagram’s skyscraper—an upscale Four Seasons restaurant no doubt serving a close imitation of the cuisine Escoffier had created for rival Ritz (13). Rothko accepted the money but in some mixture balked at or sabotaged the commission—delivering a suite of canvases awash in hues of lead grey, sickly purple and rotting iron. “I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” the temperamental painter told Harper’s Magazine in 1959. Much to his surprise, he never got the chance. The Four Seasons ultimately demurred on Rothko—hanging a palette-pleasing Pollock in place of the lugubrious works he sent. Mark himself must have been surprised and a bit disappointed at finally having crossed a bridge too far. The shallow rich, he insisted, were always looking for provocative pleasure disguised as erudite difficulty. As he told Harper’s, “people can stand anything these days” (14).
In the visual art world, the mythos of existential singularity finally broke apart under its own gravity in the early 1960s. This well-known story—of modernist orthodoxy giving way to philosophically reflexive conceptualism and then to the catholicism of the postmodern—need not be rehearsed in depth here. Rather, what is important to note is the diverging trajectories of art and food in the period under consideration. The former witnessed a kind of implosion of tradition, with many kinds of artists turning to intricate, almost sadistic rule-sets as a means to turn the notion of Total Creative Freedom on its head (15). A select group of culinary thinkers, on the other hand, felt that the time had come for a profound reinvention of their discipline, one that would reimagine the role of the chef in the role of the truly original artist.
Under the ideology of “classical cuisine” (Carême through Escoffier), the contribution of the chef lay primarily in the daily translation of recognized culinary tenets into prepared food. Excellence was construed as the capability to maintain high fidelity to a circumscribed body of practice—seventeen predetermined courses, five “mother sauces,” a fixed number of proteins (16). The “nouvelle cuisine” most famously associated with Chef Paul Bocuse sought to do with away with this burdensome logic, introducing a new paradigm that privileged freshness over faithfulness (17). The forward-looking culinary philosophy encouraged chefs to deconstruct the staples of high French cooking, lightening and reimagining them for a modern world. As delineated in a set of Ten Commandments authored by critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau, chefs were instructed to “avoid pickles [and] cured game meats” as well as “eliminate rich sauces" (18). These iconic gravies and roux were instead substituted with flavored garnishes composed only of fresh herbs and sometimes citrus. The Commandments favored the inclusion of what was local and fresh over ingredient orthodoxy, with the result that dishes were often new creations recognizably related to, rather than genuine renditions of, received recipes. The prowess of the chef expressible as a mean to transpose familiar parts into daringly original configurations.
This combinatorial approach to cuisine was pushed further by a following generation of luminary chefs including René Redzepi, Grant Achatz and, most famously, Ferran Adrià. While often associated with the contested appellation “molecular gastronomy,” the thread running through this body of gastronomic thought has been not been the use of chemical processes per se, but rather the ways in which such specialized techniques open up novel recombinations of received culinary binaries. A key dish here is Adria’s 1994 invention of sea urchin and white bean foam—a pioneering juxtaposition of savory flavor with cool temperature and creamy texture (19). Further innovations followed as sodium alginate and liquid nitrogen made it possible to produce fruit “caviars” as well as flavors briefly suspended into smoke or air. This scientifically-powered search for culinary terra incognita has been taken to ever further extremes in Note By Note cuisine, which disavows intact animal protein and even vegetable fiber in pursuit of ingredients derived only in the chemist’s laboratory (20).
However, the adaptation of a basic research mindset has been only one of the directions taken by the shift to what we might call an authorial theory of the kitchen. Creative chefs have been emboldened to adapt culinary vocabularies drawn from what once might have been called “ethic food,” thereby catalyzing an adaptive radiation of ingredients, techniques and philosophies now incorporated into the world’s leading kitchens. Additionally, nouvelle thought forms an important precursor to the rise of local food movements (and renewed attention to local farms). Moreover, the broad democratization of access to fine dining—open kitchens, tattooed cuisiniers, celebrity Top Chefs and streaming culinary documentaries—would have all brought smiles to the faces of Gault and Bocuse (21). The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is forcing still new layers of originality. It is a curiously Adria-esque proposition to consider a kind of haute cuisine as prepared for a cold winter patio, or broken down into the component parts of the takeout bag.
The upshot of all this culinary creativity is the corollary of access by copying. The inter-activation of new ingredients, new recipes, new techniques and new audiences has been to diffuse the “leading edge” of practice ever further afield. Sphere-ified passionfruit, reindeer salami, and takeout truffles—all coming to a table, or home-delivery meal kit, near you.
It is within this light that I believe we should consider the inevitable resemblance of artistic innovation to itself, or what we might more easily refer to as the non-problem of “derivative” work. The same critics who layer acerbic scorn on contemporary abstraction often wax effusive about the power of the painters imitated by today’s neophytes. Pace the arch-belittler, Pollock canvases generate “a force field and an electromagnetic visual discharge” that seems to “violat[e] the laws of nature,” while Rothko produced oracular canvases in which “we see silence, static, disintegration, formation, the organic, the otherworldly…a psychic rupture unlike anything else in art" (22). Fantastic. And yet, there are only so many tables at Noma, or so many hours at MoMA. We might think of painterly abstraction (or photographic reappropriation) as a set of techniques or recipes, ones that can and should be prepared by the ascendant chefs of today. Especially if one considers it a priority to feed a panoply of creativity economies.
Visual or culinary creation can be valued not only for its de novo visionary genius, but for how well it uses local ingredients. Or seasonal colors. A classique may be preserved under aspic, but it will likely taste all the better if it is prepared fresh. Or even cooked at home.
This spirit of al fresco preparation and consumption animates one of the sharper sources of contemporary meme-based art criticism, the @abandondedpaintings Instagram account run by artist Jason Osborne. Osborne curates a stream of images of paintings (or their remnants) awaiting disposal or decay on an international swath of curbs, garbage cans, discard piles and dumpsters. The deceased works are rendered with humor, and occasionally pathos, and perhaps figure as home cooked failures or thrown away leftovers. As any amateur chef understands, the path to aesthetic joy, success and even novelty is littered with failed experiments and dirty dishes. Such is the example illustrated above—a painting carcass picked clean down its stretcher bars, an involuted example of naively imitative process-abstraction. “Fuck it, its painters discovering or testing their sensibilities.”
A culinary approach to painting diffuses the anxious hand-wringing over the shape of future art history, one seemingly stillborn amidst the homogeneity (or myopia) of the perpetual present. Another image of Osborn’s, this time a torn monochrome collapsed on a curbside pile of garbage bags, simply asks “do paintings need to last 300 years?” Not if we care about eating fresh, or local. WM
1. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Raleigh-Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 79. For more on the technological production of sameness and difference see Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970), 283. For critical reception see for example Tim Schneider, "The Gray Market: Why the Most Exhausting Aspect of Miami Art Week is the Most Important..." Artnet (Decemeber 10, 2018) https://news.artnet.com/opinion/gray-market-miami-art-week-1415251 NB “all over painting” of Pollock et al as the apotheosis of New York School painting on which the waves of imitation examined in this essay have been built.
2. See for example Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” October 12 (Spring, 1980), pp. 67-86; Peter Halley, “The Crisis in Geometry” Arts 58.10 (June 1984).
3. Howard Singerman, Art History, After Sherrie Levine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 115-118.
4. See also the performed murals of Sol Lewitt. Michael Maizels, In and Out of Phase: An Episodic History of Music in the 1960s (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020), 62-3.
5. Edward Gunts, “Culturespaces, operator of wildly popular digital art museums in France, is coming to New York” Arch Paper (July 31, 2020) archpaper.com/2020/07/culturespaces-coming-to-new-york/
6. In 2014, the Harvard Art Museum took on a bizarre experiment in which a series of degraded Rothko’s were “revived” by means of high resolution color projection. The result, to the author, is to give them an appearance of life only in certain preordained poses, much like the eponymous, deceased boss in Weekend at Bernie’s. See Louis Menand, “Watching Them Turn Off the Rothkos” By L april 1 2015 https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/watching-them-turn-off-the-rothkoshttps://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/watching-them-turn-off-the-rothkos
7. TJ Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, “Writing Out of the Kitchen: Carême and the Invention of French Cuisine, Gastronomica 3.3 (Summer 2003), pp. 40-51.
8. In 2014, the Harvard Art Museum took on a bizarre experiment in which a series of degraded Rothko’s were “revived” by means of high resolution color projection. The result, to the author, is to give them an appearance of life only in certain preordained poses, much like the eponymous, deceased boss in Weekend at Bernie’s. See Louis Menand, “Watching Them Turn Off the Rothkos” By L april 1 2015 https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/watching-them-turn-off-the-rothkoshttps://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/watching-them-turn-off-the-rothkos
9. Quoted in Ferguson, 42
10. Nathan Myhrvold, “The Art in Gastronomy: A Modernist Perspective” Gastronomica 11.1 (Spring 2011), 15.
12. Clark, 9.
13. Abigail Cain, “The Story behind Rothko’s Famed Seagram Murals” Artsy (Nov 18, 2016) https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-why-one-meal-made-rothko-cancel-his-first-major-commission
14. Quoted in Cain.
15. For example Sol LeWitt and On Kawara in visual art, Milton Babbitt in music, Georges Perec in literature.
16. Hayagreeva Rao, Philippe Monin and Rodolphe Durand, “Institutional Change in Toque Ville: Nouvelle Cuisine as an Identity Movement in French Gastronomy” American Journal of Sociology , 108.4 (January 2003), 805.
17. Rao et al, 798-802. Though Carême also refered to his work as nouvelle cuisine, the term most often refers to the innovations of the 1960s rather than the 1820s.
18. Quoted in Michael Steinberger, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2011), 50.
19. Giulia Sgarbi, “Twelve iconic dishes of El Bulli” World’s 50 Best (June 29, 2017) https://www.theworlds50best.com/stories/News/12-iconic-dishes-el-bulli-ferran-adria.html
20. For more see Hervé This, Note-by-Note Cooking: The Future of Food Front Cover (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014)
21. Adam Platt, “Legacies: Anthony Bourdain’s Crusade for Fine-Dining Democracy” Grub Street (June 8, 2018). https://www.grubstreet.com/2018/06/anthony-bourdain-restaurant-democracy-legacy.html
22. Jerry Saltz, “The Old is New Again” Artnet (Nov 17, 2010) www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/saltz/the-new-is-old-again11-17-10.asp
Michael Maizels, PhD is an historian and theorist whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures. He is the author of four books, the most recent of which analyzes the history of postwar American art through the lens of business model evolution. He has also published widely on topics ranging from musicology and tax law to the philosophy of mathematics. He is currently the Head of Research at Abra, financial services and technology company based in Mountain View, and an affiliate at the metaLAB, a think tank and creative technology lab at Harvard University.
All views expressed are the author’s alone and may not reflect the views of Abra or of the metaLAB.view all articles from this author