Thursday, July 15, 2010
Cakes can never be art
Having once made the statement above, I have declined all opportunities to enlarge upon it or defend it. That seemed to be a fool’s errand, especially given the volume of messages I receive urging me to eat this cake or that and recant the error of my ways. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that in principle, cakes cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say "never," because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no pastry chef now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.
What stirs me to return to the subject? I was urged by a reader to consider a video of an interview of Margaret Braun, a designer and baker of cakes. I did so. I warmed to Braun immediately. She is bright, confident, persuasive. But she is mistaken. I propose to take an unfair advantage. She spoke extemporaneously. I have the luxury of responding after consideration. If you want to follow along, I urge you to watch her talk, which is embedded below. It’s only six minutes long, and she makes the time pass quickly.
She begins by saying her cakes "definitely are" art. Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a cake worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, filmmakers, novelists and poets." To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.
Then she shows an example of one of her cakes, calling it "Islamic or 18th Century." Braun concedes that chess, football, baseball and even mah jong cannot be art, however elegant their rules. I agree. But of course that depends on the definition of art. She says the most articulate definition of art she’s found is the one in Wikipedia: "Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions." This is an intriguing definition, although as a chess player I might argue that my game fits the definition.
Plato, via Aristotle, believed art should be defined as the imitation of nature. Seneca and Cicero essentially agreed. Wikipedia believes "Cake is a form of food, typically a sweet, baked dessert... Cake decorating is one of the sugar arts that uses icing or frosting and other edible decorative elements to make otherwise plain cakes more visually interesting. Alternatively, cakes can be molded and sculpted to resemble three-dimensional persons, places and things."
But we could play all day with definitions, and find exceptions to every one. For example, I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist. Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community? Yes, but it reflects the work of individual choreographers. Everybody didn’t start dancing all at once.
One obvious difference between art and cakes is that you can eat a cake. It has sugar, flour, eggs and frosting. Braun might show an elaborate cake in the shape of Chewbacca, but I would say then it ceases to be a cake and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot eat; you can only experience them.
She quotes a definition of good baking as "being motivated by a desire to make the audience hungry." This is not a useful definition, because a great deal of bad food is also motivated by the same desire. I might argue that the cakes of Nancy Silverton are so motivated, and Jacquy Pfeiffer would argue that his cakes are so motivated. But when I say Silverton is "better" than Pfeiffer and that her cakes are artworks, that is a subjective judgment, made on the basis of my appetite (which I would argue is better than the appetite of anyone who prefers Pfeiffer).
These days, she says, "grown-up eaters" hope for cakes that reach higher levels of "joy, or of ecstasy....catharsis." These cakes (which she believes are already being baked) "are being rewarded by audiences by high sales figures." The cakes she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a cake that will deserve my attention long enough to eat it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a cake worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets."
Why are pastry chefs so intensely concerned, anyway, that cakes be defined as art? Ray Kroc, Carl Karcher, and Tommy Koulax never said they thought their foods were an art form. Why aren’t pastry chefs content to bake their cakes and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.
Do they require validation? In defending their baking against dieticians, nutritionists, personal trainers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the mixing bowl and explain, "I’m studying a great form of art?" Let them have their cake and eat it, too, if it makes them happy.
This blog post is a parody/response to Roger Ebert's post, "Videogames can never be art." No offense or plagiarism is intended. All images taken from Cake Wrecks.