Why food has eclipsed art as the highest form of culture


I read this great piece from Michael Wolff at GQ UK about the trials and tribulations of New York City foodies. In the piece Michael describes how restaurants rule the social social scene for urbanites while lapping up more than their share of the cultural bandwidth, dictating the haves and have-nots through the reservations they can or cannot obtain. In summary:

I don’t think it is possible to overstate the dominance of restaurants in urban life. They are the cultural focus and reference, eclipsing sports, art, literature, entertainment, music, drugs – and sex. You likely wouldn’t have sex with someone who took you to the wrong restaurant (or at least wouldn’t be happy about it). Restaurant reviews are like theatre reviews used to be, defining a cultural consensus. Certainly people talk more often and more passionately about restaurants than they talk about politics, movies, or even real estate. Restaurant talk may be the highest form of cultural sophistication and Zeitgeist connection. You’re a bore and rube if you haven’t eaten where everybody has eaten – or at least if you’re not shaking with excitement about getting there soon.

The piece is fantastic.  You should read the entire thing.  But, what’s really interesting to me is the rise of Foodism to the top of the cultural pyramid. Didn’t the pinnacle of high culture used to belong to art?

I’m sure there’s many deep and insightful reasons to explain this progression, but the one that stands out to me is that food is a far more social endeavor than art.  It lends itself towards the broadcasting habits inherent in the digital age made known through check-ins, and the now widespread act of “foodstagraming.” Even the young couple can extract intimacy from the experience of sharing the kitchen for a few hours a week, toiling over a delicious recipe, that before sites like Epicurious and Allrecipes, was hidden to the amateur.

Innovators have taken note.  Today we have television networks boasting 24-7 programming that admittedly doesn’t suck.  Some of the most widely read books of the last decade have been about food; see: Omnivore’s Dilemma. We have food trucks, underground supper clubs, plated dinners on subways, pop-up restaurants, pop-down restaurants, event sites like EatWith, that serve as a sort of Travelocity for eating in strangers homes.

It’s almost as if food has become a gateway towards something else…

But, the real question then is, can food deliver on the same level of intellectual, expressive or emotional depth as that of the fine arts? I’m not sure I have the answer to that.  But, even as I write this, I’m struck by how fundamentally different each is and how unfair it may be to compare the two as equal components of culture.  Food or the act of dining provides a sort of forum and playing field for stimulating conversation, socialization, and the sharing of ideas.  It sets the stage and enhances the connection we have with others.  A fine Italian burrata can stir the emotional and mental faculties as well as an inspiring lecture, although perhaps in a more subtle way.

However, I think food succeeds where art fails in it’s apparent self-confidence with being the backdrop or conduit for something bigger and more substantive, namely connection with other human beings.  It would be arrogant for a chef to assume that your dinner conversation should revolve exclusively around his or her culinary works.  And, in today’s hyper-social, experience-driven world, maybe food is just a better fit.

Image via: laurenlemon via Compfight cc


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