I read a piece in Esquire today, by John Mariani, called “Is Cooking Ever an Art?,” in which the author argues that no, it is not. I would, as you might expect, disagree.

Mariani begins by providing definitions of art from the 5th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, and allows that for him, cooking does fall under the fourth and fifth definitions given, which amount to skill and artful contrivance, cunning. Never mind the self-referential, circular definition. He then proceeds to deprecate the role of beauty in art, noting that “there is ugly art (Hieronymus Bosch) and troubling art (Goya’s Disasters of War) and art that is deliberately in your face (Kerouac’s On the Road), disorienting (Kubrick’s 2001), even repulsive (the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”). Cooking, on the other hand, should be none of these things except, perhaps, beautiful to look at on the plate and delicious on the tongue.”

Does he mean to disqualify cooking as art because it is beautiful and pleasing?! His thrust seems to be that because cooking is a skill attained through rigorous practice, it falls under the heading of “craft.”

And that is exactly where his argument really falls down, for me: “Thus, imagination and creativity go into cooking, often at a very high level, at which point it is called haute cuisine. But there is nothing that rises to the level of true art in a craft whose very existence depends on the constant replication of a dish, night after night, week after week. The replication of a series of stencils, even if orginally designed by Raphael, does not constitute art, and I’m sure Andy Warhol was mumbling all the way to the bank when his work went from reproducing Brillo boxes to having assistants mimic his own work.”

Really, John? What you have described is precisely the art that most of us see. Reproductions. To use your example, Raphael painted, oh, let’s say a Madonna with child. You’ll grant that this is art? (You won’t disqualify it because it happens to be quite beautiful, will you?). How many times has this particular painting been reproduced, in the 500 years since it was created? Has it lost any of its value – or perhaps its classification as art – in the reproducing?

Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch, c. 1506

So if say, Thomas Keller creates a dish that has never been seen or tasted, which combines ingredients that no-one has thought to put together before, and yes, presents it in a visually pleasing way on the plate, so that the diner may enjoy it with more than one sense, does the fact that the minions in his kitchen reproduce this dish again and again really lower its status from art to craft?

I’d say Mariani needs to eat in better restaurants.

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