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Art and atmosphere

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As Deane W. Curtin notes in “Food/Body/Person,” Plato categorized food and cooking as a “knack,” a practice that concerns only the physical body and doesn’t engage the mind in a meaningful way, and must therefore be considered something less than a true art form. At first glance, this rings true, and must have especially made sense to a 4th-century B.C. philosopher – food is a biological necessity, an often mundane fact of life that is universal not just to humans but to every living organism under the sun. Could cattle idly grazing in an Athenian field, Plato might have asked, truly be said to be experiencing art?

Our understanding of food and the social and cultural roles it may play has evolved over the centuries in parallel with civilization and our knowledge of ourselves in general. Much of the world enjoys a culinary abundance that would have been unimaginable even a century ago. Grocery stores in most of the developed world carry food grown and produced in places all around the globe, and technology and the internet allows the sharing of recipes across national and ethnic barriers. For the fortunate among us, eating has evolved far beyond the rote, deterministic activity Plato considered it, into a pursuit full of choices and opportunities for expression.

The image above, taken from a restaurant review in a small New Jersey newspaper, captures the atmosphere an Italian restaurant has created for its patrons: an accordionist, faux-Mediterranean architecture, and classical artwork visible on the wall. Art is experiential; it must be engaged with and in some cases even participated in, and the context in which a consumer or aficionado does so can be just as important as the content of the work of art itself. The architecture of most museums of classical art is intentionally grand and stately, designed to reflect the history and legacy of the works it houses, while those whose focus is more contemporary are accordingly designed in a more modern style; compare the Greek columns and Beaux-Arts façade of the Met in New York City with the sleek glass exterior of MoMA not so very far away.

Similarly, the atmosphere of a particular restaurant aims to set the proper stage for the culinary experience it provides. This of course applies to different ethnic traditions – if the image I’d chosen were from a comparable Mexican restaurant, for example, the accordionist would likely be replaced by a mariachi, the “stucco” with “adobe” – but also to other dimensions of food consumption as well. A five-star restaurant run by a celebrity chef sets itself apart from the average fast-food joint by offering an experience defined by quality, novelty, patience, attention to detail, price, and social status, rather than one centered around ease, efficiency, uniformity, and ubiquity. The choice is equivalent to that between a symphony ticket and the latest $1.29 pop song on iTunes, or between an art-house film and a cheesy Hollywood blockbuster. And in choosing what, where, and how we eat, just like in those things, the choice is ours.

Williams, Victoria. “Buon Appetito!” Gloucester County Times. New Jersey On-Line, 20 Feb. 2009. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.

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