Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Sometimes a truism pops up in a time and manner that is unexpected and may be totally new to us. Take, for instance, “Art imitates life.” Yes, the popularization of this phrase was actually as something for Oscar Wilde to push against when he said, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” I’m not terribly sure I agree with that, but that’s not really the point of this writing and I don’t intend to argue it here (although I accidentally might). “Art imitates life” came into my head as I was having a discussion with a friend about the intersection of food, art, and respectful multiculturalism. I am an artist and I like food, a lot. There was a time when I was pursuing a career in the culinary arts, working in kitchens in San Francisco, Portland, and South Lake Tahoe. I didn’t leave that pursuit because I fell out of love with food. The main reason I left was a result of looking at the lifestyles of chefs I admired. If you’re a chef - generally speaking - you really only get to be a chef, it’s a life consuming profession and I have too many other interests to choose a career that will unilaterally take up so much of my time, no matter how much I love food and cooking. This is doubly true if it’s unlikely to pay well despite being incredibly stressful. I still love to cook, and I still love food. I also think food is a wonderful entry point for learning about other people’s cultures - plus it’s delicious and may be my favorite way of enjoying community.
I am also insatiably curious. In food this results in me consistently buying cookbooks and reading food blogs by people from other cultural backgrounds than mine and learning their food and whatever cultural connections the writers include with their recipes - lately I’ve been cooking and learning a lot about Japanese and Mexican cuisines (I read a couple blogs: Just One Cookbook and Mexico In My Kitchen and also work from a book called Japanese Soul Cooking - in my opinion, a good cookbook or food blog includes a good amount of history, too). At the same time, in my art practice, I’ve been thinking about wanting to make work related to the joys of food and cooking. Then, as I was starting to plan out the body of work, I realized that I’ve inadvertently reached a point where - other than the bagels and eggs I eat for breakfast - the food I make is largely Japanese or Mexican. This raised an interesting issue for me as I was concerned that, despite my best of intentions, I as a white man making art about food from other cultures could come across in a way I didn’t mean - regardless of the fact that it’s food that I’ve been making for myself in my own life. Fortunately, I have a friend who is very engaged with this side of culture and I reached out to ask their opinion. They’re a first generation Taiwanese/Cantonese artist whose work often deals with food and its importance in culture and their response was largely what I suspected: It would probably be best for me to steer clear of making work about food from other cultures. It’s great to learn about and make it for myself, but as soon as I start to inject it into my own output I begin to take up space in the discussion about food and culture that is better served being left to the people in those cultures - who also are often marginalized in this country. I was a little unhappy with that, but I also respect their opinion and fully intended to take it to heart.
This is when “Art imitates life” came into my mind. I started wondering, “so can art not imitate life in this instance? I can’t show my appreciation for these things I like?” Then I realized it already was art imitating life on a grand scale - not art as in whatever specific drawings I was wanting to do but “Art” the larger cultural phenomenon. As I considered it more, it made more and more sense. I want to show my appreciation for the food, so I wanted to make art about it. It’s a way I show appreciation. However, art is a cultural element in its own right. What that means is that in my desire to show appreciation for something I like, I would be injecting it into my narrative and therefore inadvertently injecting my narrative - and the narrative of the culture I’m a part of - back into it, which was not the point. I would effectively be taking it for myself, taking up space in someone else’s cultural narrative or discussion, diluting the message of something’s significance. It would be similar to a bombastic person who can’t cook lingering in a kitchen crowing loudly about their love or uninformed opinion for something without giving anyone else actually making the food a chance to get a word in edgewise: Well-meaning but harmful. Even if I did all the research I possibly could about these foods and communities, it would be an academic and maybe even voyeuristic knowledge to me - so any art I make would be lacking in the firsthand experience and root of the cultures, and the cultures are the real point.
Cultures are not just theoretical ideas that produce nice things, they are people - real people - and their interactions with each other. Looking at and talking about the objects they produce from the outside misses the point entirely. By taking the physical manifestations of that culture - like their food - and injecting it into my narrative, I remove that physical manifestation from its culture. It’s like ignoring the importance of an apple tree while glorifying the apple - which also sounds like something we would absolutely do in this culture. We are often very short sighted. We like our images and objects and generally forget the importance of people. Consider the common baseline for what is considered a “successful” business now. Since Milton Friedman began advocating for neoliberalism, it’s been a singular focus on the bottom line for the next fiscal quarter; shareholder value over all and money with no concern where it came from or how it was generated. We love our objects but ignore where they come from. I don’t think this is always malicious. It certainly wasn’t for me, I wanted to show appreciation for something I like but I would have inadvertently taken up space in a discussion that I am not equipped to have, reducing the very thing I was looking to elevate by removing the root of what makes it beautiful - the difference between picking a flower just to let it die in a vase in a week or so and having living flowers in pots or flowerbeds that stick around.
I would consider this one of the more insidious, subconscious drivers of colonialism - a way to accidentally run over people while taking their stuff with nothing but the best of intentions. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing more than let people do their thing and say thank you. Making art about someone else’s food that I have a culinary interest in while ignoring the actual someones that brought it into reality is elevating the apple while ignoring the tree. What’s more, it’s almost looting or plundering them as I benefit financially or socially from their history and culture while sharing in no part of it. Art is imitating life, so if I change my life to reflect real respect for the cultures - the actual real people - that provided these things I like, my art would also then step aside. I would learn and say thank you, as a person as opposed to an artist, because it’s about the people, not the objects. I would not usurp them by making the objects my own. To be sure, I still make the food for myself and friends and I will continue to do so in a way that is grateful and respectful. I will also continue to seek out the resources that are as close to the origins of the food as I can so I can learn from the people who actually have the culture and soul of this food in them (not to mention the fact that they usually have the best recipes). I will continue to learn the significance and histories of the foods. But I will not incorporate them into my creative output. I will enjoy them and be grateful to those who are willing to share their culture with me, and I will elevate them and their voices as something I like and appreciate - since that is showing true appreciation and since the thing I like is a thing that they make so they’re far better equipped to talk about it than I am anyway. The older I get, the more I think a multicultural society is not a homogenous mishmash of a bunch of disparate things squashed together into a single new culture but rather a place where many different cultures can coexist, grow, evolve, and share with each other in a mutually respectful and cooperative environment. Part of that means not taking up all the oxygen in the room, which is an area in which the white American culture many of us grew up in could use some practice.
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